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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - E. J. Dionne

RealClearPolitics - Articles - E. J. Dionne

Last Build Date: Sun, 12 Apr 2009 00:30:00 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2009

A Resilient Christianity

Sun, 12 Apr 2009 00:30:00 -0600

This trend, announced on a somber black and red cover, lasted a little over three years. Or perhaps the original question was premature. In any event, on Dec. 26, 1969, Time offered a bright white, yellow, blue and purple cover carrying the hopeful new question: "Is God Coming Back to Life?" This Easter week, Newsweek doesn't pretend to know God's state, but its cover offers a stark declarative statement positing "The Decline and Fall of Christian America." The article by Jon Meacham, a thoroughly knowledgeable student of these issues, offers some powerful data, notably a near doubling since 1990 of the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation, from 8 percent to 15 percent. Meacham also points to a 10-point drop in the share of Americans who self-identify as Christian, from 86 percent to 76 percent. As a Christian, I find these figures neither alarming nor surprising. There has been a long, steady growth in the proportion of Americans whom pollster Andrew Kohut calls "the seculars," those disconnected from religious institutions who may or may not describe themselves as atheists. Yet the United States still runs well behind Western Europe in moving in this secular direction. Immigration has also made us far more diverse religiously, which will inevitably reduce the size of the country's Christian majority. Indeed, immigration long ago reduced the dominance of Protestantism, with Roman Catholics now constituting the nation's largest single religious group. Will Herberg wrote an important piece of religious sociology in 1955 called "Protestant, Catholic, Jew." If he were here now, his book would have to be named "Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Confucian." And even that ungainly title wouldn't exhaust the possibilities. In fact, the United States has gone through many periods in which religious enthusiasm and affiliation waned, only to be renewed in a subsequent revival. Christianity is a rather durable faith. Many believers would ascribe this to the power of its truth claims, but its resilience also speaks to the adaptability of its core message. But, yes, something is changing, and that change will strengthen rather than weaken the Christian church over the long run. For nearly a quarter-century, Christianity in the United States has been defined to a large degree by the voices and the ideas of a very conservative strain of evangelical Christianity that, over time, became highly politicized and closely allied with a single political party. These conservative Christians had as much right as any other group to bring their core concerns to politics. But in doing so, they narrowed the Christian message. They sometimes became apologists for politicians whose behavior and attitudes could not easily be called Christian and forgot that Christ himself became a victim of injustice at the hands of a mighty empire. As James Carroll notes in his lovely new book, "Practicing Catholic," the idea that there is no "light of Easter dawn" without "the darkness of the Good Friday noon" is at the heart of the Christian message. It entails the "exaltation of servanthood over lordship" and a Resurrection that turns "defeat into a kind of victory." Religion is always corrupted when it gets too close to political power. It's possible to win a precinct caucus and lose your soul, to mistake political victory for salvation itself. It is this approach to Christianity that is decidedly in decline, thank God, in part because conservative Christians themselves are rediscovering the Church's mission to the poor, the sick, the strangers and the outcasts. This augurs new life, not decay. The theologian H. Richard Niebuhr offered the classic criticism of a feel-good brand of American religion that presented no challenges and posed no problems. He said it peddled the idea that "a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross." Niebuhr was critiqu[...]

In Praise of Nancy Pelosi

Thu, 09 Apr 2009 00:30:00 -0600

During an interview at the Capitol shortly after Congress broke for its recess, Pelosi spoke a simple truth too often ignored in the tiresome laments about the loss of bipartisanship in Washington. "If you can't find common ground, that doesn't mean you're partisan," she said. "It just means you believe two different things." The congressional break comes at a moment when one cliche about Pelosi should be disposed of for good, that a San Francisco liberal was imposing her agenda on our pragmatic new president. How many times earlier this year did you hear a variation on "Obama let Pelosi write the stimulus"? As Pelosi noted, "Anybody who knows Barack Obama knows that he's going to have the recovery package that he wants." Republicans seem to have realized that this argument wasn't working, so they have taken to criticizing President Obama directly. Recent polls suggest this strategy isn't helping the GOP much, either. By comparison with her recent predecessors, Pelosi is a strong speaker of the House. She has not centralized power as much as Newt Gingrich did in the 1990s, but she has far more control than did Tom Foley, the previous Democratic speaker. She also faces a Republican Party much more conservative and Southern than it used to be. It's easy to forget how dramatic the shift has been over time -- and therefore easy to miss how much of the current nostalgia for bipartisanship is unrealistic. In the Congress elected in 1960, there were 174 Republicans. Only seven came from the 11 states of the Old Confederacy, while 35 came from New York or New England, the heartlands of moderate Republicanism. In the current Congress, 72 of the 178 Republicans come from the Old Confederacy. Almost all of them are deeply conservative. There is not a single Republican House member from New England, and only three from New York. Yet Pelosi knows that her own majority still depends upon members elected from relatively conservative rural and suburban districts. Of the 254 Democrats in the House -- it takes 218 to form a majority -- 49 come from districts carried by John McCain last year, according to an analysis by Congressional Quarterly. Pelosi wants to protect those 49, and the best evidence for how she is executing her balancing act came in the House budget resolution that left open the possibility that health care reform, but not a cap-and-trade plan on carbon emissions, would pass under "reconciliation" rules. This sounds technical, but it's actually political. The reconciliation rules, set by agreement of both houses, would allow health care reform to get through the Senate with only a bare majority of 51 votes. But cap-and-trade will need 60 votes. Why the different treatment of the two issues? "The priority, of course, is to pass health care," Pelosi said without blinking. She still hopes it will pass with an expansive bipartisan majority, but added: "We cannot abandon the effort if we don't have 60 votes." On the other hand, Pelosi knows that energy issues do not divide neatly along partisan lines. Regional differences, notably among coal states, oil-and-gas-states and the rest of the country, often count more than party. "There are enough Democrats who are for health care reform," she said. "You don't know where those Democratic votes are on cap-and-trade." Her view is that unless both houses can forge a broad compromise that will get at least 60 votes in the Senate, the whole effort will die anyway. Indeed, the difficulties on this issue were underscored Wednesday when the administration said it might move more slowly in auctioning off emissions permits. During the interview last week, Pelosi called attention to a small statue of a coal miner that she has always kept in her office. It was a gift to her father from the late Jennings Randolph, who represented West Virginia in the House and Senate. She said she points to the statue when she discusses energy and environmental questions with her [...]

Health Care's Year (Really)

Mon, 06 Apr 2009 00:40:00 -0600

But this misses almost everything that has been happening. It's not just that the public (including business) is frustrated with the status quo. And it has little to do with the details that policy wonks are necessarily hashing over. What matters is that members of Congress have quietly been preparing the ground for reform since Democrats took over two years ago. What also matters is that the competing interest groups seem more inclined to get what they can out of reform than to stop the enterprise altogether. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., the chairman of the Finance Committee, has been training (through hearings and studies) as if for a prizefight. In an interview, he said that his self-education included time with Hillary Clinton to discuss why her initiative failed 15 years ago. She told him that one of the things she didn't foresee was how jurisdictional battles in Congress could overwhelm all other concerns. If the heads of committees were fighting each other for influence, they were in no position to fight together for a bill. This time, the bulls are pulling in the same direction. Baucus has been working with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., for whom health care reform is a sacred cause, and has brought together senators in both parties likely to be part of a solution. He calls them a "board of directors." Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., one of the House's resident health care mavens, has been working closely with two other committee chairs, Reps. George Miller and Charles Rangel. One largely unheralded change is that health care reformers have made peace with each other. In the past, groups advocating competing proposals were more interested in establishing their dominance than in passing a bill. "People who advocated health coverage for all Americans wanted it their way, and the second choice was nothing," Waxman told me. This time, he said, reformers want to get to universal coverage by whatever route is open. Indeed, all reformers are focused on the same set of ideas, a mixture of subsidies for those who can't afford insurance, reform of insurance markets so sick people can't be denied coverage, and serious efforts at cost containment and efficiency. Ultimately (though not all the players will say so now) the plan will include a mandate requiring all Americans to buy insurance, quelling opposition from the insurance companies. They hope that having a bigger market will compensate them for whatever they might lose from regulatory changes. In any event, business groups committed to reform will check the power of their colleagues in the insurance industry, and the pharmaceutical companies are willing to cut a deal because they know the current health care gravy train is destined to grind to a halt. And those with coverage will be able to keep what they have and may profit from improvements in cost and quality. This time, said one influential House staffer, advocates of reform are paying far closer attention than they did 15 years ago to the views of Americans who already have insurance. Of course, many obstacles remain. Most Democrats think that one of the options consumers should have is a government-run insurance program, but many Republicans see that as a pathway to "socialized medicine." Yet the momentum for reform is such that compromises around the public plan are already proliferating. True, Congress will have to pay for it. But a little-noticed provision in the Senate budget resolution assumes that health care reform will cost money upfront but could produce savings later. It would give the government a decade to get costs and expenditures in line, opening some fiscal space for a deal. Oh, yes, and there happens to be a rather popular person in the White House passionately committed to the cause -- so dedicated, in fact, that he is perfectly willing to let Congress write the bill. When the Clintons created their own plan, it arrived on Capitol Hill as an orphan. Oba[...]

The Obama Enigma

Thu, 02 Apr 2009 00:00:00 -0600

But his plan to bail out the banks reveals a deference to the existing financial system, deep worry about further unsettling an already troubled market, and a devout hope that the economic situation is not as bad as some economists, notably Nobel Prize winners Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, fear. As for the auto industry, Obama has stepped in aggressively to take effective control of General Motors by forcing out CEO Rick Wagoner. He told Chrysler it must merge with Fiat or die. But all these moves are in a context of caution about the ultimate purpose of the government's actions. Obama placed strict limits on how long the federal government's funds will be available to prop up the companies, and made clear that his only goal was to rebuild them to compete in the marketplace. Some administration officials feared that this dual-track approach might win it support from absolutely no one, since it gave the domestic industry less help than its supporters hoped for but involved far more intervention than most free-market advocates could stomach. The better-than-expected initial reviews suggested that in the short term, the administration's tightrope act had worked. Describing what Obama is up to leads quickly to sentences freighted with contradictions. He wants to regulate the market more tightly in order to save it. He thinks big government is required now if we are to return to a less-restricted economic system later. You might say that he is using collectivist means to capitalist ends. "We can't fall back on the stale debates and old divides," Obama said at his Wednesday news conference in London with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Obama's alternative is a novel blend of opposing ideas. Nowhere are the challenges facing this method more dramatic than in the bank rescue. The debate over the plan is rooted in three disagreements. The most important is over whether some of the major banks are solvent or insolvent. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner believes that the toxic assets in their portfolios are temporarily undervalued in a bad economy. This means they will be worth more when the economy improves, which in turn means that the banks aren't really broke. Krugman, the New York Times columnist who has emerged as Geithner's most prominent critic, thinks the banks are insolvent. He believes that the economy will improve more slowly than Geithner does and sees many of the toxic assets as "trash." Therefore, Krugman thinks a temporary government takeover of some of the banks is inevitable and will ultimately get the economy moving more quickly. Geithner thinks a takeover will be more difficult than its supporters allow and might slow economic recovery. He prefers the more cautious approach of having government and private investors buy up the toxic assets before considering more radical steps. The other two disagreements follow from the first. Critics of the administration plan (notably Stiglitz) believe it involves government subsidies for private investors that are much too large and will leave taxpayers far too exposed. And there is a difference in sensibility: Geithner simply has more trust in the working of the financial system than does Krugman, who recently criticized the administration for being "in the grip of the market mystique" and for overrating "the prowess of the wizards" who perform the market's "magic." Stiglitz is right to worry about the subsidies in the administration plan and Krugman has good reason to fear that the administration is too close to Wall Street's view of reality. But the core question of whether the banks are insolvent is maddeningly difficult to resolve. If Geithner is correct, he will move us to recovery with less disruption. If he's wrong, he will waste a lot of taxpayer money before eventually reaching the Krugman solution. My heart is with the Nobel critics, but my head hopes that Geithner is making the right bet. That's the Obama[...]

A Hybrid in the Making

Mon, 30 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

The bywords now are stimulus (by government), re-regulation of finance (by government), and stronger safety nets (also provided by government). If there is one part of the system that is under sustained attack, it is the mechanisms of finance. Still, that doesn't make us socialist. There is, as yet, no broad demand for a government takeover of big companies or a widespread desire to replace capitalism with a cooperative system. We may well become more social democratic, socialism's philosophical brother that made peace with the market after World War II. But above all, the demand in the democracies is for experimentation and (I know this word is unsatisfying) pragmatism. We have put down the ideological enthusiasms of the Reagan-Thatcher Era and come up with ... well, with a lot of questions. In describing the confusion of the current political moment, David Winston, a Republican pollster, offered an arresting metaphor. "It's like a game of 52-card pickup," he said, "and all of the cards are still in the air." He was discussing the state of the fight between Republicans and Democrats in Washington, but this will also be the theme when the world's leading economic powers meet in London this week. Of course there is agreement that the economic system is a mess, and also that the rules of regulating finance should be tightened. Where there is disagreement is over how far individual governments should go in using public money to spend our way back to prosperity. There is also discord over exactly how damaged the international capitalist system really is. These areas of difference may well be played up in the news accounts. What the reports won't say is that this is hardly surprising, since the world's leaders are still trying to figure out the precise nature of the storm that has hit us. Voters in democracies have reasonably good intuitions as to what a political moment requires, and if there is a trend in democratic nations now, it is toward younger politicians who express disenchantment with the status quo, more by questioning past approaches than by offering fully worked-out alternative systems. This was brought home last week when President Obama met with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of Australia. Both are young. Both were elected with overwhelming support among voters under 30. Both are mildly leftish and critical of the conservatism of the recent past, yet there was a calculated vagueness in the promises each of them made: In 2008, Obama pledged himself to change, while Rudd in 2007 promised "new leadership" and "fresh ideas." Neither Obama nor Rudd was pressed too hard to define the refreshing change each had in mind. On the right end of politics, the British Conservative Party leader David Cameron has made a name for himself mainly by backing away from the old Thatcher brand in favor of pragmatism -- and by being young. When Obama made his European campaign swing last year, Cameron embraced him, suggesting that the British Tory wants to move beyond a discredited conservative past. In Italy, the left-of-center Democratic Party recently chose 50-year-old Dario Franceschini as its new leader. His political past is rooted in the old centrist Christian Democratic Party, not in the reformed Communist Party that provides the Italian Democrats with their organizational base. That sounds pretty pragmatic, too. To all rules there are exceptions, of course. The hot new political property in France is Olivier Besancenot, whose party carries an unambiguous name: The New Anti-Capitalist Party. In Germany, the trends are utterly confusing. Some voters are protesting the status quo by moving left while others do so by moving toward the staunchly pro-capitalist Free Democratic Party. In short: The dissonance at this week's Group of 20 meeting in London will arise from the death of one system of ideas even as another struggles to be born. The n[...]

Will Anyone Admit That Taxes Have to Rise?

Thu, 26 Mar 2009 00:30:00 -0600

Obama himself is only going part of the way on tax increases. He is still arguing that he can fix things with hikes on just the top 5 percent of taxpayers.

He's right that a large share of any increase should hit those who enjoyed the biggest income gains over the last decade. But in the end, no politician (with the possible exception of libertarian Ron Paul) is willing to cut the budget enough to contain the deficit without a general tax increase down the road.

Every budget analyst knows this, and every politician knows that it's far easier to bemoan deficits in the abstract than to risk spending cuts or tax increases that hurt sizeable groups of voters. "There are no more low-hanging fruit," says Tom Kahn, the staff director for the House Budget Committee. "The low-hanging fruit have already been picked. Any tax increase or spending cut is going to trigger opposition from somewhere."

In an ideal world, Obama would come right out and say we'll need broad-based tax increases. But that would be suicidal right now. Witness the reaction to his effort to put a 28 percent ceiling on deductions. His proposal would affect only 1.2 percent of taxpayers, yet even that idea is about to die in Congress.

Obama's proposal is based on a sound intuition: Do we really believe it's fair that when a married couple with a taxable income of $50,000 gives $1,000 to charity, they get a tax benefit of $150, while a couple earning $1 million making exactly the same contribution gets back $350? Is it fair that the higher-income couple also gets a bigger tax advantage on their mortgage payments?

The value of the deductions is currently worth more to the higher-income couple because they pay taxes at a higher rate. Obama wouldn't even close the whole gap. Applied to this example, his 28 percent cap would still let the wealthier couple deduct $280.

Yet even this modest effort to raise money to pay for health care reform is falling under a hail of fire from those who say the president wants to hurt private charities. Obama was quite right when he said at his news conference that the effect of this change on charitable giving would be small: Using 2007 figures, the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that Obama's change would reduce charitable contributions only marginally -- from $306 billion to $302 billion.

Is that too much for nonprofits to give up so the country can cover the costs of health care for the needy? The truth is that the opponents of making any changes in the amount the wealthy can deduct are using solicitude for the private charities to kill the whole plan.

Fine, kill it. But then, how else will we pay for health care reform? Obama's across-the-board limits on itemized deductions would raise $318 billion over 10 years. Does anyone have a less painful way to raise that much money?

The larger problem is the emptiness of all the howling over the long-term deficits. Nibbling away at bits of Obama's proposed budget will do very little about them. Talk of "entitlement reform" is empty unless we have health care reform -- and unless we acknowledge that we will never cut Medicare and Social Security enough to close the budget gap. In fact, Social Security is more important than ever now that the value of so many 401(k)s has plummeted.

The task of those who genuinely care about deficits is to make the world safe for tax increases. Politicians won't do this on their own.

Obama vs. the Dodgers

Mon, 23 Mar 2009 00:30:00 -0600

Note that anyone who makes an argument of this sort is freed from responsibility to mention any of the specific problems Obama is proposing to take on. Insisting the economy trumps everything means you don't have to say a thing about health care reform, energy, education and taxes. And that's the beauty of the critique of excessive ambition. It's far easier to talk about an overloaded system than to tell those without health insurance that they will have to wait a few more years, or to be honest in saying that balancing the budget long-term will require raising taxes. It's much easier to use the economic crisis as an excuse for inaction than to defend the status quo. And the more time passes from last November's election, the weaker Obama's mandate to pursue his promises will become. By next year, the focus will be on the midterm elections. The AIG flap and Friday's dismal report from the Congressional Budget Office predicting the deficit will surpass $1.8 trillion this year will only strengthen the forces of evasion. Obama's biggest problem on the AIG bonuses is that his administration spoke with multiple voices. Initially, top officials wanted to defend the decision to pay them as a necessary evil. Then Obama realized that the episode threatened his entire banking rescue plan, so he took on the role as denouncer in chief. Administration officials I talked with were profoundly frustrated at how AIG had driven everything else off the news and dominated the agenda in Congress. Well, sure, the news and Congress are fickle. But an administration that has devoted so much public rhetoric to the need to fix an unjust "bubble" economy should have realized that it would suffer mightily if it were seen as complicit in Wall Street-style business as usual. It was as if the administration's right hand (Treasury) did not know what its left hand (almost everyone else) was doing. And then came the bad news on rising deficits. The CBO report was not unexpected: Everyone knew that a sinking economy would batter government revenues. The scary new numbers provided the evaders with more reasons to build roadblocks to Obama's program. Short-term, the report will increase pressure to cut Obama's 2010 budget. But such cuts would be modest and symbolic. They would almost certainly come from domestic discretionary spending, budget talk for the relatively small part of the budget that does not go to defense, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Such cuts now would just weaken efforts to stimulate the economy -- which, if you'll excuse the directness, would be stupid. Obama's top budget officials seem confident they can deal with this immediate difficulty. His larger challenge is to take on the politics of evasion promoted by those who would indefinitely delay health care reform, energy conservation and the expansion of educational opportunities. Already, his lieutenants are signaling how he will cast the choice: between "taking on the country's long-term challenges" or just "lowering our sights and muddling through," as one senior aide put it. Whatever rhetorical strategy the president pursues, the burden in the argument should be on those who insist that the government is incapable of, say, repairing the banking system and fixing health care at the same time. As a practical matter, Congress is already well into the task of writing a health care bill, and there is no reason it cannot be passed by the late summer or fall. There is certainly no way government can walk away from its responsibilities on education. And at least some first steps can be taken on energy and the environment. As we all know, Obama promised change we can believe in. The operative verb in that slogan was "believe." His task is to restore faith that what he had in mind is still possible.[...]

In Defense of Populism

Thu, 19 Mar 2009 00:15:00 -0600

The sound you are hearing in response to the AIG payoffs -- excuse me, bonuses -- is the rancorous noise of their arrogance crashing to earth. Yet there is much hand-wringing that this populist fury is terribly perilous, that the high flyers who could not control their avaricious urges have skills essential to repairing the very damage they caused in the first place. Beware populism, we are told. Honor those AIG contracts. Forget about any moral reckoning and just fix the economy. This view is wrong on almost every level, especially about populism. Of course not all forms of populism are attractive. But as the historian Michael Kazin argued in "The Populist Persuasion," the "language of populism in the United States expressed a kind of idealistic discontent" and "a profound outrage with elites who ignored, corrupted and/or betrayed the core ideal of American democracy." Is this not an entirely appropriate reaction to elite decisions going back to the 1980s that ultimately ran our economy into the ground? President Obama seems thoroughly ambivalent about this strain of American politics. Yes, the president tried to jump out in front of the populist parade on Monday by denouncing the $165 million in AIG bonuses. But his administration seems to see the public's outrage primarily as a distraction. In fact, the reaction to AIG reflects a morally justified public intuition that the rewards in our society to the very wealthy are totally out of line with their contributions to the common good. A study of compensation levels in 2007 found that average CEO pay at S&P 500 companies was 344 times higher than the average worker's wage, and that the top 50 investment fund managers took home 19,000 times -- yes, that's with three zeroes -- as much as typical workers earned. Now I am not against people getting rich or entrepreneurs reaping profit from their investments of time and energy. But there is no moral or practical justification for such levels of inequality. Capitalism worked extremely well in the three decades after World War II without such radical inequities. It's when inequalities soar that the system runs into trouble -- precisely what happened at the end of the 1920s, when inequality reached levels similar to today's. With the populist furies unleashed, the Obama administration has two choices. It can try to fight the public. Or it can use the public's legitimate outrage to move the country in a better direction. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, points to the irony that populism threatens to work against Obama even though the president has proposed "a populist budget" that asks the wealthy to commit more money to the common good. Frank also ridicules the idea that AIG can't find smart people to replace those who might walk away if they are denied their extravagant bonuses. With unemployment among investment bankers at a rather high level, "it's not like you're going to have trouble hiring good people," he said dryly. Obama needs to do two things at the same time. The administration will have to spend piles of money to unwind the financial mess. A share of the largesse, as Frank acknowledges, may indirectly benefit some of the malefactors in this saga. Yet if the public sees this spending primarily as a reward to those who got us into this fix, and not as necessary to solving a problem that affects us all, it will revolt. So the administration also needs to argue that the new economy it will create on the ashes of the old will be more equitable, based on fair reward for capital and labor alike, not on an ethic of greed and excess. Obama can work with the populist wave or he can be overwhelmed by it. As Kazin notes, American progressives have succeeded in improving the "common welfare" only when [...]

Coming Together on Service

Mon, 16 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

When President Clinton pushed AmeriCorps, some Republicans denounced the idea of "paid volunteerism" and saw the national service program as an effort to create a new generation of progressive activists. Maybe one of them might become a Democratic president. As it happens, we do have a former community organizer as president, though funding for his early work came from a Catholic organization, not AmeriCorps. Both Barack and Michelle Obama have a passion for the service idea, and, with almost no fanfare, the United States is close to making its largest commitment to civilian service since the New Deal. This week, the House is expected to pass a bill that would increase the number of federally funded service slots to 250,000, and the Senate will soon begin moving similar legislation of its own. The proposals build on the initiatives of our last three presidents -- yes, this is an issue on which George W. Bush deserves credit, too -- and it may even produce that much prized but elusive Washington commodity: a large bipartisan majority. The House proposal won committee approval last week with overwhelming support from both parties. Credit for the consensus goes in part to Washington's most durable bipartisan duo, Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, co-sponsors of the Serve America Act. Utah's Hatch has worked with his Democratic friend from Massachusetts so often and so respectfully that when he describes their joint bills -- the most famous is the State Children's Health Insurance Program -- he insists on referring to them in one big mouthful as "Kennedy-Hatch-Hatch-Kennedy." He doesn't want either name to get second billing. Volunteering is very much part of Hatch's Mormon tradition, and he and his children served as missionaries when they were young. But Hatch also speaks for a strong strain of conservatism that sees the creed as being about more than just support for free markets and low taxes. In fact, the service idea is rooted in the best and most communitarian forms of both conservatism and progressivism. As William F. Buckley Jr. suggested in the title of a book he wrote later in his life, "Gratitude" is a conservative disposition, a belief that for all our individual endeavors, we owe a debt to the free society that nurtures us and affords us our opportunities. "Why would Republicans and conservatives support this bill?" Hatch asked during an interview, and then he answered, noting that it promotes help for faith-based as well as secular groups and gives a vital role to state governments. Modest government support for a core of volunteers also strengthens the capacity of hundreds of community groups to grow and do more. AmeriCorps' 75,000 existing volunteers, Hatch said, "leverages out to roughly 2.2 million traditional volunteers." For its part, a sophisticated progressivism recognizes that while government is essential, one of its roles should be to foster a thriving voluntary sector. Government alone cannot solve all the problems that ail us, and the responsibilities of citizenship encompass more than just paying taxes. Rep. George Miller, a Democrat who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee and is leading the House effort for a service bill, is known as one tough legislative strategist. But he is positively tender when he describes visiting Habitat for Humanity projects, meeting with Teach for America volunteers, or spending time with church groups that have provided relief in natural disasters. "It's one of the great rewarding things in politics," he told me. There is also this: In the middle of a deep recession, when jobs, particularly for young people just entering the work force, are in short supply, could there be any more efficient (or, face it, a cheaper) way to cut unemployment than through modest [...]

Crisis Makes Americans Open to Gov't

Fri, 13 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

But there comes a time when first principles need to be articulated. The economic crisis has let loose a furious philosophical debate over the meltdown, its causes and its cures. Conservatives have entered this fight with guns blazing while progressives have hidden behind a Maginot Line armed only with the word "pragmatism." This is surprising. Not for 80 years has there been a more opportune time to make the case for the bankruptcy of conservative ideas because the economic downturn came after nearly every conservative nostrum had become national policy. Deregulating the financial markets, we were told, would do wonders for growth, as would slashing the income taxes of the wealthy and levies on capital gains and dividends. We were urged to trust the Wall Street wizards creating those innovative financial instruments and to believe that jacking up CEO pay relative to everyone else's would be splendid for corporate performance. Don't worry, we were assured, about rising inequalities. And it has all come crashing down. Conservatives know that if the narrative I just offered takes hold, they and their ideas will be forced into the wilderness for a generation or more. So they are shrewdly changing the story line, trying to pretend that the last eight years or even the last 30 years don't matter. They are trying to blame everything on Obama policies that have been operational for just a few weeks. And they are fighting for keeps. They are right to do so, because ideologically, the country is now on a knife-edge. The conventional view, pushed hard by conservatives, is that we are a "center-right" nation because polls tend to show that there are roughly three conservatives for every two liberals, with the rest of the country in the middle. But a new report released Wednesday by the Center for American Progress suggests a more complicated and interesting picture. Rather than rely on the three-way liberal/moderate/conservative ideological matrix, the center's poll offered respondents five choices: the old three, plus "progressive" and "libertarian." The result: 36 percent of Americans say they are conservative or libertarian -- all but 2 percent of these are conservatives -- while 31 percent are liberal or progressive, split roughly evenly between the two groups. Moderates (and a small number who picked some other label) accounted for 31 percent. The researchers then pressed moderates to choose up sides. When their choices were added to the others, the result was a nation split in half: 48 percent conservative or libertarian, 47 percent liberal or progressive. Analyzing a long list of questions about specific issues, the center's researchers concluded that Americans are "solidly center-left in their ideas about (the) role of government, the economy and domestic politics and somewhat less so on cultural and social issues." Certain conservative themes, notably fears that government spending is "wasteful and inefficient," remain powerful. "People are quite capable of believing in the need for government investments in education, health and other areas and also believing that government wastes money," said Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the center-left think tank. The downturn, he added, makes Americans more open to arguments on behalf of "a positive role for government" than they have been for a long time. And it is precisely because of the public's ideological ambivalence that liberals and progressives need to press their larger arguments on behalf of more economic equality, in defense of government's necessary role, and against utopian views of what unfettered capitalism can achieve. The survey found another important ambivalence: sympathy for free market capitalism in the abstract, but skepticism about the[...]

The President Must Be Bold

Mon, 09 Mar 2009 00:35:00 -0600

It's hard for the fair-minded not to have some sympathy for Obama. After all, he has been in office for less than two months, and no president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has inherited such an "unholy mess," as one of his top advisers put it.

Moreover, some of the criticisms of Obama are simple nonsense. The Wall Street conservatives -- well-represented on the financial cable shows and The Wall Street Journal's editorial page -- are trying to argue that the stock market is collapsing because Obama wants to institute a relatively modest set of tax increases on the wealthy, starting in 2011.

But these voices supported lower taxes on the rich when the economy was bad, when the economy was good, and when the economy was so-so. They have no credibility. These same voices claim to worry about future budget deficits. Do they really believe we can fix the deficit without tax increases?

As for criticisms from the moderates, it's balderdash to call Obama's policies "radical." They seem radical only in comparison with the right-wing approach the government has pursued in recent years. Particularly on health care, it would be irresponsible for Obama not to press the reforms he promised in his campaign. And what could be more "moderate" than the open, pragmatic approach the president took during his White House health care summit last week? No, the president is not "overreaching." His agenda is focused on a few big things.

Unfortunately for Obama, such arguments matter far less right now than unemployment hitting 8.1 percent and the downward spiral of the stock market since he took office. All of the administration's critics are being emboldened by its hesitancy in dealing with the banking question and its apparent fear of temporary bank nationalization. On this issue, the president genuinely is trying to steer a moderate course -- and moderation may be exactly the wrong recipe.

There is something deeply disturbing about the drip, drip, drip of billions of dollars into the banking system with no apparent impact. There is a lack of transparency as to how the financial institutions are using the money.

And there has been little clarity as to how the administration's actions on the financial front will eventually lead to a recovery. Obama and his speechwriters need to seek inspiration, again, from FDR's fireside chats to explain what's happening to a petrified nation and world. His aides promise more of this, and they need to get moving.

This is a global downturn and the administration has to mobilize the rest of the world's leaders. The economies of Central and Eastern Europe are a shambles. They could further drag down the rest of Europe, which in turn could make everything worse.

And the top echelon of the Treasury Department is a wasteland of empty desks. It would seem that more people have been tossed out of competition for jobs under Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner than have actually been appointed.

You have to ask: If it was OK for Obama to stick with Geithner despite the secretary's tax problems, why suddenly does everyone under him have to meet vetting standards that St. Francis of Assisi might find too exacting? Treasury desperately needs reinforcements.

Obama's calm and deliberative style is one of his greatest strengths. He doesn't want precipitous action in the midst of a bewildering economic collapse to come back to haunt us all. But there are times when excessive caution can be as dangerous as impetuousness. The president has no choice but to be bold. If there is one thing he should fear, it is fear itself.

Cultural Peacemaker?

Thu, 05 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

Since assuming the presidency, he has pressed this effort through persistent calls to personal and family responsibility, a pledge to continue social service partnerships between government and faith-based groups, and a promise to pursue policies to reduce the number of abortions. But two of Obama's recent decisions underscored how brokering cultural peace will keep presenting him with ticklish challenges. Last Friday, his administration signaled that it would alter the sweeping rules adopted at the end of the Bush administration allowing health care workers to decline to participate in actions that violate their moral or religious beliefs. Such conscience protections have long applied to doctors, nurses and others who refuse to play any role in an abortion, and the administration has indicated it will maintain these safeguards. But it is likely to narrow the Bush regulation significantly so it doesn't get in the way of family planning services and fertility treatments. Then, Obama set off a loud skirmish among Roman Catholics by nominating Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas to be his secretary of health and human services. Sebelius, like Obama, has advocated abortion reduction, but she vetoed a series of bills favored by anti-abortion groups, including restrictions on late-term abortions and parental consent laws. Last May, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City called on Sebelius to stop taking communion because of what he described as "her long-standing support for legalized abortion." Conservative Catholic groups quickly denounced the nomination. "She is the champion of abortion rights right through term," said Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, "and for Obama to choose somebody who has sown such division within the Catholic community to head HHS really is an insult to Catholics." But it was a sign of how much the religious landscape has changed that even before the conservatives launched their assaults, more liberal Catholics began rallying to Sebelius. Catholics United, a progressive group, immediately issued a statement signed by 25 prominent Catholics -- including three priests -- describing Sebelius as "a woman of deep faith" who had expanded adoption programs, financed social services for pregnant women, promoted alternatives to abortion, and signed a bill making the killing of a fetus a separate crime if a pregnant woman was murdered. At the same time, a largely evangelical group, including the Rev. Joel Hunter and David Gushee, president of Evangelicals for Human Rights, put out its own pro-Sebelius statement noting that the abortion rate in Kansas declined 10 percent during her time in office. The rapid mobilization behind Sebelius marked the emergence of an organized movement of religious progressives as a forceful counterweight to religious conservatives, and the case made on her behalf brought home the centrality of abortion reduction to the overall argument. This has made some traditional feminist groups nervous, as did Obama's decision to give his Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships a mandate to make decreasing the number of abortions a part of its mission. Obama went out of his way to include opponents as well as supporters of abortion rights as members of the council. Thus Obama's balancing act in moving to alter the Bush conscience rules, which reassured family planning and pro-choice groups. The president has cast his effort to reduce polarization around moral questions as a search for "common ground." Many of the religious liberals the new president has mobilized say the minimum requirements for this quest include maintaining the strong conscience protections[...]

Do We Want a More Equal Society?

Mon, 02 Mar 2009 00:30:00 -0600

Politicians will say lots of things in the coming weeks, but they should be pushed relentlessly to address the bottom-line question: Do they believe that a fairer distribution of capitalism's bounty is essential to repairing a sick economy? Everything else is a subsidiary issue. Some critics on the right have tried to change the subject by criticizing Obama for refusing to play the role of "a war president." In fact, Obama has made clear that he wants to be a president who winds wars down, much as Dwight Eisenhower did with Korea after taking office in 1953. Eisenhower did not pretend that the struggle with communism was at an end, and Obama doesn't think our battle against terrorism is over. But both presidents recognized that hot wars with no end in sight are not in the country's interest. The Eisenhower metaphor is appropriate in another way: Obama is being decidedly cautious about foreign policy. He is not moving out of Iraq as quickly as the war's foes had hoped because he wants to minimize the risk that a messy aftermath would disrupt a season of domestic reform. Obama cleared the way for a big debate on inequality by getting rid of many budget gimmicks from the last eight years. He doesn't pretend that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are side deals independent of the overall spending picture. He projects the budget outlook 10 years down the road, getting away from the Bush administration's habit of cutting off our line of vision at five years. And to avoid any negative impact now, he postpones his substantial tax increases until 2011. As a result, Obama does not predict that he will eliminate the deficit anytime soon, and he also admits that the federal government will grow, modestly, as a share of the total economy even beyond the current emergency. After this moment's big spike -- necessary to get the economy moving -- federal spending will account for 22.8 percent of the economy between 2010 and 2014, up from 21 percent in 2008. It will be important for both sides in the debate to be honest about those numbers. Supporters of where Obama is heading need to acknowledge that action on health care makes government's growth inevitable. Obama's opponents need to admit that increasing government's share of the economy by less than two percentage points is hardly a form of wild-eyed state socialism. And to put all these numbers in perspective, health care as a whole already consumes 16 percent of the economy and, at the current rate of growth, will hit nearly 20 percent by 2017. We'll pay for health care somehow, either out of our pockets or in our tax bills. Obama has taken another issue off the table by promising tax cuts that begin to kick in for families earning less than about $200,000 per year. He is doing so partly to offset the indirect tax on carbon he is proposing. That's what his cap-and-trade plan amounts to, and there should be no effort to hide this, either. But his overall approach to taxes is frankly redistributionist: even as much of the middle class gets a tax cut or no increase, the well-off will pay more. And before the howling on the right gets too loud, consider that we have just gone through a long era involving a far less frank form of redistribution -- upward. "Over the past two or three decades, the top 1 percent of Americans have experienced a dramatic increase from 10 percent to more than 20 percent in the share of national income that's accruing to them," said Peter Orszag, Obama's budget director. Now, he said, was their time "to pitch in a bit more." Do we want to be a moderately more equal country or not? This is the question Obama has put before the nation. Let's debate it without the distra[...]

Obama is Rebuilding American Liberalism

Thu, 26 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600

Perhaps paradoxically, Obama was trying to restore faith in the private economy by bolstering confidence in government's capacity to act rationally, creatively and efficiently. Yet he insisted that he was not seeking government action for the sake of expanding the public sector itself. He called for a massive stimulus plan, "not because I believe in bigger government, I don't," but because failing to do so would have "cost more jobs and caused more hardships." But he also promised that his energetic approach to government would continue. In particular, he argued that health care reform was an economic and fiscal necessity, not simply a moral imperative on behalf of the uninsured. Presidential aides said that the new math of health care creates new possibilities, rooted in a new consensus for reform across ideological lines. "We want to get health care done this year," Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said in an interview. "Not only because that's a key fiscal objective, but also because a lot of forces are coming together to get it done." Obama also endorsed school reform, urging citizens to get at least a year of post-high-school education to prepare them for the rigors of a tougher, more competitive labor market. He pressed his arguments that future prosperity depends on a greener, more energy-efficient economy. Here again he was invoking the American progressive promise that government action could ignite the dynamism of an enterprise and initiative. Obama's lieutenants said that even as he made the case for public action, the president was mindful of the skepticism about government's capacity and its anger over the use of taxpayer money to bail out the very financial institutions that helped trigger the downturn. That is why the president touted the spending cuts in his new budget. It is also why he felt obligated to defend, again, his $787 billion stimulus plan. "I know there are some in this chamber and watching at home who are skeptical of whether this plan will work," he said. "And I understand that skepticism. Here in Washington, we've all seen how quickly good intentions can turn into broken promises and wasteful spending. And with a plan of this scale comes enormous responsibility to get it right." Aware that it is battling anti-government assumptions that are deeply rooted after a long conservative era, the administration will campaign to demonstrate that the stimulus money is being spent wisely and on programs the public sees as worthy. "We have to win this fight on the stimulus package," said one official, noting that getting the legislation passed was only the first battle. Ultimately, he said, a public reeling under rising unemployment rates will need to be convinced that government is actually improving its lot. In just over a month in office, the president has pursued two goals that, conventionally speaking, seem at odds. Again and again, he has reached out to Republicans with White House invitations and promises to incorporate their best ideas in his own plans. Yet at the same time, he has sought, subtly but unmistakably, to alter the nation's political assumptions, its attitudes toward collective action and its view of government. Obama's rhetoric is soothing and his approach is inclusive. But he is proposing nothing less than an ideological transformation. Tuesday night he offered the most comprehensive manifesto yet for his new rendezvous with America's progressive tradition. "We will rebuild," he declared, "we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before." If he is right, he will also have rebuilt American liberalism. [...]

Obama's FDR Moment

Mon, 23 Feb 2009 00:25:00 -0600

"He needs to get out among the people more and get away from the White House," said Mike O'Connor, president of the United Steelworkers Local 7 at the Bridgestone/Firestone plant here. Asked his advice to the man for whom he walked precincts last fall, O'Connor added: "Don't separate yourself from the streets where people are feeling the worst effects of the downturn." And when it comes to bipartisanship, the point is not the numerical count of Republicans who vote for this or that. It's whether frightened citizens sense that government is working. "People want the basic stuff fixed," said state Rep. Vernon Sykes, a Democrat who chairs the Finance and Appropriations Committee in the Ohio House. "They don't have a romantic notion of bipartisanship. They just want people to come together to solve problems." Obama's speech Tuesday, according to his lieutenants, will be another effort to make clear that he understands how bad the situation is while also conveying hope and assurance that prosperity lies at the other end of his policies. This complicated two-step has become the greatest rhetorical challenge of his presidency. Empty optimism would look out of touch, but unalloyed pessimism would only deepen the loss of confidence that is, itself, a cause of the downturn. Obama intends to argue that the crisis underscores the urgency of his core domestic priorities: to repair the health system, improve education and promote energy efficiency. The stimulus battle will turn out to be a prelude, not a climax. Recent polling offers two pieces of evidence suggesting that these sentiments from Akron are widespread. For all the talk of the failure of bipartisanship, it turns out that a significant number of Republicans agreed with Obama on the stimulus. A recent Gallup poll found that 28 percent of Republicans supported the stimulus. While this number was dwarfed by the 82 percent of Democrats and 56 percent of independents who favored the package, it was a healthy number in light of how partisan the debate in Congress became. Moreover, in the week after Obama began to campaign hard around the country for the stimulus, overall support for the package rose from 52 percent to 59 percent. Administration officials have taken notice. Count on this to be a road-trip presidency. There is, as well, this rather unexpected form of bipartisanship: Many Republican members of Congress who voted against the stimulus are now taking credit for the money it is sending into their districts. In this case, hypocrisy may be the greatest form of flattery. But such partisan games seem beside the point when headlines on local papers are typified by Thursday's banner in the Akron Beacon Journal shouting: "Goodyear to Cut Jobs." It was not clear how many of them would come out of this city, once popularly seen as the rubber industry's capital, but the company envisions a loss of nearly 5,000 jobs. And that is why conversations here about Obama and the economy constantly returned to the word "fear." It is a word that works both ways for Obama. Sykes, for example, said that fear means that many grass-roots Republicans are rooting for Obama's success because "they really want this thing to work." Joseph Kanfer, the chief executive officer of GOJO Industries, which pioneered Purell hand sanitizers, said he admired Obama's emphasis on experimentation. "I think everybody agrees that nobody really knows what to do, so it's really reassuring to know that he's taking an experimental attitude." But Kanfer worries that if the downturn persists, "people will say, 'Give me somebody who knows the answer.'" "Whe[...]