Archive for November, 2008

Keep the Democrats Honest on Trade

November 8, 2008

Originally published October 21, 2008

           Obama and the Democrats are on a roll. Could be a landslide.  As for this swing voter, I am leaning Obama because of Sarah Palin, but probably won’t decide until I pull the curtain shut on November 4th and it’s just me, Obama and McCain. 

I understand the surge of support for the Democrats.  It makes sense.  They do government intervention well.  A deepening financial crisis is when government must act, so we need the Democrats now more than ever.  But please, when they take power, join me in holding their feet to the fire on trade.

The Republicans have been hamstrung by their ideology, their love of anything that looks like a market solution.  We need a government solution to a market failure.  Sure, a President McCain, who unlike Obama has a record of bipartisanship, could forge a coalition with Democrats and likeminded Republicans, not unlike what Paulson put together for the $700 billion rescue. However, McCain could be resistant to the kind of “bold, persistent experimentation” required.  A President Obama, working with large Democratic majorities, could enact a new New Deal.    

What worries me most about the Democrats is trade policy.  Free trade, pioneered by Britain in the 19th century, has driven the greatest increase in prosperity and reduction in poverty humankind has ever known.  During the Great Depression, global trade collapsed. As the pain of the 1929 Crash was felt, governments failed to act jointly, pursuing instead “beggar-thy-neighbor” policies, including erecting trade barriers.  According to one estimate, global trade declined 33% from 1929-32, aggravating unemployment which was skyrocketing, and putting in peril capitalism and liberal democracy.  

Protectionist Republicans at the time passed the Smoot-Hawley tariff increase of 1930, with other governments following suit.  Totalitarian governments came to power overseas, sealing off their economies. Still, by 1934 the Democrats under FDR had the wisdom to begin reducing trade barriers in concert with America’s trading partners. 

So, I applaud the cooperation today among governments making economic policy. I applaud the coordinated bank rescues, interest rate reductions, and fiscal stimulus packages.  I applaud Bush, Paulson, and yes, Pelosi, Reid, and Mitch McConnell, but also Sarkozy, Merkel, Brown and other world leaders.  I applaud the fact that governments, so far, have not resorted to trade protectionism.

The bad news is that the Democrats of today in their mad dash to the White House and to larger majorities in Congress have left free trade twisting in the wind.

The Democratic presidential candidates earlier this year promised to scrap NAFTA and staunch trade liberalization in order to win votes in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania.  In these and other states, some industries have declined as our economy has been transformed from one based on manufacturing to one based on knowledge.  Renegotiating NAFTA, attaching environmental and labor riders to existing trade agreements, halting multilateral trade negotiations, opposing CAFTA with Central America and the Caribbean, killing the free trade agreement with our ally Colombia, imposing tariffs on China — these were the promises the Democrats made on the campaign trail and in the U.S. Congress. 

I was disappointed by Barack Obama’s remarks on trade Wednesday night in the final debate, which seemed a calculated sugarcoating of his protectionism.  Likewise, he parroted the defamation of the Colombian government found on AFL-CIO blogs dealing with the failed Colombia free trade agreement. 

Maybe Barack Obama, Pelosi, Reid, and bash-the-Chinese Chuck Schumer can wiggle out of this one after January 20th.  I hope so.  Ohio ain’t gonna like it. 

The truth should be told in the Rust Belt, as John McCain did in Michigan.  Economic adjustment is inevitable.  For all the pain experienced in Midwestern factories, there has been gain in border areas trading with Mexico and Canada and in the knowledge-based industries located all across the country.  This includes Wisconsin, which has lost manufacturing jobs, but has also gained knowledge-based jobs due to its superior universities.  Sure, we should soften the blow of adjustment through job training, out-placement and an adequate social safety net.  And, education must be a top priority in the knowledge-based economy.  

The record of the Democrats on trade during the 20th century was generally good. From FDR to Bill Clinton, free trade talks were pursued with vigor.  We have more to do, such as liberalizing trade in agriculture and services, protecting intellectual property, and bringing more countries into the global trading system. 

The Democrats today are confused.  They don’t want to oppose trade and be seen as protecting the privileged few.  So, they come up with a nifty construct: we’re for “fair trade.”  They propose attaching labor and environmental riders to free trade agreements in order to protect the poor from abuse and pollution.  In principle, it’s not a bad argument.  But it’s pure politics.  Some American labor unions seek to derail free trade agreements in order to protect their industries.  Environmental and labor accords may be better negotiated separately, rather than used to hold up trade liberalization. 

If the Democrats can accelerate trade liberalization while at the same time attaching labor and environmental protections, they should be supported.  But, my suspicion is that these are arguments designed to hamper free trade in deference to important Democratic constituencies.  

Now, I agree that trade policy should not be the sole driver of this election decision.  If it were, I would vote Republican.  However, if the United States does not lead on this issue, then the world could slip into another bout of protectionism, which (at the risk of sounding hyperbolic) could threaten civilization as it did in the thirties.

            I believe it is time for Responsible Centrists to keep the Democrats and Republicans honest.  There has been a lot of negative campaigning.  Passions are running high.  We should all calm down a bit.  Obama and the Democrats look set to win, and win big, but please, let’s put their feet to the fire on trade.

Why I Voted for Barack Obama

November 7, 2008

            Hope.

            I had my doubts, as you well know, and still do.  But, those who know me understand what I call my West Wing or “aspirational” politics.  These are at odds sometimes with my real-world politics, which tend to be centrist.  In spite of my cynicism, my sober reading of history, and my need to hector friends on the left, I too hope for a better world.

My philosophy can be summed as follows:  while it is easy to follow your ideals, it is more difficult to make realistic choices that ultimately yield durable results consistent with your ideals.  My misgivings about Barack Obama in the past had to do with my concern that he represented an idealistic, rather than a hard-headed choice.  That is why I supported Hillary Clinton.  I now believe that there is a good chance Barack Obama possesses the skills to be a successful president.

I voted for Obama because I hope that he can harness the euphoria he has unleashed toward sound and effective policy making.  John McCain, an experienced, principled public servant, lacks Obama’s magic, what I call his political “kevorka” (a Seinfeld reference).  As a result, the coalition McCain would have assembled, both in the United States and abroad, would have been narrow, and therefore, less effective.

The election of Barack Obama represents a new day for America, a turning of the page on the 20th century, a final nail in the coffin of an historic injustice, the stain of slavery and Jim Crow.  This new day itself will advance the cause of America in the world. 

The surge of support for the Democrats this past Tuesday likewise makes sense.  They are the party of government intervention.  A deepening financial crisis is when government must act.  A President McCain might have been resistant to the kind of “bold, persistent experimentation” required, and might have projected a more cantankerous image abroad.  Hopefully, President Obama will confront our financial problems head on, working closely with Democratic majorities in Congress and other world leaders.  There is goodwill in the world toward Obama, goodwill that has a half life, but goodwill that can be exploited toward repairing our planet.

Now it is time to get to work.  In his first press conference on Friday, President-elect Obama gave a good, short speech about his plan to create jobs and confront the financial crisis.  He mentioned a rescue of the auto industry, which I hope will mean help in downsizing, job training, and shifting to the production of fuel-efficient cars, not protection and subsidies, which would postpone the inevitable. 

Obama’s remarks, his lucid thinking-aloud, and his bearing were on balance, well, presidential, though he betrayed a little nervousness and uncertainty.  This was especially the case in his gentle fumbling of the first question about what he would do on day one to rescue the economy.  As was pointed out during the campaign, there will be some on-the-job training for this exceptional man with limited experience, but we can expect that he will do well. Give him time; he’s not president yet.

I am happy he is putting a laser focus on the economy.  As I have said in the past, the vigorous pursuit of free trade is critical to our economic wellbeing; this will prove difficult and, frankly, unlikely under the Democrats, given their recent rhetoric.  Remember, the Great Depression was aggravated by trade protectionism.  Yet if anyone has the talent to do the political gymnastics necessary to flip from protectionism to free trade, it is Barack Obama.

Obama must likewise begin to lay the groundwork to address longer-term problems such as climate change and fiscal consolidation.  Critical global concerns such as anchoring Russia and China in Western institutions, preventing Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation more broadly, resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, stopping the slaughter in Darfur, and broadening the free trade area in the Americas to include Colombia, Brazil and others require immediate attention.   

Talented people are enthusiastic about working for Obama.  The appointments he has made and is reportedly about to make seem sound.  Rahm Emanuel, as chief of staff, Tim Geithner at Treasury, and perhaps even Bob Gates at Defense would be an impressive start.  I could even live with John Kerry at State, though would prefer the likes of Nick Burns, a former Foreign Service Officer and centrist who flourished in both Democratic and Republican administrations.  I feel lukewarm about Chuck Hagel.  Nevertheless, it appears that President-elect Obama will assemble an ideologically diverse group of people, and that his management style — weighing a wide range of views – will serve our country well.

When the celebrating dies down, I hope Obama supporters will take a sober look at the president-elect’s warts.  Signs have already emerged that goodwill toward him could be short-lived.

The financial markets fell dramatically last month, reflecting not only weakness in our financial institutions, but also concerns about the lack of economic policy credentials of the two presidential candidates.  Markets remain under pressure due in part to persistent concerns about Obama’s ability to handle the crisis.  Yet his hands-on approach, his immediate focus on the economy, his subtle lowering of expectations, and his quick staffing of key positions are encouraging. 

Overseas, the Russian government has just thrown down the gauntlet on missile defense in Europe, threatening to station missiles near Poland if the U.S. erects its missile shield there.  Pakistan called for an end to attacks against Al Qaeda on its territory by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.  The world remains dangerous and volatile, Obama euphoria notwithstanding.  

I suggested in September that there were others better able to lead this country than Obama or McCain, including Al Gore, Hillary Clinton, Michael Bloomberg and Jon Corzine.  Last January, in a polemic in support of Hillary, I expressed doubt that Obama’s charisma was what we needed to confront the economic crisis.  I expressed concern about how Americans project their hopes onto a blank slate and elect a charismatic president, especially in the wake of what is perceived as a failed administration.  After Nixon, we believed that Carter would restore American credibility and prosperity.    

Freud called it idealization.  It is a defense against uncertainty and unpleasantness.  The human psyche exalts and overvalues a person.  Given the economic crisis we’re in, we need to idealize our next president.  But, it could lead to a huge letdown, when the other side of the coin – devaluation – sets in.

            I hope this letdown doesn’t occur.  Jimmy Carter was a failed president. He presided over stagflation, and his perceived weakness goaded the Soviets to invade Afghanistan and the ayatollahs to take over the US Embassy in Teheran.  It was not unlike JFK, another charismatic young man with euphoric followers.  It was Kennedy’s perceived weakness, coming on the heels of the respected and feared Eisenhower, that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Recently opened Soviet archives suggest that Khrushchev put the missiles in Cuba because the Kennedys were viewed as weak.   

Besides making us feel good about ourselves, our president must have the capacity to lead.  There are indications that Obama has such a capacity.     

It is important to make a distinction between politics and government. Politics is the art of getting elected, the art of persuasion, and requires charisma.  Government is the art of making policy, fixing things.  Charismatic politicians, good at politics but bad at government, can be a huge letdown.  This is the story of W, Oliver Stone’s latest twisting of history notwithstanding.  The ideal president is good at both.  Maybe this is Barack Obama.      

John McCain pointed out in the final debate last month a certain cynicism behind Obama’s “new politics,” and “post-partisanship.”  In 2005 during a standoff between the White House and the Senate, John McCain introduced the real “new politics” by assembling the “Gang of 14,” a group of seven Democrats and seven Republicans, some of the ablest statesmen and women in America, who broke the deadlock over judicial appointments that had been leaving the courts understaffed.  While McCain withstood the ire of the Republican base for this, partisans Joe Biden and Barack Obama, God love ‘em, chose not to join the gang.  Both were considering runs for the White House and therefore could not stand up to their leadership and the Democratic base.

In the past, Obama has stayed true to his liberal ideals, assembling a voting record that did not brook compromise with the other side of American politics.  That’s fine for getting elected president, but it’s not fine for being president.  Obama’s temperament indicates a capacity for compromise and leadership. I hope he moves to the center.  

In his advertising, Obama outspent any previous presidential candidate.  Attack ads represented an estimated third of his ads.  He said he would accept public financing, but when contributions reached to the heavens, he went back on his word.  He has done more than any other American politician to wreck public financing of elections.  The reality is that Obama has been an artful practitioner of the old politics.

It is true that McCain engaged in a hard-hitting campaign.  Yet, in America most underdog campaigns go negative, including Obama’s.  In 2004 when David Axelrod ran Obama’s Senate bid, it was alleged that the campaign aggressively pushed a story about domestic abuse by his Democratic primary challenger, who was well ahead in the polls.  We wouldn’t be toasting a new dawn of American leadership today if not for Axelrod’s brawling Chicago-style campaigning.  I believe McCain’s bringing up Obama’s past associations with Khalidi, Wright, and Ayers was fair.  The Obamas spent nearly twenty years sitting in a pew listening to Pastor Wright say many intolerant, and yes, racist things. On the other hand, Obama is a “big tent” politician, maintaining an appropriate distance from some of the more objectionable views of people he associates with.  The strength of this approach is that it can build broad coalitions; the weakness is that it can blur the distinction between right and wrong.

Racism has played a role in the opposition of some people to Barack Obama.  It is driven by a fear of others not like you having power over you.  While Obama did better than previous Democratic presidential candidates in some “red states,” he performed worse in some southern states, which, it has been suggested, had to do with race.

Let’s look at the flip side.  I am reminded of that episode of Seinfeld, when Elaine tells Jerry he is racist for preferring Asian women.  Jerry responds, it’s not racism if I like their race.  The excitement many Obama supporters have for this historic victory is not a completely colorblind sentiment.  The difficulty his opponents have in criticizing him for fear of charges of racism is not a fiction either.       

Let us also admit that there was probably a dose of “age-ism” involved in the electorate’s choice of Obama over McCain.  Young, vigorous leadership over tired, old leadership.  It was a factor.

Obama has an Achilles’ heel.  He projects a slight superciliousness, arising out of his message that he offers transformational leadership and represents perhaps the only way forward.  He himself poked fun at this at the Al Smith dinner last month.  The risk here is his potential reluctance to admit mistakes.

In my piece in September, I bemoaned the “pomp and distortion” of both campaigns. I wish we could enhance the profile of truth and critical thinking in our political discourse.  Politicians dumb us down and appeal to emotion, rather than reason.  The media has filled the void to an extent with their “fact-checking.”  We need a calming of emotions and an end to the demonization of the other side, so characteristic of the culture wars. 

A lot of McCain supporters feel left out right now, and I commend Obama for reaching out to them in his victory speech.  There are reports that he plans to appoint leading Republicans to his cabinet.  I urge his supporters, many engaged in euphoric celebration, to likewise reach out to the other side when calm returns to our daily lives.  

I consider myself a centrist and enjoy being a gadfly with my friends who lean left, pointing out overlooked facts and attempting to open minds.  I too commit the sin of spin and polemical writing, and get riled up and closed-minded.  Yet I believe we need a movement in our country of likeminded centrists to help invigorate our democracy, to keep both Democrats and Republicans honest.  This is the point of the pieces I send around and Scherblog.  Join me in this endeavor by passing around my work to others. 

Obama ran a near-flawless campaign, and in spite of his lack of management experience, this bodes well for his administration.  In the coming two years, the Obama administration will likely confront further economic deterioration and market turmoil, rising unemployment and widening budget deficits.  It will likely face tensions with Russia, Iran and Iraq (and elsewhere), requiring tough decisions, including, as a last resort, military action.  Joe Biden was right in suggesting that Obama (and the Democrats) will be tested soon.  If they do well, they may be able to hold fast to the political realignment they achieved on Tuesday.  If they don’t, we can toss them out of Congress in two years and have a crack at a new president in four.  This is the beauty of American democracy.

Sometimes there is simply a “chemistry” emanating from a human endeavor.  “Movement Obama” – including its central figure, its architects, its foot soldiers and its followers – has chemistry.  There is magic in this movement, and for that, I am hopeful about an Obama administration, and wish him, the Democrats, and the country every success.