What We Didn’t Learn from 9/11

Conservatives contend that the “mainstream media” is liberal, but even if true, liberals are exceptionally bad at selling their message in any media. Quick: give me a liberal aphorism or quote that helps set the political agenda today. Compare whatever you remember with these: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” “Government’s first duty is to protect the people, not run their lives.” “Government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.” “The best minds are not in government. If any were, business would steal them away.” “The problem is not that people are taxed too little; the problem is that government spends too much.” “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”

These are all the words of Ronald Reagan, and this still-resonating rhetoric starts many political policy discussions today. Such debates are seldom founded on the thought that government does good things or that taxation can lead to a better society. Instead, the basic premises are that government is dangerous; government is too big; government is inept; government is incompetent; taxes are bad; taxation is too high; regulations destroy jobs. Reagan remains influential because he re-shaped the political dialog even though his actual policies often undercut conservative ideology. Thus, conservatives continue to maintain that economic growth spurred by tax cuts will cut the federal deficit and reduce unemployment. Reagan engineered a major tax cut, but the federal deficit and debt ballooned. Reagan then went on to support specific tax increases–on gasoline, for instance–in a failed attempt to lower the debt. Part of the deficit problem, in spite of his aphorisms, was that Reagan did not cut government spending; instead, the size of the federal government increased significantly under his watch.

The liberals have lost out on the political starting point for what should be an essential discussion: What is the role of government? Government should address a wide range of problems that markets alone are ill-equipped to tackle. Liberals and anti-conservatives, however, have not been good at producing a debate about the basic roles of government and, instead, seem able only to respond to conservative claims.

Al Franken in his book Giant of the Senate, gives an explanation: “Democrats always have a disadvantage in messaging—not because we’re idiots, but because we have complex ideas and, sometimes, a hard time explaining them succinctly. Our bumper stickers always end with ‘continued on next bumper sticker.’” For example, it is easier to proclaim simply that immigrants take jobs than it is to discuss with more nuance that our economy is not a zero-sum game where a job for one is not simply the loss of work for another; how immigrants help grow the economy by buying goods and services; how immigrants pay payroll and incomes taxes; how, as our birthrate declines, immigration is a force for necessary workforce expansion. Yes, no bumper sticker can do that. Democrats are not sparkling sloganeers.

However, there are many opportunities to examine the role of government and the fatuousness of conservative shibboleths. For example, weather tragedies—hurricanes, tornados, floods, and fires—provide an opportunity for such analyses. In the aftermath of natural devastations, someone will complain about price-gouging. That should lead to a discussion of market economics because price-gouging is simply the normal result of free market economics. The extraordinary, sudden demand for goods with a limited supply gives the seller the opportunity to make high profits. Conservatives who believe in unrestrained markets should accept such price-gouging. Interestingly, however, I have never heard any leading conservative who, in other circumstances mouths platitudes about the importance of free markets, defend this high pricing. Instead, what price-gouging could teach is that almost all of us have concerns about our free-market system and believe that it should be–oh, that fearful word–regulated at least some of the time.

The fight for FEMA funds could also be an opportunity for an examination of conservative platitudes. In accordance with their call for a smaller government, conservatives should be opposed to FEMA, and some conservative congressmen and think tanks have indeed proposed a more limited federal role in responding to natural disasters. But those in the affected areas–including conservatives–speak as if getting the Washington money is a right. Although it is never called this, the flood- or hurricane-affected regions see federal disaster assistance as an entitlement. In other circumstances conservatives would rail against such aid as wealth redistribution. Natural disasters and other emergencies do not occur at the same rate throughout the country; some states–Texas, Louisiana, and Florida, for example–are more prone to them than others. Yet Texas takes more funds out of FEMA than it puts in while many other states put more in than they get out. FEMA redistributes wealth by geography.

Another way to look at FEMA, however, is that it is part of a social safety net. People are in need because of a disaster, and we as Americans–and that includes our government–help people in need. As with any aspect of our social safety net, we should seek to lessen the demand for it in the future and seek to make those asking or demanding assistance more responsible for lessening their present and future need. However, as long as we are one country, even though fortune and misfortune do not fall equally upon us, we should aid the unfortunate. Let’s start talking about FEMA as welfare, as wealth redistributor, as part of our social safety net, and tie them into a broader discussion of Americans who might need help from, yes, the government.

More than natural disasters trigger thoughts about effective conservative messaging and its absence from anti-conservatives. With the two-score anniversary of 9/11, I am having many flashbacks to that day and its aftermath. For years my heart raced whenever a plane flew low overhead. I still cannot watch footage from that day or even see on old movie that has the Towers in the background. I remember that when I could return to work after the attacks I would always get a headache as I emerged from the subway facing the wreckage; that the burning plastic smells emitted from the lit ruins made me feel sick at the end of each work day; that I was separated from my family and wanted to see them; that I saw stuff come out of the burning Towers that I hoped were not bodies; that I saw people right after the attacks huddled in doorways a few blocks from the Towers hysterically crying; that I cried on 9/11 and every day for weeks, perhaps months, afterwards; that the sky was a beautiful late summer blue; and that people helped each other. But in all these memories and more, I also think that 9/11 was a lost opportunity for resetting the domestic political dialog.

(concluded September 10)

The Wit of JFK

Is wit necessary to be a good president? I thought about that as I read The Kennedy Wit edited by Bill Adler, a book published eight months after the assassination. My paperback copy, which I found in an antique store in a Pennsylvania village, was printed in February 1965. Its cover proclaims:


110,000 COPIES IN PRINT AT $3.00. NOW ONLY 60¢!

 Reading this, I could not remember the last time I saw the cent sign. However, written in pencil on the first page was a three, so I paid the proprietor the cost of the original hardcover. That seller, in handing back a couple singles, said, “He was the last good president they produced.” (An inflation calculator tells me that $3 in 1964 equals $25.84 today, so I guess my purchase was still a bargain for an antique book.)

All presidents try to be witty, but in the age of the speechwriter, it is hard to know how much a president should get credit, or blame, for attempts at wit, which too often fall embarrassingly flat. Perhaps we can only gauge their delivery. E.g., Obama had great timing and Reagan told a good story. Both of them, I suspect, were truly witty, as was President Kennedy. JFK delivered droll, often self-deprecatory one-liners with a confident deadpan, and it was fun to read many of them again. Some of them:

“I do not think it entirely inappropriate to introduce myself to this audience. I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, and I have enjoyed it.”

To the National Industrial Conference Board: “It would be premature to ask your support in the next election and it would be inaccurate to thank you for it in the past.”

“There is no city in the United States in which I get a warmer welcome and less votes than Columbus, Ohio.”

“Politics is an astonishing profession. It has enabled me to go from being an obscure member of the junior varsity at Harvard to being an honorary member of the Football Hall of Fame.”

“Those of you who regard my profession of political life with some disdain should remember that it made it possible for me to move from being an obscure lieutenant in the United States Navy to Commander-in-Chief in fourteen years with very little technical competence.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, I was warned to be out of here in plenty of time to permit those who are going to the Green Bay Packers game to leave. I don’t mind running against Mr. Nixon but I have the good sense not run against the Green Bay Packers.”

“We had an interesting convention at Los Angeles, and we ended with a strong Democratic platform which we call ‘The Rights of Man.’ The Republican platform has also been presented. I do not know its title, but it has been referred to as ‘The Power of Positive Thinking.’”

“Last week a noted clergyman was quoted as saying that our society may survive in the event of my election, but it certainly won’t be what it was. I would like to think he was complimenting me, but I’m not sure he was.”

“You remember the very old story about a citizen of Boston who heard a Texan talking about the glories of Bowie, Davy Crockett, and all the rest, and finally said, ‘Haven’t you heard of Paul Revere?’ To which the Texan answered, ‘Well, he is the man who ran for help.’”

Explaining to a little boy how he became a war hero: “It was absolutely involuntary. They sank my boat.”

“When we got into office, the thing that surprised me most was to find that things were just as bad as we’d been saying they were.”

“My experience in government is that when things are non-controversial, beautifully coordinated and all the rest, it must be that there is not much going on.”

At the Gridiron dinner before he was elected: “I have just received the following telegram from my generous Daddy. It says, ‘Dear Jack: Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.’”

Principles and Partisanship

Ronald Reagan also changed the Republican party by proclaiming that government was the enemy. Following Reagan, Republicans did not promise to govern more efficiently or more wisely than Democrats. Instead they denounced government as the problem and promised to oppose government. When the GOP was primarily a party of big business, Republicans may have supported measures to improve capital markets or certain sorts of infrastructure spending that could help businesses. At one time, they might have been concerned about climate change because of the harm it could do to the economy. But no longer. Government is the enemy except, perhaps, for defense spending and building a border wall. It is bad or evil if it accomplishes anything else. And what better way to lessen government than by reducing taxes, especially on those who support me, the rich and the corporations. If you proclaim government is the enemy, then creating a dysfunctional Congress is a godsend.

It followed, then, if lack of government and dysfunctionality are desirble, Republicans increasingly used cloture. Cloture is the procedure that requires sixty votes for a Senate action. It was once the method of ending a filibuster. Even though the Senate no longer has those throat-draining, sleep-depriving filibusters of yore, the threat of a filibuster can still require cloture, or a three-fifths vote, for the Senate to move on. In 1970, there were fifteen cloture motions. In the 1980s, for a two-year Congress, the Senate never had more than eighty cloture motions, but when the Democrats gained the Senate majority after the 2006 elections, the Republicans seeking to block the majority filed 139 and 137 cloture motions in the 2007-08 and 2009-10 Congresses. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, had adopted the threat of a filibuster as a basic tactic.

By preventing the majority from acting, cloture conforms to the idea that government is the enemy, but it also fits the new conservatism in another way. Traditional conservatives pledged to support traditional values and practices. The new conservative Senate Republicans led by McConnell changed that. Traditionally, cloture was rare. Under McConnell, those Senatorial values were abandoned to the greater partisan good of denying Democrats the ability to act. Tradition be damned.

McConnell’s famous statement that his priority was to make sure that Barack Obama was not reelected elevates partisanship over country.  McConnell was not interested in whether an Obama proposal was good for the country, only in denying Obama victories that might get that president reelected.  Something similar was at work with the Dodd-Frank act, Kaiser indicates. Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd, who was vulnerable to electoral defeat the following November, decided not to seek reelection. Kaiser concludes that Dodd’s decision greatly aided passage of the act that sought to prevent future 2008-like financial crises. McConnell did not do everything within his power to defeat the act. However, Kaiser maintains that if Dodd had sought to return to the Senate, McConnell would have spared no effort to defeat the bill. He would have wanted to deny Dodd a victory that Dodd could have touted in his reelection campaign. Partisanship before the good of the country.

The Dodd-Frank history also shows that partisanship came before honest debate. Republicans opposing the bill simply made up stuff about what was in the proposed legislation. It didn’t matter if what they said was true as long as it sounded like it was true to partisans. Distorting the truth kills serious discussion, for, Kaiser points out, “Without an agreed set of facts, meaningful debate is impossible.” The make-stuff-up crowd has only increased since then. It hardly matters if it is demonstrated a conservative’s facts are fantasy. (We are not just talking about the president here. The fact-checking sites have found that conservatives make “misstatements” more frequently than non-conservatives.) The fantastical just keeps coming. What Christopher Dodd found out a decade ago has even wider application today. He tried to shame Mitch McConnell about his indifference to the truth. Kaiser wryly remarks that shaming McConnell was “not an easy task.”

(continued March 27)