The Perils of Misremembering History

Khrushchev and Kennedy go head-to-head over Soviet missiles in Cuba

On its 50th anniversary, the Cuban Missile Crisis lives large in the American psyche as a time of pride. President Kennedy stared down the great Russian bear, who went quivering back into his cave. For 13 days the nation waited, poised on the brink of nuclear war, for Khrushchev to blink. It was an unmitigated vindication of military might and brinksmanship.

Or was it?

In light of recently unsealed records, historians now say the resolution of the standoff was really a triumph of backdoor diplomacy. The real story of what happened five decades ago was a bit more nuanced, and involved much less bravado and intimidation.

Attorney General Robert Kennedy met secretly with the Soviet ambassador Oct. 27 and conveyed an olive branch from his brother: Washington would publicly reject any invasion of Cuba, and Khrushchev would withdraw the missiles from the island. The real sweetener was that Kennedy would withdraw Jupiter nuclear missiles from U.S. installations in Turkey, near the Soviet border. It was a secret pledge known only to a handful of advisers.

The reality vs. the mythology is important in light of the political hay currently being made over Obama’s alleged “weakness” in the Middle East. The meme from the far-right says that attacks on our ambassador in Benghazi and Iran’s nuclear ambitions will only be curtailed by a Cuban Missile Crisis like standoff—that the U.S.A. needs to draw lines and dare our opponents to cross.  Only then will America get the respect it deserves, and force our enemies to slink back to their caves.

The foreign policy being advocated from conservatives is similar to their approach to domestic policy. There will be no compromise as it shows weakness. There will be no apologies and no negotiations.

In 1962, Kennedy had the luxury of getting it both ways. He got to maintain the appearance of unyielding strength and intimidation at home, while granting concessions to the Soviets in an effort to avoid a devastating war nether side wanted. It’s not remotely clear Obama (or any modern President) could maintain that level of covert deal-making in the age of the Internet and 24-hour cable news.  If a President tried and was discovered, he would be accused of conspiracy and cover-ups.

If the Cuban Missile Crisis happened today and played out exactly as it did 50 years ago, the President would be eviscerated by conservatives for negotiating with the enemy, compromising U.S. security in Europe, and positioning America as weak and unwilling to fight.

The right-wing pundits are correct that the Kennedy/Khrushchev showdown has lessons for modern foreign policy. But the lessons are in the reality of what occurred, not the mythology.

Conservative: You keep on using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Inigo-Montoya-SwordWhen it comes to civil liberties and personal freedoms, I’m a self-avowed flaming liberal. Marry whom you love, worship whom you will, or don’t. Smoke dope. Paint your house neon green. Dance naked in the street. As long as your actions don’t directly infringe someone else’s freedom, have at it.

But in the realm of economics, foreign policy, commercial regulation, etc. I consider myself fairly conservative.  That’s “conservative” with a lower case “c”. It’s “conservative” in the sense of the dictionary definition. Someone who favors existing proven pragmatic methods. Someone who likes to preserve. Someone not prone to extravagant new experimental ventures. Someone who is cautiously moderate, and fiscally responsible.

This is far away from what “Conservative” with a capital “C” has come to mean in America. When you capitalize the “C”, suddenly you become someone who advocates for hawkish foreign policy, unabashed capitalism, and socially Darwinian domestic policy. Someone who favors dogmatic inflexible situationally independent rules.

The bizarre reality of being a Conservative in America is that you aren’t really very conservative at all. On the other hand, being conservative now makes you politically Liberal (with a capital “L”). It’s all so confusing. Perhaps a couple of examples would help.

Let’s take healthcare. On a per capita basis, American healthcare costs double what is spent for care in every other industrialized western country. And no, the quality of care is not better here. Health care costs are a drain on businesses and wages because providing employee healthcare is so expensive and continues to grow at multiples of the inflation rate.

The Conservative answer is basically to stay the course. There is a conservative angle here in that conservatives are resistant to change. But this is being ignorant of the larger picture. Sure, you can be resistant to policy change, but that doesn’t stop the change in healthcare costs that is eating up the economy. This is like sitting on your roof, refusing to be evacuated while the flood waters rise around you. The myopic conservative position may be to stay the course, but the safe, pragmatic, less risky position is to get in the next boat that comes by.

Looking around the world, some form of government run universal healthcare is the norm. There are any number of varieties including true socialized healthcare ala Great Britain, Medicare for all ala Canada, or even regulated and compulsory private insurance ala Switzerland.  All deliver roughly equivalent results at a fraction of the cost of the U.S. system. Further, there are so many variations of this system all succeeding, it can’t be that tricky to implement. Given, the clear choice for true conservatives should always be to solve a problem using a cost effective, proven, and time tested technique, the answer to healthcare should be clear.

In a somewhat related vein, there is a vested conservative interest in having a healthy and well-educated citizenry, who are living in a country with a solid modern infrastructure. All of these are foundational elements to the capitalistic industrial success that ultimately drives the economic prowess that makes this country great. Collapsed bridges, flooded cities, unreliable communications or power networks, or unemployable and non-productive citizens are all largely preventable problems if the society as a whole is making persistent and solid investments in its long term future. A liberal might advocate for something similar because it was the humane thing to do or because everyone deserves a chance. But a conservative should advocate for these things because they are solid practical ways to enable a productive society and minimize the collective expense.

Think of it this way. A conservative would clearly buy insurance on his home and make every effort to keep it well maintained. In this way, it’s a safe reliable shelter that should meet the needs of his family for decades to come. What could be a more conservative position than that?

When it comes to the environment, how can you be conservative and yet oppose environmental conservatism? No, I don’t think preserving every last species of minnow or song bird is vital. Species have been going extinct since the dawn of time. That’s the circle of life. But preserving and protecting the larger ecosystem we live in and depend on is about as conservative an idea as I can imagine. From deep sea oil drilling and fracking to carbon emissions, acid rain, and nuclear waste, the capital “C” Conservative position is diametrically opposed to the lower cased conservative one. I don’t get it.

On foreign policy, I can’t for the life of me figure out what’s conservative about the kick ass and take names approach to the world. There are absolutely national interests that lie outside our borders, but diplomacy and economic power are far more cost effective, with less risk to domestic lives and treasure, than military action. It’s important to carry a big stick, but that doesn’t mean you never bother to speak softly.

On economics, Conservatives have the equation completely backwards. A conservative approach would be to take on some debt when times were bad and investment was needed. But then to be responsible and pay that debt off when things were going well.  Instead, we see Conservatives opt for austerity in bad times, in essence compounding the downturn, and then claiming deficits don’t matter during prosperous times, thereby compounding the recovery. A conservative should favor a nice even economy, not one that slingshots about like a roller-coaster.

In a very real way, the current capital “C” Conservative movement has become radical. Meanwhile the Liberal movement has morphed into something downright lower case conservative. Minimally, this means that hanging your identity on a label rather than a solid ideology may lead you to a point where you are unintentionally advocating for outcomes you would very much oppose. Modern marketing means you have to be a very intelligent consumer; and not just when you are shopping for margarine, but when you are shopping for politicians.

My ideology makes me politically conservative. But the current state of politics means I align most closely with the Liberals. Clearly, in today’s world, words don’t mean what you think they mean. Vote wisely.

One of these things is not like the other

GOPvsDemThis week has provided for an interesting micro-study on a key difference between our two political parties.

Harry Reid proclaimed that Mitt Romney did not pay any taxes for years. Meanwhile, Romney released a new ad asserting that Obama was gutting welfare reform. These were not tit-for-tat events. They are relatively unrelated. But the parties’ and pundits respective reactions to each are instructive.

First, a recap of the facts: Reid’s claim is a baseless accusation. The public has no knowledge of whether or not it’s actually true, and little reason to believe Reid actually knows. It’s a distasteful attempt to put a political opponent on the defensive. To make him guilty until he proves himself innocent.  Romney’s claim is different. While it is also intended to put his opponent on the defensive, it is flat-out, demonstrably, unquestionably, factually false.

How were these two events reported? The New York Times is generally considered a left-leaning news source. You might presume they’d defend Reid while hanging Romney out to dry. You’d be wrong.

Compare the opening of a story on Reid:

Senator Harry Reid’s decision this week to hurl a taunting, unsubstantiated accusation at Mitt Romney is hardly out of character for the cantankerous Democratic leader of the Senate, who revels in provocative comments and once called Mr. Romney “kind of a joke.”

To the opening of a story on Romney:

Seven years ago, Mitt Romney joined other governors to urge the federal government to grant “increased waiver authority” to states to experiment with implementation of the federal welfare-to-work program.

But as he runs for president, Mr. Romney and his Republican allies are now accusing President Obama of “gutting” the welfare program by saying it will consider waivers to states.

These are not cherry picked stories, nor is the NYT unique in this regard. The major media outlets and pundits are pulling no punches in calling Reid out on his baseless accusation.  Meanwhile, Romney’s lie is treated as a topic of reasonable debate.

My initial reaction to this was that the “mainstream media” was now so in fear of being labeled as having a liberal bias, they had become afraid to expose even outright falsehoods on the conservative side. And I do think this is at least part of it.  The right’s efforts to play up their victimization by a lefty lamestream media have assuredly had an effect on the way news gets reported.

Yet I think that’s not the whole story. I think a part of the media reaction also relates to how far the parties get from their behavioral norms. The GOP has key figures claiming Obama’s birth certificate was faked, and that there is a Muslim conspiracy brewing in the State department. In the greater scheme of outrageous claims, “Obama guts welfare reform” barely nudges the needle. On the Democratic side, unsubstantiated claims of filing perfectly legal tax returns that play the IRS for every penny are treated as scandalous.

There’s a lesson here. Both sides may “play the game”, but not to the same degree. It’s kind of like claiming the USA and Tunisia were both playing Olympic basketball the other night. While technically true, they weren’t playing in the same league.

Still, I know many of you out there are completely frustrated with the whole thing. You claim to hate what both sides do, and that’s more than fair. There are no angels in politics.Some of you are determined to check out of the political process by not voting, or you intend to make a statement by voting for a 3rd party candidate.

But the simple reality is this. Come 2013, one of these two parties will take the White House. And one of these two parties will control each of the houses of Congress. With four short months to go until the election, no other party has a remote chance in hell of altering that reality.

One of these things is not like the other. As the Templar Knight told Indiana Jones, “Choose wisely.” And as the band Rush reminds us in their song Freewill, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

The GOP Needs to Be Born Again

The Republican need to go down in flames so they can remake themselves by rising from their own ashes.

Yesterday’s post elicited a response reading in part:

If we gave the Democrats power next year, you know what they would have? A mandate. That’s all we would hear about until the next election, which they would lose, because they thought they had a mandate. It’s like watching a tennis match and rooting for the guy without the ball.
Maybe the Republicans made it tough on Obama. Maybe Obama wasn’t leader enough to overcome it. Did the GOP fail to vote in Obama’s FOMC appointee’s? Yes. Did Obama make recess appointments which were within his power? No. Obama is not a victim, he’s the president. If the other guys played the system better to get what they want, than well played.
Ezra says that this is the logical conclusion of a system biased toward gridlock. The system is broken. Let’s fix the system instead of kickin the can down the road.

I certainly agree the system is broken.  My preference would be to fix that. However, we have repeatedly failed to fix those problems. It would be great to see substantive campaign finance reform, have the Fed refocused on NGDP goals, revise Senate rules so that a super-majority isn’t required for everything, institute lobbying controls so legislation wasn’t ghost-written by special interests… I could go on.  But the likelihood of any of those being addressed this year is vanishingly small.  Not that we should give up on those reforms, but that there remain practical short term things we can fix in the meanwhile.

I’m also an independent. I’ve voted for Republicans in the past, and I’d like to do so again. But the current incarnation of the party has gone beyond the pale, and until they find their way back to sanity, I will not vote on the GOP line. They have not only lost any willingness to compromise, they have lost the ability to agree to their own positions when the other side agrees with them.  They lost the election in ’08, and have yet to acknowledge the legitimacy of the people we elected.  Win or lose, there’s still a country to run. And they are refusing unless they are put back into power.

I’m not claiming Obama is the greatest, or that the Democrats are above playing politics or fighting for their policy positions.  But they have not engaged in the extreme intransigence of the GOP.  If given full control of the government, would they eventually yield to the same sort of behavior the GOP is showing? Very probably. But that won’t happen overnight. Policy-wise, Obama is far closer to Reagan than Romney. There is almost no chance the Democrats would take a mandate and run to the extreme left. It’s much more likely they will stick to their current centrist proposals.  Meanwhile, the GOP gets to go lick its wounds, expunge its extremists, and return to the center-right position of its roots. Hopefully, to again balance the system out in 2014 or 2016; before the pendulum swings too far the other way.

I don’t want a permanent Democratic majority. I want a functional two-party system with give and take from both sides resulting in actual governance that works in aggregate for the betterment of the citizenry.  We do not have that now. And we don’t because one party has checked out of the game. The notion that “both sides do it” is a false equivalence. The Republican party has abdicated its responsibility to govern or even functionally participate in any government it does not control.  It has pretty much given up on appealing to (or even tolerating) anyone other than white Christian males.  It needs to remake itself or yield to a new party that will fill the void it leaves behind.  The only way it will get that message is if it is resoundingly defeated.  And not just at the Presidential level.  If the GOP does okay at the federal and state level excepting Romney, it will read that as a failure to go with somebody more radical like Santorum. It only gets the message if it goes down in flames. And to be clear, the only reason I want it to go down in flames is so its old moderate reasonable self rises from the ashes.

I want the Republican party back.  I don’t know what the hell that thing is hiding behind the elephant right now. But I’m not voting for it.

The GOP Hostage Situation

Photo by Parachutegurl, cropped by Gridge

Ezra Klein makes the somewhat disturbing argument that even if you disagree with every one of Mitt Romney’s policies, there’s a chance he’s still the best candidate to lift the economy in 2013.

The essential thesis is that what Romney will do in the short term isn’t much different than what Obama has already proposed.  However, Obama is being stonewalled by the GOP controlled House, and it is unlikely the Democrats will retake the House even if Obama is reelected.  Meanwhile, it’s very likely that a Romney win will be accompanied by Republicans retaining the House and very possibly getting a Senate majority to boot.  The reasonable bet is that the GOP would rally around policies offered by a Republican President, while they would continue the blockade against substantively those same policies when offered by Obama.

What Klein seems to be trying hard not to say is that the GOP is holding the economy hostage right now.  Elect Romney and they’ll let it live.  Reelect Obama, and they’ll let it fall off the looming fiscal cliff.

What’s disturbing is, I don’t think Klein is wrong.  Still the notion of rewarding the GOP for this sort of behavior remains unthinkable.  As much as I want the economy to recover, I cannot and will not support the sort of politics that says either I’m winning or I will exist to destroy you.  The Republicans need to be taught a lesson here.  They need to know that there are times they will be in the majority and times they will not be.  But in all those cases, we the people expect them to do their goddamned jobs and work in our best interests.

The only way that lesson is learned is if the GOP gets severely spanked in 2012 at the state and federal levels.  Yes, the time may come some years down the road when the Dems need to be similarly spanked, but that is not the case now.  All things are not equal. Yes, there is still too much special interest money in politics. Yes, there are problems with the Fed, the banking industry, the filibuster, and other intractable issues.  But none of that changes the elemental reality that one of the parties is currently holding the system hostage until it is put back in power.  This is something we can fix. Now. And easily.

And just maybe, should we succeed in giving the Democrats control of the government, they can enact the same economy saving short term policies without rewarding the GOP for putting a gun to our heads.  Wouldn’t that be just a little satisfying?