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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A LONG HOT SUMMER

As the 2011 Memorial Day weekend winds down, expectations are that national politicians and their leaders will find their way back to Washington D.C. and get down to work. As an adjunct to "real" political activity in the form of public policy, the 2012 presidential campaigns are expected to get serious as potential candidates make formal announcements of their candidacies and the GOP nomination battle takes off in expectation of the first test, the Iowa caucuses next February. This more entertaining side show will inevitably occur but the more important legislative program in the nation's capital shows signs of continued stalemate and lethargy.

In recent weeks, there has been the emission of much heat but little light from Congress. The one noteworthy exception was the extension of the Patriot Act for four years. This legislation, passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks enables more comprehensive and vital intelligence gathering on the part of federal authorities charged with counter terrorism duties. There should be no opposition to affording these tools to appropriate law enforcement agencies but of course the usual "civil liberties" handwringers offered up their theoretical scenarios of hypothetical abuse of "privacy rights" but also as usual, with no applicable real world examples. In spite of the expected opposition from the ACLU and an unlikely duo of liberal Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and libertarian Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), the extension was passed in the Senate (72-23) and the House (250-153) and remotely signed into law by President Obama while he was France at the Group of Eight meeting.

The Group of Eight (of the largest economies in the industrialized world) meets annually to try and develop broad strategies of cooperation generally with respect to the world's economy. This year the meeting was dominated by the so called "Arab Spring" uprisings and an agreement to provide up to $20 billion in economic aid to Tunisia and Egypt was produced but with few details. President Obama did get Russian President Medvedev to agree to try and persuade Libyan dictator Ghadaffi to step down. This was a reversal of Russian policy but hardly a major breakthrough since "persuasion" has met with stiff resistance so far as has NATO military support for the rebels in Libya.

The most significant problem facing the European nations now apparently was not on the Group of Eight agenda. That is the fiscal and monetary crisis in Greece which is close to default on its sovereign debt and is politically unable to meet the harsh spending and tax reforms required by the IMF to obtain another multi-billion dollar bailout. A default by Greece, a member of the Eurozone of seventeen nations, would have a significant negative impact on all the euro based economies and would have a ripple effect that would reach the U.S. If the U.S., Japan, and Russia had any input into the crisis during this meeting of heads of government it was not part of the public discussion.

Back in Washington, and still unresolved, are significant issues, some more pressing than others but all important to the national welfare. The first issue will be the increase in the federal debt limit which will allow the government to keep borrowing through the sale of government securities, and thus continue to pay the interest on accumulated debt, now approaching 14.4 trillion dollars, and of course to finance the as yet to be legislated 2012 federal budget which is forecast to have a 1.5 trillion dollar deficit. House Tea Partiers and doctrinaire liberals seemed to have formed a circular firing squad on this issue with each side making contradictory and seemingly non-negotiable demands which if unresolved will, at some point, result in the first ever U.S. government default on its financial obligations. Unlike Greece, the U.S., as the possessor of the world's primary reserve currency, can print money, which we have been doing for some time, but the impasse in Congress is political as the Republicans in the House want to use increasing the debt limit as leverage to force significant cuts in spending, something which the mere thought of among liberal Democrats causes hypertension and arrested cognition.

Domestic economic conditions demand immediate attention also. The unemployment rate has risen back to 9%; economic growth (Gross Domestic Product) is being forecast at a meager 3% for the year; commodity prices (food and gas) are soaring and the Federal Reserve's policy of extremely low interest rates has not deflated the housing bubble while it has devastated savings for retirees.
Nonetheless, national media attention is focused on the Republican primary battles still unfolding and on Obama's efforts to rebuild his 2018 victory coalition. Could the Republican presidential and congressional campaigns actually presage a new direction for the country in 2012? It’s possible, but the optimistic glow created by the 2010 mid-year Republican sweep has undeniably faded. The lack of progress in resolving the nation's economic problems and the Democrat's culpability in that failure has been overshadowed by the proliferation of Republican candidates, many of whom though invited to the prom, simply teased the conservative faithful for weeks before turning down the invitation and leaving before the first dance. It hasn't been a pretty sight.

The mercifully brief Trump sit-com was a major distraction and created an aura of inanity which more serious Republicans could not escape. Speculation about the candidacies of "the governors", Indiana's Mitch Daniels, Mississippi's Haley Barbour, New Jersey's Chris Christie and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, and their subsequent decisions not to run, gave the impression that the party was desperately seeking other candidates than the assumed participants, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. The perceived enthusiasm gap is attempting to be filled by relative unknowns, Representative Michelle Bachmann, former Pizza Hut CEO Herman Cain and former Utah Governor John Huntsman. The impression that almost anyone no matter how light their resume' might be, can be a viable Republican candidate for the presidency is a political liability that the Party can't afford in an effort to unseat an incumbent president, even one with a resume' of his own that would fit on a business card. The advantages of incumbency are huge as indicated by Obama's jump in the polls after the elimination of Osama bin-Laden.

The Republican road show is made even more ridiculous in appearance by the Sara Palin traveling circus. She is literally living off speculation about her presidential intentions which keep her in the news, attract readers to her pronouncements on high via Twitter and Facebook and makes her paid speeches popular among the angry political right. "Is she or isn't she?" we and she are constantly asked. Should we care? Probably not since 60% of voters say they would "never" vote for her and thus she will never be president. But despite respected conservative pundit David Brook's warning to her that presidential campaigns "are not American Idol", she persists in her substance challenged "positions" and paparazzi inspiring behavior. Riding into the annual Washington D.C. "Rolling Thunder” motorcycle rally on the back of a Harley, this would be president, whose resume’ is even shorter than Obama’s, used the event, which is organized to honor veterans, former POWs and MIAs, to kick off her transparently self promoting “One Nation” bus tour.

 Standing amidst the rumbling of thousands of motorcycles she excitedly claimed that “I love that smell of the emissions!", a fact that if true may explain her earlier campaign related claim on Fox News that “I have the fire in my belly”.  Exhaust induced indigestion notwithstanding, the bus tour is grandly claimed to be to “Discover the ties that bind Americans, our history, our traditions, and the exceptional nature of our country.” These “discoveries” are of course available in high school and college courses which she evidently didn’t take, and apparently the “ties” and “traditions” she now seeks reside in the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, which are on the itinerary.

There is still a large contingent of Republican insiders who believe Palin is just promoting her fading brand for financial gain and that she will not run. This is a credible assertion given her disdain for organization and traditional one on one campaigning. She might also be fantasizing about effortlessly parachuting in to the campaign after the nominee has been selected and being gifted with the Vice Presidential nomination once again. In the event she does enter the competition, hopefully Republican primary voters will realize that it is not enough to wrap yourself in the flag and attack your opponent. A credible candidate should have intellectual assets, knowledge, ideas and leadership qualities, unfortunately none of which John McCain required in his 2008 vice presidential selection process.

Thus the coming months should be interesting and temperatures in Washington are bound to rise no matter what the weather.

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