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Sunday, December 9, 2012

JUSTICE DELAYED

The military justice system is broken. It's hard to say how long ago this occurred because it takes a high profile case to gain attention. We may be used to absurdly long delays necessary to bring even the worst criminals to justice in the civilian system but the military system should be more efficient. Civilian courts are often back-logged because of too few judges whose dockets fill up. But military courts martial shouldn't have that problem. There are two egregious examples of this failure.

On November 9, 2009, Major Nidal Hasan, an Army psychiatrist was shot down in the act of attacking his fellow soldiers at Ft. Hood in Texas. Before he was wounded and disarmed he shot and killed thirteen soldiers and civilians and wounded 29 others.

Now, three years later, Hasan has yet to be tried. The time line for the relevant judicial process is incredible.

On December 2, 2009 formal charges of “attempted premeditated murder” with 32 specifications was filed against Major Hasan. Why the actual murder of his 13 victims was not a filing can only be explained as a legal tactic which needs further explanation. He was eventually charged with the murders.

The next step in military Courts Martial procedure is an Article 32 hearing which is the military equivalent of Preliminary Hearing in civilian codes which is used to determine if there is sufficient evidence to proceed to a General Court-martial.

On February 12, 2010, the Investigative Officer appointed to the Hasan case granted a defense request to delay the hearing. Thus the hearing was delayed from March 1, three months after charges were filed, to June 1, six months after charges were filed.

On June 1, 2010, the Investigative Officer granted the defense request to delay the Article 32 hearing to October 4, 2010, ten months after charges were filed.

On October 12, 2010, after another eight day delay, the Article 32 hearing was finally convened and completed on October 20, 2010.

So it took more than ten months to hold a hearing to determine if there was “enough evidence” to try the defendant who was shot down in the act of killing and wounding 37 people in front of many others. To support the charges, the military prosecutors used the testimony of 56 witnesses, including many of the victims, and after ten months the hearing was uncontested as the military defense attorney declined to present any evidence and neither side offered a closing statement. Incredible.

The next step was for the Investigating Officer to complete his recommendations to the court martial convening authority, a Colonel Morgan Lamb, so that the court-martial could proceed.

On January 25, 2011, more than thirteen months after charges were filed, Colonel Lamb granted a defense request to further delay the case until February 23, 2011 after which Lamb would “decide what action to take or recommendations to make as a convening authority in the case.”

On March 4, 2011 the convening authority, Colonel Lamb recommended to Lt. General Donald Campbell, commander, III Corps that the charges against Major Hasan be sent to General Court-Martial.

Incredibly, it took General Campbell until July 6, 2011, four months after Colonel Lamb's obvious recommendation, and eighteen months after Major Hasan was charged, to “refer” Major Hasan to general court-martial.

On July 20, 2011, Major Hasan was “arraigned” and his rights explained. Hasan deferred a plea. The assigned military judge, Colonel Gregory Gross then granted a defense request to delay the trial until March 5, 2012, seven and a half months after the arraignment and two years and two months after the shootings occurred and charges were filed.

On October 27, 2011 a pre-trial hearing was held to consider motions in the case. And so the legal dance so familiar in civilian criminal courts continued. The military defense lawyers continued what can only be described as further delaying tactics, demanding that the judge answer questions about the personal impact of the shooting on himself and his family members. They also requested “expert assistance” to hire a media consultant to determine the impact of media coverage on potential jury members who would all be military officers, as previously agreed by Hasan. The defense further requested a jury selection expert to identify and dismiss “biased” panel members.

On November 30, 2011 the defense, requested that Colonel Gross recuse himself from the trial because of “the appearance of bias as a judge”. Colonel Gross denied this request. The defense then argued that Hasan's constitutionally protected “right to life” would be violated if he were to be found guilty and sentenced to death and that the rules under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) are different from civilian court rules so using these rules violate the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution and the case could not be tried as a capital punishment case. This is certainly a strange position to be taken by military attorneys familiar with the history of capital punishment cases of general courts-martial and absurd on its face as Hasan was a military officer subject to the UCMJ.

On February 2, 2012 the judge rescheduled the trial date to over two years since the shootings occurred, in response to defense attorney's claim that they “needed more time to prepare”.
The defense also filed a motion to compel the prosecution to provide them with notes from meetings and conversations between the President of the United States, the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other high-ranking officials in the aftermath of the shooting on Fort Hood on November 5, 2009. The defense attorneys requested the notes so they could determine if any matter was discussed which may have unlawfully influenced the independent discretion of Hasan's chain of command to prosecute him.” How could Hasan's chain of command decide not to prosecute him? This ridiculous motion was later denied.

On April 18, 2012 the judge set a new trial date of August 20, 2012, to allow the defense “more time to prepare”.

On June 8, 2012 the issue of the defendant's appearance surfaced when he appeared in court with a full beard in violation of Army regulations. The judge ordered Major Hasan to be clean shaven or to watch the proceedings via closed-circuit television from outside the court room. Pre-trial motions were delayed for this issue to be settled. On June 19, 2012 the defendant again appeared in court with a beard which he claims is a religious necessity and a protected right. The judge then required him to view the proceedings via closed-circuit television. In subsequent pre-trial hearings Judge Gross found Hasan to be in contempt of court and indicated that he might have him forceably shaved.

On August 15, 2012, the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, in response to an appeal by the defense, stayed the trial indefinitely so the appellate court could consider if Gross can order the accused forcibly shaved. The CAAF is the highest level appellate court in the military, and is made up of five civilian judges, and oversees military justice for all armed forces.

On October 12, 2012, the CAAF heard arguments over the issue of Major Nidal Hasan's beard.

On December 4, 2012 the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces removed judge Colonel Gross from the case asserting that the beard contest seemed to indicate a “bias” against the defendant. The Army has appointed a new judge. Months of pre-trial motions must now be re-heard by the new judge as the entire process is started over.

The facts remain. U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan did, on December 9, 2009 shoot and kill thirteen soldiers and civilian military employees and wound 29 others in a premeditated act. He was gunned down and arrested on the scene. Now after ten months to determine if there was “enough” evidence to bring him to trial and after three years to date of procedural roadblocks by the military and civilian defense team, the entire process will be further delayed over the defendant's “right” to have a beard. This of course is part of the strategy of both the civilian and military defense counsel establishments. It represents the victory of procedure over the pursuit of justice. 

The concept of a “fair trial” has been distorted beyond the realm of common sense and now includes any allegation, any “alternative theory of the crime” no matter how ludicrous, any claim of mitigating factors, and any claim that violent acts which are often irrational by their very occurrence are also evidence of “insanity” even if that evidence conveniently disappears after the act. The old saying that “Justice delayed is justice denied.” now seems almost irrelevant by the level of disregard with which is treated.


The case of Army Private Bradley Manning is turning into another theater of the absurd. Briefly, Manning was arrested on May 26, 2010 and charged in July with various offenses related to the unauthorized release of hundreds of thousands of pages of classified military and diplomatic material which he provided to the Wiki-leaks web site.

Manning had an Article 32 hearing on December 26, 2011, one year and seven months after his arrest. He was arraigned and set for general court on February 23, 2012. Trial is set for February2, 2013, one year after his arraignment. Like the Nidal case, there is no question about Manning's guilt, not withstanding the oft repeated admonition that he is “innocent until proven guilty in court”. The evidence is overwhelming and consists of material found in his possession, communications admitting his acts to others and the fact that Manning has offered to plead guilty to some of the charges if the more serious charges are dismissed. In the face of these facts, Manning's civilian lawyer is focused on other issues. Essentially he is asking that all charges against Manning be dismissed because of his long pre-trial incarceration. As a backup, the current pre-trial motions have or will, contend that the initial incarceration at the Marine Corps Brig at Quantico, VA was “improper” and “cruel” because Manning was on “preventive injury status”, which required frequent observation and removal of clothing that he could have used to injury or kill himself.

The charges against Manning are serious, including aiding the enemy, which could result in a sentence of life imprisonment. But the latest testimony even before the trial begins has included the defense attempting to accuse a former Marine supervisor of the Quantico brig with “making light of Manning's homosexuality by referring to Manning's underwear as “panties” in a staff memo.
If the trial begins as scheduled it will be almost three years since Manning's arrest and the issues of guilt and justice have long since been lost in the legal clutter and maneuvering. 
 
Major Nidal and Private Manning will both be convicted, although political pressures i.e. political correctness, might spare Nidal from the death penalty which he certainly deserves. This is after all, the same Administration whose Defense Department classified the Nidal murders as “workplace violence”, as if Hasan was some berserk postal employee instead of the jihadist terrorist that he is.
 
Manning has become an international celebrity in the minds of anti-American, anti-military pacifists here and abroad who believe he is a courageous whistle-blower trying to expose injustice. In fact he is a very troubled individual with a history of erratic behavior. The idea that he read the hundreds of thousands of pages of classified materiel so he knew what he was exposing is absurd. In fact he admitted prior to his crimes that he was having gender identity problems and suffering from feelings of alienation and unhappiness with his situation in the military. In the face of the evidence and his own admission of guilt he will have to be convicted but the prosecution may in the end agree to plead him down to the lesser charges and the judge may reduce his sentence for time served. 
 
Once again, the wounded and the families of the fallen in the Hasan case and the damage done to important national security interests in the Manning case have been forgotten as the defense attorneys, with the passive compliance of the judges, twist reality to make their clients the victims. Hopefully justice will eventually prevail in both cases, but the military judicial process has been exposed as seriously flawed in the same way as the civilian process. Unfortunately the rule makers are civilian legislators and staff members who are predominately lawyers.



Friday, November 23, 2012

GAZA: A REGIONAL TILT TOWARDS EXTREMISM

It has long been a proposition in international political theory that democracies will not engage in warfare with each other. The belief is based on both history and the idea that populations free to choose their leaders won't perceive a significant threat from a competing democracy and thus won't accept the risks and costs of such a conflict.

The current hostilities between Israel and the Hamas political leadership in Gaza within the context of the “Arab Spring” revolutions may provide an interesting test of this proposition. The Hamas regime in Gaza, while elected by the residents of that forlorn coastal enclave, cannot in any way be considered a democratic form of governance. The fundamental question however, involves other Arab nations that are in political transition. The case of Egypt is particularly important. As the Egyptian revolution progressed and the autocratic regime of Hosni Mubarak was deposed, Western governments and observers engaged in “cautious optimism” that the eventual result would be a democratic system which it was hoped would provide more stability to the region. A panel is struggling to create a new constitution and elections were held to elect a civilian executive and legislature from competing political parties. But elections themselves do not create a functioning democracy and the Egyptian experiment is still a work in progress. The governing majority and the executive branch are controlled by the Freedom and Justice Party which is the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization, which claims to have abandoned violence in pursuit of religious objectives but which has a dubious history in this regard. The administration and the constitutional panel are under increasing pressure from fundamentalists to govern from an Islamic perspective including a legal system based on Sharia (Koranic) law.

The incompatibility of religious governance with individual freedoms basic to a democracy presents particular problems for the future of Egypt. Should this contradiction be resolved however, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, especially as regards the situation in Gaza, presents the issue of democratic regime conflict. Can a truly democratic nation support a non-democratic entity in a conflict against another democracy? The Hamas regime in Gaza which is an off shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been engaged in military hostilities with Israel since Hamas' formation in 1987. Its founding charter denies Israel's right to exist. It has been identified as a terrorist organization by the European Union and the United States. It exists as a competitor to the more moderate and more democratic Fatah party which controls the Palestinian Authority and which governs the larger Palestinian territory in the West Bank.

Egypt's president Mohammed Morsi has expressed specific support for Hamas during the recent conflict, condemning Israel's response to the barrage of rocket attacks by Hamas on Israeli territory while ignoring those attacks. The Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Qandil visited Gaza in support of their operations against Israel. The Egyptian government is not acting beyond the approval of the Egyptian populace. Anti-Israeli demonstrations have replaced the anti-Mubarak demonstrations of the previous year and a majority of Egyptians support the abandonment of the historic Egypt/Israeli peace treaty in place since 1978.

It is this popular sentiment, not only in Egypt but across the Islamic Middle East, unleashed by the overthrow of the autocratic regimes, that casts a shadow over transitions to democracy in the region. It is certainly not necessary for the maintenance of a democratic system to be neutral towards the state of Israel. The Prime Minister of the more democratic state of Turkey has used inflammatory rhetoric in condemning Israel as a “terrorist state” engaged in “ethnic cleansing”. However the same Islamic fervor that underlies popular animosity to not only Israel's policies but also to the very existence of that nation, as implied by support of Hamas, will be the on going obstacle in creating societies which protect basic human rights. The energizing of these Islamist factions over the Gaza/Israeli conflict will place future political outcomes more in doubt.

Thus while the transition towards democracy and the direction of Egyptian foreign policy may change the assumptions regarding conflict between democracies, this is more a subject of academic interest and the more important issue is the validity of Egypt's transition to true democracy itself, which in turn offers insights to the struggle of revolutionaries in Syria to oust the dictator Bashar Assad.

Al Qaida terrorists and other Sunni Muslim extremists are among the militias fighting the Syrian military and will be part of the competition for political power after the inevitable downfall of the Assad regime. Recently it was reported that “ Several extremist Islamist groups fighting in Syria have said they reject the new Syrian opposition coalition, which was formed under the guidance of the United States, Turkey and Gulf Arab countries. The development underscored worries about the rising influence of religious fundamentalism amid the chaos of the bloody civil war in Syria.”

Both the recent conflict in Gaza and the continuing chaos in Syria have enormous importance to the future of the region and to U.S. interests. President Obama sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Cairo to take part in the multilateral attempt to negotiate a cease fire between Hamas and Israel while he was attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Cambodia. A tenuous cease fire has been announced although the possibility of an Israeli ground invasion in response to future Hamas intransigence remains a possibility.

It is not in the interests of either side to allow that to happen. Hamas and its supporting militant groups would be defeated. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) would suffer casualties but the civilian population in the densely populated 141 square mile territory would suffer the most. This would bring more outrage against Israel from regional governments and harsh disapproval from most Western governments. It would also further weaken the standing of the more moderate Fatah led Palestinian Authority among the Palestinian population as a whole and among the regional governments.

Thus the Israeli/Palestinian struggle which has been going on since the creation of the Jewish state in 1948 will be an important factor in the political development of the regional Arab nations now freed from their former autocratic systems. Opposition to Israel and support for the Palestinians is largely based on ethnic and religious identification. As such it embodies a level of personal prejudice and hatred which is unlikely to diminish. As long as the issue of Palestinian statehood remains unsettled the domestic pressures on Arab leaders, especially by religious fundamentalists and extremists will manifest itself in competition for political power in national governments. Islamists actually gaining control of governments or even forcing compromises among more moderate political leaders will not allow the full development of democratic systems and will foster continued regional instability and conflict. The U.S., as the major supporter of Israel's ability to defend itself, will have no friends in the Middle East and cooperative relationships as with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Turkey will suffer.

The U.S. cannot impose a “two state solution” on Israel and the Palestinians but even as this has been accepted as the only viable outcome to end the decades old conflict, the negotiating process which is the only way forward has largely been abandoned as a strategy by both parties. The Palestinian Authority instead seeks a path to statehood through the United Nations. Israel has placed unrealistic territorial obstacles in the way of substantive negotiations and the Palestinians are not a single national entity which is necessary for negotiations. Hamas clings to the delusion that Israel must be militarily defeated or accept a “right of return” for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and their descendents who were forced to leave Israel during the 1948 war. This is essentially a demand that the Jewish state negotiate itself out of existence. A national unity government created by elections or compromise between the Gaza based Hamas and the West Bank based Fatah has to be created in order to move forward. Regional governments, especially Egypt should be encouraged to engage Hamas and Fatah in pursuit of this fundamental issue. Blind support of the implacable Hamas will never lead to a solution. This is where the Obama Administration should focus its diplomatic attention while at the same time convincing Israel to put together realistic negotiating principles as a next step.

Thus the unresolved Israeli/Palestinian issue will continue to impede democratic progress in the new regional governments. In Egypt, warning signs in addition to Islamist support of Hamas have appeared. President Morsi has “issued constitutional amendments granting himself far-reaching powers and ordering the retrial of leaders of Hosni Mubarak's regime for the killing of protestors in last year's uprising”.

Morsi is essentially governing by decree, in the absence of a constitution and has rejected the authority of an independent judiciary to review the legitimacy of the constitutional panel, and the upper and lower houses of parliament, all of which are currently in the hands of Islamist majorities. This is a dangerous precedent, and appears to be a further concession to the Islamist factions to whom Morsi was pandering with his hostile rhetoric in support of the Hamas regime in Gaza. Taken together they indicate a strong anti-democratic impulse yet remains in Egyptian political culture.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

WHAT HAPPENED? WHAT NOW?

Election analysis is a whole industry. It has already started with exit polls and in the weeks to come political scientists will refine the numbers and tell us how a long list of demographic groups voted. Why they voted as they did is another subject but neither analysis will provide many surprises. Issues commonly associated with liberal or conservative philosophies will be reflected in ethnic, gender and socioeconomic groups of voters as in previous elections. Economic conditions can override these tendencies and conventional electoral wisdom has always declared that a terrible economy spells defeat for an incumbent. Herbert Hoover is the historic standard for this belief and Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush confirmed it.

So in the context of the “Great Recession” and by historic standards, Obama should have been easily defeated. But obviously there was a fundamental difference in this election. What was expected by Republicans to be a referendum on Obama's performance in handling an economy in crisis produced a close election but failed to provide the expected result. 

The difference is reflected in the candidates themselves, the makeup of the electorate and the ever growing influence of the internet. This year's election pitted the first black President against the first Mormon candidate. With an electorate that is made up of an ever larger percentage of racial minorities, primarily Hispanic and black, a candidate who is both a member of a minority group and has already achieved the nation's highest office has an undeniable appeal to minority voters. In the case of blacks, this “identity voting” is virtually 100%. While blacks have historically given strong support to the Democrat Party, voting participation has been low. Obama changed that first as a black candidate in 2008 and again as President this year.

Hispanics are the fastest growing ethnic voting bloc whose minority status also created a definite advantage for Obama but also reflected a more significant trend in electoral politics, that of disparate groups energized by narrow interests rather than broad ideological philosophy or understanding or interest in issues of long term nationwide importance. These issues included strategies for economic recovery which again, should have been decisive in the election. Instead, while few people are truly single issue voters, many placed a high priority on such issues as abortion, gay marriage, gun control, the goals of organized labor and global warming.

As an example, the Hispanic cohort, was largely energized by immigration reform strategies which for them, diminished the impact of the economic downturn as an election issue. This is not to say that voters who were heavily influenced by these specific issues were not concerned about the economy. However, identifying with a highly partisan interest influences one's interpretation of economic issues and biases one's choice of candidates and thus that candidate's solution for economic problems. The support of these narrow interests are given extra strength by the huge number of organizations which promote them and contribute to the diluted the focus on economic issues by many voters. The importance of ethnic orientations in this election was especially important with respect to the Electoral College in New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Florida.

The other side of the coin in terms of the economic issue was the candidacy of Romney itself. While Romney ran against Obama's record, Obama ran against Romney personally. The New York Times reports that early on, in terms of campaign strategy, “The choice was made. The onetime campaign of hope and change soon began a sustained advertising assault that cast Romney as a heartless executive, a man who willingly fires people and is disconnected from how average Americans live their lives — an approach reinforced by Romney’s mistakes along the way.”

Thus the major theme of Obama;s campaign was that Romney couldn't be trusted to fix the economy because of his great wealth and his background in a successful private investment company. In essence, Romney was demonized for being successful and it was implied that his success included anti-social, anti-American, and even dishonest business and tax procedures. While none of this was true, an electorate which included large numbers of financially distressed and threatened individuals provided fertile ground for its angry class warfare message. People wanted some one to blame and Obama's “millionaires and billionaires”, “corporate jets”, “one percent” rhetoric offered an easy target and successfully avoided the “Hoover syndrome”.

Romney never stimulated significant enthusiasm as the Republican candidate. He was essentially the default candidate chosen in a long and contentious nomination battle from what seemed like an audition for Saturday Night Live skits featuring strange behavior, revelations and blunders by Cain, Bachmann, Gingrich, Perry and Santorum, all of whom accomplished nothing except to lay the groundwork of criticism of Romney for the Obama campaign. The primary campaign forced Romney, a pragmatic, center-right moderate to move to more doctrinaire conservative positions on social and economic issues. Moving back towards the center by necessity in the presidential campaign exposed him to charges of “flip flopping”, and a lack of core principles.

Romney's economic message was blunted, Obama's lack of leadership and few flawed initiatives were successfully glossed over. The “mainstream media and the liberal blogosphere succeeded in solidifying the Obama campaign's message. Thirty-three percent of voters interviewed said Bush was responsible for the bad economy. Another thirty- three percent claimed that the “rich were greedy”.


The next four years are hard to predict because of unforeseen events which will certainly impact policies but if the old formula “Past as prologue” is any clue, Obama's first term is instructive.
Obama is spending reduction averse. Most government spending provides benefits to someone, usually to lower socioeconomic groups since there are few “programs” for the middle and upper classes. This fits his “redistribution” orientation and his “don't balance the budget on the backs of the poor” demagoguery. Expecting a new approach based on fiscal discipline is unrealistic. He also seems to be committed to increased spending on “infrastructure”, i.e. roads, bridges, “green technology” and education i.e. hiring more teachers. Thus any spending reduction proposals are most probable in defense, which will be opposed by the Republican controlled House of Representatives.

The looming across the board “sequester” which requires large cuts in spending but are spread out over ten years, are already stimulating cries for modification. Future budget proposals from the Administration will probably continue to include trillion dollar annual deficits and it will continue to emphasize tax increases as the remedy for deficits. The economy will probably continue it's cyclical improvement, although slowly, as consumer demand will be affected by population growth more than dramatic employment improvements and as the housing/construction markets absorb large inventories. As foreign trading partners continue to suffer the consequences of their own recessions, U.S. exports will remain diminished thus affecting jobs numbers and economic growth.

Real tax reform will be grid locked, although some compromise on the so called “fiscal cliff” which commences on January 1, 2013 w ill probably be forthcoming for reasons of political expediency on the part of both parties. The “Bush tax cuts” expire on that date which corresponds with the “sequester” spending cuts. Significant tax increases would present political problems relevant to the 2014 Congressional elections. Tax increases and un-targeted across the board spending cuts could take so much money out of the economy that the slow growth could stop or slide backward into another round of recession.

As Obama said in his famous “hot mike” comment to Russian Prime Minister Medvedev, after the election he will have “more flexibility”, since he won't be politically accountable. The question remains, in what direction will his new flexibility take him? Will he move further to the Left and pursue a greater role for government in both the economic and social spheres with more redistribution, more regulation, and more social engineering? Or will he move more to the center and seek less ideological and more pragmatic solutions to the economic problems facing the country? Either way this historically expensive and divisive election will make governing more difficult than ever and seems to confirm the journey away from civil discourse, reasoned policy oriented debate and a sense of underlying common values which is the bond which holds a society together.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

THE MIDDLE EAST: AMERICA IN DECLINE

The recent attacks on U.S. diplomatic compounds in Egypt and Libya, which resulted in the death of the American Ambassador to Libya and several staff members is important on two levels. Coming in the final days of the presidential campaign, it is inevitably a political issue. It is that properly because on a broader level these events reflect the diminished standing and influence of the United States in the Middle East within the context of the so called “Arab Spring”, and the on-going tension and potential crisis between Israel and Iran over Iran's long term program to develop nuclear weapons capability.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a moderate Republican from South Carolina has described it accurately as an ongoing lack of political leadership by the Obama Administration. Unfortunately, because these latest events have occurred during the heat of the current presidential election cycle, the Obama campaign is attempting to diminish the resulting criticism over these latest events as “inappropriate 'political' commentary. But the current incidents are not isolated events and far from “inappropriate” subjects for discussion. They are part of a continuum of similar events and they occur within the larger context of America's relationships with the entire Middle Eastern and South Asian regions, as well as our strategic relationships with Russia and China, whose policies in these areas are in conflict with ours and our major allies in Europe.

It is a given that the Bush Administration's policies with respect to the invasion of Afghanistan, although justifiable and necessary in the face of the attacks of “9/11”, and the less justifiable invasion and occupation of Iraq, were taken as hostile acts against Islamic cultures by many in the region instead of part of a broader geopolitical strategy. Upon his election, Obama was anxious to disassociate himself from these policies and to change regional perceptions of the U.S. But he was both naively idealistic and inconsistent in his efforts. His Cairo speech in June, 2009, projected a platitude filled and unnecessarily apologetic foreign policy orientation instead of just announcing a change in the pursuit of U.S. interests within a context of cooperation with regional governments. This, while pursuing the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan without firm commitments to clearly defined goals.

Thus, what amounted to a simplistic public relations effort failed with respect to relations with existing regional governments and inevitably to their “Arab Spring” successors and the popular movements which brought them about. The apparent decline of U.S. resolve and strength in the region had begun.

Just prior to these latest attacks the usual, and unfortunate, response to the obvious tension was made first by the U.S. embassy in Cairo, which condemned the alleged excuse for it which was “reports” of a U-Tube video supported by idiotic Florida preacher Terry Jones, which criticized Islam and its founder and “prophet”, Muhammad. This equally idiotic statement by the embassy which was supported by embassy Twitter posts after the violence commenced, assigned moral equivalence between mob violence and the exercise of the principle of free speech, however irresponsible. The statement released early Tuesday by the staff of the Cairo embassy condemned the film and the "continuing efforts by misguided individuals to 'hurt the religious feelings of Muslims' – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions." ”. While the Obama Administration later felt compelled to back away from this statement by the weak assertion that "The statement by Embassy Cairo was not cleared by Washington and does not reflect the views of the United States government", the damage was done. The U.S. government could be intimidated by the threat of mob action.

Underlying the Obama Administration's position regarding violence against Western interests is the common place assertion that the violent acts are perpetrated by a small minority of extremists. This is both a politically correct” distortion of the truth and a futile attempt to separate the wide spread Islamic hostility and intolerance and common place resort to violence which is part of the Middle Eastern culture, from whatever political authorities are in place at the time. But it is both unnecessary and fails to withstand recent historical reality.

Consider the response of citizens of Arab nations, who were seen dancing in the streets after the attacks of “9/11”. The 2005/2007multi-national violence and murders of non-Muslims in response to the publication by a small Danish newspaper of a cartoon depicting Muhammad; the attack on UN headquarters in Afghanistan which resulted in the death of seven UN workers, stimulated by the simple threat by the same Florida preacher to publicly burn a Koran and then who did just that in March, 2011; the protests and murder of U.S. soldiers after the disclosure of the mistaken burning of excess inventories of copies of the Koran, inexplicably held by the U.S. military in Afghanistan.

These events and the video of the current incidents in Cairo and in Benghazi, Libya make it abundantly clear that they are not the work of a tiny minority of extremists. The videos show thousands of ordinary young men who may indeed have been encouraged by organized Muslim extremists but who responded enthusiastically with deadly consequences. It is preposterous, however to believe that thousands of citizens of Egypt, Libya and now Yemen where the American embassy was attacked, were so incensed by a short and obscure anti-Islam internet video which few had even seen, that they would attack U.S. embassies. The truth being revealed is that large Islamist groups with similar anti-West agendas found a willing citizenry to carry out these attacks on the eleventh anniversary of the “9/11” destruction of the World Trade Center and the new governments in place were either unable or unwilling to take prompt and forceful action to intercede. The Pew Global Attitudes Project reveals that positive opinions of the U.S. and President Obama are at the 15% and 25% levels across the Muslim countries (June, 2012).

Contrary to President Obama's beliefs, it is not necessary that Islamic populations “like” the U.S. Indeed, given that the cultural conflict with the U.S. and the West is about their rejection of Western concepts of individual freedom in favor of intolerant religious orthodoxy, this represents a naive and hopeless goal. The situation demands presidential leadership and requires that the mutual interests of the new governments in the Arab states as well as Pakistan and the U.S. be explained clearly and be made contingent on the willingness of those governments to contain open hostilities and violence against American officials and private citizens and cooperate in pursuit of those interests. Obama's rush to promise financial aid to Libya and Egypt even before the nature of their new governments was known gave up all leverage in formulating a new relationship with these authorities. He further diminished U.S. influence with respect to the newly installed Islamist government in Egypt by announcing the forgiveness of one billions dollars in debt to the U.S. government. He seems frozen in time while the Syrian government murders its citizens and causes regional instability by massive emigration of Syrians trying to escape the chaos. He refuses to take the assertive diplomatic action demanded by the Israeli government with respect to time limits and positive steps in negotiations with Iran in order to avoid a preemptive Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. The critical relationship with Pakistan languishes without direction. The war in Afghanistan goes on in the face of hostilities with the Afghan security forces whose training is the rationale for its continuance.

Protests against American diplomatic interests are spreading to other Arab countries and further protests are planned in Egypt. No president can prevent protests in foreign nations but the failure of foreign governments to protect diplomatic facilities and personnel is unacceptable and reflects a basic lack of respect and influence towards the U.S. as an important participant in regional security and economic stability which these governments should be explaining to their people. Common sense, an understanding of real world political dynamics and a rejection of futile attempts to change the nature of foreign cultures as a basis for foreign policy is critical and has so far been beyond the reach of this Administration. Platitudes about friendship and “the greatness” of foreign cultures , while ignoring the scope of real hostility, promises of no strings attached financial aid and simple diplomatic “condemnation” of violence against American officials and interests after the fact are not enough.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

RYAN: WILL HE HURT OR HELP?

It's just days before the Republican presidential nominating convention and a simple review of the objective facts that describe the political context for the November election should put Mitt Romney ahead with a comfortable lead over President Obama. Obama's job approval has been mostly below the 50% mark for months (currently 47.5%: Rasmussen/Gallup). The economy is in its fourth year of recession and the unemployment rate is 8.3%. The “real” unemployment rate that includes individuals who have given up looking for jobs and others who have downgraded to part time or low end jobs, is 14.9%. Sixty one percent of America believe the “country is on the wrong track”. The federal deficit exceeds 15 trillion dollars and annual deficits which add to the debt are forecast to be near or above $1.3 trillion for as far as the eye can see. Obama's signature legislative “accomplishment”, Obamacare, still lacks majority support of the American people.

U.S. combat forces are out of Iraq but that took three years and the situation in Iraq is little better than after Saddam Hussein was deposed, as Sunni militias continue the internal conflict. The war in Afghanistan plods towards its 2014 expiration date for no logical reason. Afghan security forces are infiltrated by Taliban insurgents who are murdering U.S. troops at a higher rate than they are being killed in combat. Obama presides but does not govern. The Democrats haven't produced a budget in three years and the Federal Reserve is attempting to manage the economy through monetary policy.

Yet Romney will enter the GOP convention behind in national polls, several key swing states and projected electoral votes. Why is this so? The answer has several components.

First, Romney emerged from a weak field of Republican candidates which fought a vicious and self destructive nominating battle. As the front runner he was the main target of attacks. The Republican “brand” suffered as the public watched months of ineptitude (Bachmann, Cain), bizarre positions (Santorum) and hostility (Gingrich). Romney himself has been an uninspiring candidate, better than the others during the primary battle but lacking the innate qualities of “vision” and leadership necessary to inspire enthusiastic support in the general election battle. He offers a conservative alternative to Obama's big government, advanced welfare state, but it lacks coherence and projects a poorly defined outcome.

Second, each party has core supporters whose support is constant. The Democrat base is simply larger than the Republican's. Democrats can count on unions, minorities, gays, feminists, environmentalists, government workers and individuals on public assistance, as well as an ideologically motivated group of intellectuals i.e. educators and journalists. The Republican core includes the big business and financial communities, and blocs of voters concerned with abortion, gay rights, deficits and debt and defense.
So to gain a majority, Republican candidates must inspire independents and Democrats whose dissatisfaction with their current personal circumstances under Democrat leadership, overcomes their tendency to vote their historically perceived interests.

This then, is the context within which Romney made his choice of Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate. Much “conventional wisdom” surrounds the choice of a running mate. The first criteria always asserted by presidential candidates in their selection process is to find someone who is qualified to take over the office of the president in case that is necessary. This common sense standard however seems to have diminished in favor of other more political considerations i.e. McCain/Palin; Kerry/Edwards.

The basic question is “Will Paul Ryan bring votes to the ticket that weren't already there? Geography used to be a prominent factor. In our electoral college system a candidate from a large population state and thus with a significant number of electoral votes seemed to be a likely criteria. This of course assumed that the candidate was popular throughout the state in question. This logic also applied to regional candidates i.e. the “south”; the “mid-west”, New England etc. Other considerations however, can supersede this simple calculation. George W. Bush picked Dick Cheney from Wyoming with three electoral votes (insider Washington D.C experience). Obama picked Joe Biden from Delaware, with three electoral votes (alleged foreign policy expertise), and McCain picked Palin from Alaska with three electoral votes (the female vote).

Balance is often cited as a useful selection strategy. This could mean picking a candidate with particular expertise and experience. Most presidential candidates are short on foreign policy experience so a vice presidential candidate can campaign as filling this gap i.e. Biden. Ideological balance might be sought; a vice presidential candidate that is perceived to be “more liberal”, “more conservative” or even “more moderate” might be touted as “balancing the ticket”. In the modern era of televised campaigning personal traits have become more important. Dynamism, sense of humor, likeability, appearance, speaking ability, and self confidence, all are important.

So back to the basic questions: with respect to readiness to assume the office of president, both Romney and Ryan have the advantage of running against Obama whose 2008 election resume' lowered the bar in this respect to outer space like emptiness. Although relatively young at 42, Ryan's 13 years in the House of Representatives and prominence as GOP “ranking member”, and since 2010, Chairman of the Budget Committee place him beyond criticism from Democrats as being unprepared for the higher office if necessary.

Geography? Wisconsin, Ryan's home state, only has ten electoral votes but is considered a
“swing state”, and in a close election every electoral vote becomes important. Polls since Ryan was named show a slight (2%; within the polling margin of error) pick up for Romney, although Obama still leads slightly. But if electoral votes were the primary factor, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida would have been the choice.

“Balance” might have been a factor since Romney has met with an conservative enthusiasm gap since the primaries and Ryan is perceived, somewhat incorrectly, as a deficit hawk and a Tea Party favorite; (Ryan voted for the “Bush tax cuts; the Medicare Prescription Benefit; TARP, the bank bailout; and the auto bailout).

Essentially, Ryan is a politically savvy technocrat who loves economics and unlike most politicians isn't afraid to offer up specific ideas for debate in hopes of bringing about needed change. He lacks the energy and charisma of New Jersey Governor Chris Christy, or the interesting background, potential electoral college benefits, and up and coming political stardom of Florida Senator Marco Rubio both of who would have generated more interest/excitement, but he is a safe, conservative choice. His 2010/11 budget proposal has provided fodder for the expected Democrat doomsday scenarios and vitriol but any Republican vice presidential nominee would stimulate the far Left hate machine.

So will Ryan bring votes to the Republican ticket that weren't already there or could he cost Romney votes? Probably neither. Research shows that barring an obviously flawed vice presidential candidate (Palin) voters tend to vote for the top of the ticket. Voters who prefer Romney to Obama will approve of Ryan and vice-versa. The presidential and vice presidential debates will be crucial for Romney and Ryan. They have to make the case that Obama has led a failed administration and that they have a plan to turn the nation around. And they will have to do this in such a way as to inspire the confidence of the electorate.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

OBAMA THE SOCIALIST?


Is Obama a socialist? In a recent commentary, Socialist Party USA Chairman Billy Wharton says, definitely not. He's correct, “if”, you compare Obama, to Wharton's party which has just about enough members to fill a high school auditorium. Socialist Party USA lives in the Nineteenth Century and its program sounds a lot like the goals of the Paris Commune during its brief existence in 1871. SPUSA wants to nationalize all industry and distribution systems and hand them over to the workers; create a non-hierarchical business model, a “democratic” “classless”, “feminist” society and provide free government services for everything. Even on his worst day Obama doesn't approach these largely imaginary goals.

Although similar socialist movements have had better success in attracting membership and even political representation, if not political power, in Europe, history and modern economies have moved on and the few surviving socialists of the old school are an ideological and theoretical fringe. The new face of socialism, often called “social democracy” in Europe, while eschewing “government ownership of the means of production”, manifests itself in policies of hyper regulation of the private sector, strong support for organized labor, redistribution of wealth through high taxes and the creation of a cradle to grave government subsidies to individuals, and the embrace of social engineering to create equality of outcomes rather than equality of opportunity. The economic crisis in the seventeen nation Euro-zone and in much of the wider twenty-eight nation European Union, which in relative terms, far exceeds the economic downturn in the U.S., offers a stark example of these economic and social policies.

The “old socialism” as an economic system, including the more common undemocratic forms in the former Soviet Union, the Peoples Republic of China, Vietnam, and which currently remains in Cuba and North Korea, has failed wherever it has been tried. In the West, it has been replaced by the “advanced welfare state”, a big government dominated system which is funded and regulated at the expense of economic growth through free markets. Using this template, Obama and his supporters in the far Left, come closer to today's “new socialism”.

Look no further than Obama's class warfare campaign rhetoric and his attack on private wealth i.e. “millionaires and billionaires”. “corporate jets”, “hedge fund managers and Wall St. bankers”. These fortunate few are viewed as somehow immoral or undemocratic for achieving significant financial success. They allegedly “don't pay their fair share” of taxes which Obama assumes to be a higher percentage of their income than they do now, which is already a higher percentage than everyone else. Of course mega-wealthy Hollywood actors and rich rap stars are exempt from these criticisms.

The publicly stated rationale for criticism of the business wealthy and his goal of raising their taxes is that “they can afford it”, which of course some of them can. But Obama wants to raise taxes on individuals who make $200,000 a year and couples who together make $250,000. Such people are certainly well off but hardly in the class of “millionaires and billionaires” and many are small to medium sized business owners. But the real reasons for the “fairness and affordability” claim is that the government needs their money to maintain high spending levels, and economic envy can be a workable campaign tactic. The new higher Obama personal income tax rate would be 36 %-39.6% In addition Obama's tax proposals call for an increase in the tax on corporate dividends paid to investors from the current 15% to as high a 44.8% depending on income thresholds.

Obama's and the Left's support of a lower threshold (3.5 million) and high tax rate (45%) on estates, the so called “death tax”, also fits the “new socialist” mold. Again, it apparently isn't “fair” that successful people who have accumulated and paid income taxes on their wealth over their lifetimes, want to divest it according to their personal preferences, often to surviving family members. Instead, Obama and the Left want to “redistribute” it by funding the ever growing welfare state.

The Left leaning Huffington Post blog has suggested that Obama had plans to make a “financial transactions tax” a part of his reelection campaign. Liberal Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), the founder of the Progressive Congressional Caucus, introduced legislation in the Fall of 2011 to create such a tax on the purchase, sale and transfer of financial assets; essentially a tax on investors both individual and institutional. The far Left (“progressives”) are anxious to punish institutional investors (“Wall St. bankers”) who they blame for the recession and Obama is quoted by reporter and author David Suskind as saying “we are going to do this!” However, opposition by key economic advisers has so far kept the FTT in the background, probably until after the election.

In May, in spite of the historic 15 trillion dollar federal debt, Obama called for the creation of a government “infrastructure bank” to provide billions of dollars of tax payer money and debt, for government sponsored roads, bridges, dams etc.

The president has long called for hiring more teachers and in June, Obama campaign strategist, David Axelrod said that the country needs to “accelerate” job creation in the private sector “by hiring more teachers, police and firefighters.” Axelrod was unable to explain how hiring thousands of new public sector (government) and unionized workers would help the recovery of the private sector, but he stuck to the claim.

The “Obamacare” health care law isn't the single payer, “socialized medicine” of England or Canada but that was the preference of Obama and the Left after he was elected in 2008. It simply wasn't politically possible with the makeup of the 2009 Congress. A single payer (government funded and administered) healthcare system has the advantages of simplicity and affordability on the part of recipients but the issues of quality, efficiency, and affordability on the part of the government in the face of huge federal deficits and monstrous accumulated federal debt would have to be closely examined in the context of American culture and economics before its adoption. The private insurance company/government health care hybrid of Obamacare brings with it mandatory participation, intervention and regulation. Massive government subsidies to newly insured individuals who are required to purchase it, but by some arbitrarily and bureaucratically divined standard, can't afford it, didn't address these issues. The result has been significant political and popular opposition.

Under Obama, while private sector employment has crashed, the number of federal government employees has grown by 123,000 . Attempts by governors and mayors across the country to rein in public employee unions and excessive wages, benefits and pensions have caused political crises in Minnesota, Ohio and California. Opponents of these efforts, most notably in the attempted recall of Minnesota Governor Scott Walker, included Obama and his core supporters.

Obama and the far Left of the Democrat Party, including former Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, were quick to support the absurdity of the Occupy Wall Street and everything else, movement which was blatantly, if simplistically socialist, with its “general assemblies”, lack of hierarchical leadership, “international solidarity”, clenched fist banners, verbal attacks on private economic institutions and demands that virtually everything in life be “free” i.e. provided by government.

The “new socialism” is highly visible in France where the head of the actual French Socialist Party, Francois Hollande, has recently been elected President. Hollande's platform includes the following:

Increase to 75% the tax rate on top earners i.e. “ millionaires and billionaires”.

Abandon the German government led Euro-zone austerity plan to cut government spending and reduce deficits, and increase France's government spending.

Implement a financial transactions tax (FTT).

A new 3 percent tax on company dividends and a lower threshold on tax exempt inheritance.

Hire 60,000 new public sector workers, mostly teachers.


The parallels in terms of public policies between Obama and Hollande are striking and while Obama can't be the Socialist Party president in the United States, it appears that he could be in France.



Saturday, July 7, 2012

PRESIDENTIAL POLITICS: A GOOD NEWS/BAD NEWS ANALYSIS




The 2012 presidential election is thankfully entering its final four months but it will certainly heat up as voters start to pay more attention and the nominating conventions are held, as are the presidential and vice presidential debates. So while it's still “early” in terms of decisive trends it's worth while to take a look at the “starting line” for the final push.


The Romney campaign is continuing its emphasis on the struggling national economy and what it portrays as President Obama's lack of understanding and leadership in dealing with it. The Obama campaign, unable to cite much progress in this area and lacking a list of accomplishments in other areas which might generate real enthusiasm among voters, is focused on personal attacks on Romney for his personal wealth and for pursuing bottom line business strategies related to his private career as CEO of Baine Capital (1984-2001).


Both of these strategies have become hard to listen to. Everyone knows that the economy is bad and simply reminding voters of it in speech after speech and ad upon ad, is effective only up to a point. While candidates at all levels avoid specifics which become political fodder for false analysis, exaggeration and demagoguery towards specific groups, at some point Romney will have to generate some expectations for economic improvement with his plan for recovery.


Obama's attempt to demonize Romney with such things as Romney's personal off shore bank accounts, and his profit oriented business practices from a decade ago seem petty and desperate. He too will have to take the risks associated with specifics and project an optimism infused strategy beyond his 2008 slogan of “Hope and Change”, which after three and a half years rings hollow.


So using the “good news-bad news” framework, the current state of the campaign shows mixed expectations for victory in the Fall. Obama's good news rests mostly on the advantages of incumbency which provide him with unlimited public exposure and the ability to initiate policies which are within the authority of the executive branch alone, and even some that aren't. Such things include his announcement of a World Trade Organization complaint against China over their alleged restrictions on the export of “rare earths” used in the manufacture of electronics (March,2012). After that electoral seat grabber, he used the China bogeyman perhaps a bit more effectively by announcing another WTO action over China's tariffs on U.S. automobiles. This announcement (July,2012) was made on a campaign stop in the important swing state of Ohio, where some cars are manufactured. These actions clearly have a significant electioneering component since WTO complaints often take years to reach resolution and Obama has little else in the area of improving the economy to talk about.


Obama also used or misused his executive authority to pander to Hispanics by directing the Immigration and Naturalization Service to stop deporting illegal immigrants who had been in the country since their childhood. The pros and cons of such a policy can be debated but if the law is to be changed then that is the responsibility of the Congress. The President cannot simply announce that he is not going to enforce existing federal law. But of course he did just that and his approval rate among the nation's Hispanic voters remains strong. 

Obama enjoys more “good news” from current polls. Although certainly not a cause for great rejoicing, he leads Romney in six of seven national polls by an average of 2.7% (within the margin of error). In addition he leads Romney in all eight of the currently identified “swing states” (OH, VA, FL, IA, NC, CO, NV, MO). Current Electoral College predictions give him a lead of 221 to 181 with 270 electoral college votes necessary for victory. That lead reflects the fact that the Democratic base of reliable voters is larger than the Republican base. While some of these voters are simply ideological big government, redistributionists, most just believe that a Democrat president will protect their group interests more than a Republican. Thus, racial/ethnic minorities, homosexuals, union members, environmentalists, and low income earners, historically support Democrat presidential candidates. Sometimes defections occur (Reagan: 1980 & 1984; Bush 1988) when the Democrats nominate weak candidates (Carter, Mondale, Dukakis) but the Democrat core tends to remain committed and Republicans must rely on the large independent vote to win majorities.
The Democrat core is located primarily in large electoral vote states (CA, NY, IL, MI) as well as in the ideologically liberal coasts (WA, OR, New England). Thus the Obama strategy is to take the states won in 2004 by arguably weak Democrat candidate John Kerry, as a given (251 electoral votes) and simply find 19 more.

All of this “good news” makes Obama the current favorite to win the November election but special attention should be paid to the word “current”. It's going to be close and the “good news” for Romney is the “bad news” for Obama.


Romney has run almost exclusively on the state of the economy and the lack of significant improvement over the last three and a half years of the Obama administration. Polls show that the economy is the most important issue in presidential choice for a majority of voters. The most important economic issue is job growth which has been weak for much of Obama's tenure. Unemployment, which reached 9.2% had only declined to 8.2% as reported on July 5th. The June data showed that only 80,000 jobs had been created which just kept up with population growth but did not make a dent in the estimated 13 million unemployed workers. The expectation among economists is that this slow job growth will continue through the end of the year, thus through the November election. While this is bad news for the economy and Americans in general, it is good news for Romney as it validates his campaign strategy.


More bad economic and election news for Obama looms just over the Atlantic horizon in Europe. The Euro-zone of 17 European nations that use that common currency is still in crisis. A default by Greece which has a relatively small economy, on its Euro denominated government debt would put the entire system at risk. But the larger economies of Spain, Italy and Portugal are also at risk and currently dependent on controversial bailouts from the European Central Bank, the IMF and a Euro-zone emergency fund whose largest contributor is a reluctant Germany. The state of the crisis in these countries can be measured by their borrowing costs for standard 10 yr. government bonds. The healthy German economy leads to German bond rates of 1.33% (the U.S. rate for 10 yr. Treasuries is 1.64%). By comparison the 10 yr. bond rate in Italy is 6.03%; Spain 6.95%; Portugal 10.33% and Greece 26.21%. Rates like these, which are necessary to avoid default on existing debt, cause a spiral effect as they add enormous new debt service which itself must be constantly refinanced at ever increasing rates.


The implications for America's struggling economy are enormous as U.S. bank holdings in European banks are put at risk and U.S. trade with European nations experiencing reduced domestic consumption falls off, thus impacting U.S. job creation. All of this is beyond Obama's ability to influence but the negative impact on the U.S. economy would be impossible for voters to separate out from the overall condition and would become part of Obama's economic problem.


In spite of Obama's slight lead in the national and swing state polls, there is some “good news” in the polls for Romney. Obama's presidential job approval seems to have a built in ceiling of just under 50%. For months it has hovered in the 47% to 48% range. Currently (6-20/7-5) it is 47.3% approve and 48.4 % disapprove. It is interesting that this 47% number is also the percentage of current voter preference over Romney cited above (47% to 44.3%) suggesting that if the voter preference remains stuck at his job approval ceiling, Romney can, with a positive campaign and a sound debate performance, overcome Obama's lead and push into the majority range.


Campaigns are driven by money and incumbent presidents have a built in advantage in raising large sums because of their status and the historical likelihood of being reelected. But Romney has been very successful in this area and in June raised $100 million, a one month Republican party record which, if it continues, will allow him to compete in every important state and television market.
In terms of “good news/bad news” there is one significant unknown at this point. That is the recent Supreme Court ruling upholding the key provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act commonly known as Obamacare. The nation as a whole is evenly divided in “agreeing with” the Supreme Court's decision (46%-46%). However, when asked if they believe that the Act, once fully implemented, will “help” or “hurt” the economy, only 37% believe it will “help” and 46% believe it will “hurt. Republicans and Democrats are strongly divided as would be expected on these questions but the “good news” for Romney is once again with the opinions of self described independents who believe by a margin of 47% to 34% that the Act will hurt the economy. This fact, along with the fact that a majority of state's Attorney's General (26) were a party to the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Act, and the fact that opposition to Obamacare has energized the Republican base, seems to indicate that the issue will remain a significant campaign issue to Romney's benefit.


As summer activities end and the public focuses more on the candidates and campaigns the strengths and weaknesses of both will come more into focus for voters, especially the non-ideologically committed independents. But with the economy still in low growth and high unemployment and an overwhelming majority believing that the “country is on the wrong track” (61.3%-30.2%) after nearly four years of the Obama presidency, it would appear that Mitt Romney can create his own “good news” by making a sound choice for his vice presidential running mate, making a case in the debates for his own vision of the future and frequently asking the famous Reagan 1976 debate question vs. Jimmy Carter: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”

Thursday, June 14, 2012

AMERICAN TRIBALISM


TRIBE: “A social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, and among whom leadership is typically neither formalized nor permanent.”


The hoped for reform movements in the “Arab Spring” nations have exposed the underlying weakness of these societies with respect to democratic structures and processes. That weakness is tribalism. It is an ancient and entrenched basis for social organization which now unfettered by authoritarian suppression, is dividing the respective nations into hostile, even violent groups competing for political power.

The current federal election campaigns in the United States provide a sharp contrast to the seemingly intractable social, and thus political, divisions in these countries as they struggle to create representative governments. But while the U.S. manages to avoid election violence and citizens generally accept the legitimacy of election outcomes, the nation's political environment is taking on more and more of the characteristics of a tribal society. These include divisions and group identity based on race, ethnicity, religion, and region.

Certainly there is no complete homogeneity with respect to political views in these groups but there is historic consistency in voting patterns with respect to majorities within the groups. The problem is that political operatives promote and exploit the identification of individuals as an electoral strategy while self appointed “leaders” and politicians demagogue the groups for personal gain. The result of years of this appeal to differences is the further division of American society into competing, aggrieved groups. This breeds further intolerance and a tribal like mutual hostility which has on occasion deteriorated into open hostility. The Congress recognizes and abets these divisions by including in its organizational structure sub-groups or caucuses which are driven by the perceived need to address group identities and agendas. Thus the Congress has, among many others, the Congressional Black Caucus; the Congressional Hispanic Caucus; and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

Now, in an election year, pursuit of electoral support in the groups quickly becomes pandering on narrow topics. While all Americans are, or should be, concerned primarily with economic well being and opportunity for their children, personal and national security and quality and affordable health care, the caucuses, non-governmental organizations and periodically, political campaigns, emphasize grievances. For black Americans, the campaigns offer affirmative action, government financial assistance and the seemingly permanent claim of institutional racism. The campaign issue for Hispanics is immigration reform which is short hand for more liberal entry and amnesty for illegals currently in the country. Asians represent only 4.8 percent of the population but have followed the lead of the other aggrieved groups and their “leaders” are quick to condemn any public remark or joke referencing Asian stereotypes as well as seeking “representation” on non-representative executive branch bodies and bureaucracies.

These racial/ethnic divisions are reenforced in the public school systems and institutions of higher education by the misguided celebration of “multiculturalism” and “diversity”. This is based on the notion that individual foreign cultures which are simplistically represented by individual American students with different family ancestries, when grouped together, foster mutual respect. In reality, the effort diminishes respect for American's common cultural heritage, political history and sense of national identity as well as discouraging new immigrants from making efforts to assimilate.

The media insists on promoting simple differences in ethnic background of natural born Americans by describing hyphenated “firsts”: the “first Hispanic-American Supreme Court Justice (Sonia Sotomayor); the “first” female Hispanic-American governor (Susana Martinez); the “first” Chinese-American play in the NBA (Jeremy Lin).
There are no religious based American “tribes” as such because even though most Americans self identify with some organized religion, the major political issues in general cut across the major religious groups. There are however, sub-groups or what might be the political equivalent of “clans” within the major groups which are bound together in support of one or two specific issues at the expense of the larger issues. Thus, as seen in the Republican presidential primaries, self identified Evangelicals focused on the issues of abortion and gay rights as their primary qualification for support.
The recent controversy among religiously conservative Roman Catholics concerning the federal government's (Obamacare) requirement that religious based organizations provide health insurance coverage for birth control has been a major call to arms by Catholic bishops who are attempting to use the election as leverage for their position.

The political efforts by Evangelical preachers and the Catholic bishops is not unlike the claims of the religious (Islamic) political parties in recent elections in Tunisia and Egypt who demand strict adherence to their interpretation of Koranic principles.

Region also presents a significant and semi-permanent divide as described by “red”, “blue” and “purple” states. The red states are in the South and non-coastal West, the blue are on both coasts and the upper mid-west, with the purple being a few states undergoing demographic changes i.e. Colorado, New Mexico, Florida. In a country as vast as the United States, cultural differences are to be expected in different regions. The troubling aspect of this in terms of national politics is the divisive demagoguery that has resulted. Liberal leaning California, Oregon and Washington are disparaged as the “Left Coast”, the western and mid-western states are referred to dismissively as unimportant “fly over states” while the socially conservative southern states are still vilified by self described intellectual superiors in the urban centers further north, as the home of backward, dentally challenged “red necks”.

The United States is indeed a diverse nation and people by nature tend to aggregate in neighborhoods and social organizations with others most like themselves. It is unfortunate that the political efforts of parties, national media and self serving group “leaders” seek to create political advantage by creating political divisions among these social groups. Political analysts and “strategists” will be measuring the success of these dividers by keeping track of the “women's(feminist) vote, the Hispanic vote, the Evangelical vote, the black vote (in this case, turnout), blue collar union vote, Jewish vote, and Islamic vote.

Because the parties and group leaders will characterize the campaigns for the president and Congress in terms of “victims” and “perpetrators” the post election political environment will be even more hostile than it is currently, and further the creation of a permanent and entrenched opposition no matter which party wins.

Addendum: The 2008 presidential election

                    % of total vote:   % Obama:  %  McCain:

Men            47                         49                48
Women       53                         56                43
White          74                         43                55
Black          13                          95                 4
Hispanic       9                          67                31
Asian            2                          62                35
Protestant                                 45                54
Catholic                                    54                45
Jews                                          78                21
Evangelicals                              24               74
Union Homes 21                       59                39
East            21                            59                40
Midwest     24                            54                44
South          32                            45                54
West           23                            57                40