Monday, February 12, 2007

Monday with McKenna: Our Broken Government

First of all this week, congratulations to the Dixie Chicks. There is nothing like the inner reward of holding to truth, no matter what you hear around you; and fortunately there are outer rewards as well. It's just that in this culture, they are sometimes delayed.

Now you won't be hearing much out of us for a while about the contenders for '08—the phenomenon that Stewart has called "the clusterfuck". I tend to agree with Krugman that Edwards has some outstanding ideas that actually have some shape to them, unlike the nebulous Hillary rhetoric that otherwise prevails (incidentally, if you go way back to our January 2006 archives, you'll find a week's worth of posts from Terry that will sound a lot like what Edwards is now proposing, but that's OK—we'll allow that good minds can work in parallel, even if one of them has it out there a year ahead of the other). Meanwhile, Rich's points about Obama's promise are well taken. But it's too early, and right now we're looking the most earnestly for substance not from the '08 pack but from the heretofore pitiful collection of losers on Capitol Hill. They've got at least 8 years of lousy karma to flush away, and it had better happen fast. Perhaps, as Terry McKenna reminds us today, a glance backward will help to push these people out of the ideological mud they've been trapped in for so long. But as Terry adds below, this is no time to hold your breath or gamble the farm on that...

We have government that won’t govern. Is it poor design or do we just have the wrong players? Sadly, no one will say! In fact, almost no one among the governing elite even acknowledges that our so-called democracy is a failure. Most of our votes are meaningless and our legislatures unresponsive. Failure starts at the local level, but gets more pronounced as you move up the line - bad at the local level, worse at the state level, worse still in Washington.

A few examples

In New York State (where I work) this past week, the legislators reneged on a deal with the new governor, Eliot Spitzer. They had promised to select a new State Comptroller (the last one just pleaded guilty to malfeasance) from among a list picked out by a special panel. The panel chose three well qualified auditors but the legislators, seeing none of their own on the list, decided to abandon the quest for a qualified comptroller and instead selected Assemblyman Thomas P. DiNapoli. He has neither auditing nor management experience!

In my home state of New Jersey, the legislature was supposed to pass property tax reform. Our high property taxes are mostly dedicated to pay for public schools. The expected reform was an increase in state school funding matched with a proportionate decrease in local property taxes. An increase in the state income tax was also expected. What our legislators came up with instead was a plain old tax rebate, and one that goes to renters as well as property owners. Worse still, it starts decreasing for those with incomes above $100,000 – it stops altogether for those who earn more than $250,000. It’s not property tax reform.

In the national legislature, we have a charade over the Iraq war. Everyone agrees we need to debate the war – even right wing columnist David Brooks of the NY Times. If nothing else, we should start with a discussion about the president’s troop surge. We also need to discuss whether the US can risk leaving precipitately. Most opinion makers believe that if we leave quickly, Iraq will collapse in chaos. Folks like myself say its already mired in chaos so our leaving will do little. Perhaps we can get Iran, Syria and the Saudis to cooperate with a planned division into ethnic spheres of influence. Perhaps not, but if not, why stay! But so far, debate has been postponed by obstructionist Mitch McConnell, who is using legislative maneuvering to prevent anything other than a George Bush rhetorical victory. If not admitting the truth is a victory, then it’s a hollow one.

Was it always like this? Yes and no. Yes, politicians have been always been outsized egos fighting over turf. But what seems genuinely new today is the manner in which politicians communicate, and here, the changes have been profound.

Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell should look back to his political forebear, Everett Dirksen. A Republican Senator from Illinois, he was known for his smooth words, but also for his ability to compromise. Here is a famous line that he may never have uttered - “a billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money” … the quote may be specious (just check the internet). Still, I believe I saw and heard him say it in a sound byte excerpted on a long ago evening news broadcast. As a man whose party was out of power, Dirksen attempted to steer Republican votes toward progressive policies. He supported many New Deal programs, and was a strong supporter of the Civil Rights bill.

Forty Years ago, our politicians said what they believed, and based policy on those same beliefs. For example, Kennedy based his defense policy on something that turned out to be incorrect – a perceived “missile gap” between the US and the USSR. He was wrong, but at least he believed what he said, and set his course accordingly. He also was willing to re-shape policy as circumstances changed. Thus he reversed course in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile crisis. After that frightening episode, he realized that the threat of nuclear annihilation was more pressing that an imagined need for an ever bigger nuclear arsenal. Yes, he still thought there was a missile gap, but he decided that the gap was less important than the survival of the World.

With political speech currently stuck in competing agendas – and this counts for both Democrats and Republicans (think of Hillary Clinton) what do we do now? Damned if I know. I think we are in a real fix. Some of our biggest problems include: an abandoned urban poor, an exploding immigrant population – most of them illegal; then we have a health insurance / health care crisis, and over the next decade, we will have to come up with ever more cash to take care of the elderly and their medical care.

The Republicans are not ready to solve these problems – except by resorting to free markets; when the democrats speak at all, they stay at the level of platitudes – afraid of asking for compromise from the innumerable interest groups that form their party’s base.

--T. McKenna

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