Three News Pieces, 2010-2011

April 12, 2011: Pontius.

During the lead-up to the shutdown that wasn’t, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) was quoted as wondering “Where is the president on this? Where is the president?” His comments matched various and sundry news programs which spent copious amounts of time discussing President Obama’s leadership skills: “Is Obama Leading?”

And, initially, my internal exasperation outed itself in response to Mr. Boehner: (1.) Any time the president has “led,” has stepped obviously forward on any issue (notably, stimulus, health care, DADT), it is called “overreach.” Hmmph. (2.) And, if he led, Mr. Boehner, would you really follow?Would your House? Better still, would your Tea Party Caucus? (3.) And who’s to say President Obama is not leading? It’s utterly subjective. To many, it appears that the president is somehow absent because he stands in the middle, composed, looking to see where the circles on the charts overlap; because he calmly says a shutdown shouldn’t happen; because he offers compromise where a true leader would surely say “No Compromise. I am the decider.” Because the president is visibly willing to deal in ambiguity and compromise, even when distasteful, and that’s like practically admitting that there are no absolutes and that maybe, just maybe, avoiding a government shutdown means discussing even the most ridiculous of riders coming from the other side.

Some would argue that standing in the middle of such a whirlwind and remaining composed and avoiding the shutdown and/or a temper tantrum is being a leader. An obviously present leader.

But my reaction just plays along with something I thoroughly detest: here am I just joining in to the big Party of Appearances. When the BP oil spill happened and the president was criticized for failing to play the game of optics and display a requisite amount of emotion, I was horrified. And when Representative Boehner and assorted media outlets programmed entire shows to discuss Obama-As-Leader…well, for a minute there, I played along.

And there’s something wrong with that. I don’t think it matters much if you go to a play and criticize one actor and ignore, say, the plot or the context, or the dialogue and sets. It’s bad criticism but that’s a really small thing about a matter that doesn’t stop anyone’s paycheck. But it matters a great deal when we start worrying so much about the how before we’ve devoted a lot of consideration to the what. And we, self included, we’ve been discussing the how of President Obama’s actions during the Shutdown/Budget Non-Crisis instead of actually discussing the issues: how any serious discussion about the deficit should really include some mention of revenue; how a couple weeks ago the Congress had the opportunity to revisit $80 billion in agriculture and oil subsidies and skipped it (because it’s not spending?!?) in favor of the savings theoretically gained by 4 million dollars to deny elementary health care to lower-income women.

So when I find myself getting sucked in, yet again, to the appearance, to the false argument, to responding in salt-covered mental verse against the question “Is President Obama leading?” I just want to wash my hands of all of it.

So much politics. So many people’s paychecks on the line. So many people’s unemployment, disability, and social security checks on the line in the shutdown that could’ve been. Men and women in Afghanistan. In Iraq. Providing support and protecting us. Right this second. Right then, on Friday, before the government shutdown that, thankfully, didn’t happen (because President Obama and John Boehner both led, incidentally).

I grow tired of politics with a capital P. I am wearied of the idea that How trumps What, that Appearance is more discussion-worthy than Reality. I am exhausted by the hubris that leads the non-stop Twitterfeed to think that Obama’s leadership or not, emotions or not somehow bests what the heck is actually going on at any given moment.

Let the historians decide what the president—or the Speaker—is or is not. Me, I’m washing my hands of it.

November 28, 2010: Every time I post or tweet a Sarah Palin-fied remark, I feel a bit guilty. It’s like batting at a piñata without a blindfold, really, or picking the proverbial, over-ripe, ever-clichéd low-hanging fruit. It’s just too easy (our allies, North Korea!). Only, just as soon as my snark-related guilt starts to make me feel low and crass, I remember the reason I bother to pay attention to her: because, frighteningly enough, some people are taking her seriously and the media cannot stop treating her like the celebrity she now is. But the media is following as well as leading and even Serious People can’t stop trying to suss out whether she will or will not run in 2012 or whether she actually knows anything. And it’s because the second part of that is a question mark that I can’t leave Ms. Palin alone.

The first time I learned of Sarah Palin, it was a photograph in a “people to watch” type section inNewsweek, 2006-ish. With one hand, she tugged one of her young daughters; with the other she held car keys, a Blackberry, and a Red Bull. She was dressed in red and her hair was up. She seemed normal. And then, in 2008, she started speaking.

And didn’t stop. Not even after the “I can see Russia from my house” thing as a reasonable substitute for foreign policy acumen; not even after “Which newspapers do you read?” “All of ‘em.” She just kept talking. And where Tennyson’s Merlin said “use gave me fame and fame gave me use,” Palin’s mantra may be “fame gave me fame and fame gave me fame.” With Sarah, it’s really hard to shake the impression that there’s just no there there.

So here we are, in 2010, and Sarah’s still talking, still playing coy, still practically running for president without actually bothering to, you know, seem presidential or anything. She’s giving plenty of well-rehearsed speeches that, in true politico fashion, don’t really rise above jingoistic nothingness. She’s made a successful video love sonnet to Alaska, seemingly without embarrassment or a shred of irony after prematurely abandoning her role as governor there. She has a show on Fox News. And she will critique any Democrat that moves from her perches on Facebook and Twitter. And still, “the question she’s going to have to answer is if quote-unquote common sense conservatism is shorthand for ‘I haven’t learned the issues.’” (Robert Draper, Meet the Press, 21 November 2010).

I am disturbed that four years after she became a Person To Watch, what exactly Sarah knows is unknown. It distresses me that someone who believes—and is prepared to act accordingly—that there is an ongoing supernatural battle between good and evil in which she is an active participant could become the first woman president. I do not want someone in charge of the domestic and foreign policy decisions of the country to rely on Wikipedia, SparkNotes, and her “prayer warriors” for information and direction. I do not want the President of the United States to enlist Todd-“cloths”-not-“clothes”-Palin as her chief advisor. The Mommy-card plus two years of state governership do not remotely equal qualified for high-level public office.

And, because there are people who think that it does, because there are people who will consider her primarily because she is “conspicuous and cheap and charming,”* because she has yet to announce that oh, no, she couldn’t possibly think of running for president in 2012; because President Obama sits “down with U.S. reporters, and the question they have for me, in Asia, is ‘Have you read Sarah Palin’s book?,’”* I will continue to, admittedly sheepishly and with some apology, bait this very famous Mama Bear—probably on Twitter and Facebook, too. But after all, that’s what Sarah’d do.

*Parker, Dorothy. “The Standard of Living,” Complete Stories. New York: Penguin, 1995.

*Alter, Jonathan. “Obama’s Class Project,” Newsweek, 20 September 2010.

November 14, 2010: Four Billion Dollars Later. Commentary on Election 2010.

Before the midterms, common wisdom held this would be a helluva year, a wave election. “If ’08 was about change, this year’s about upheaval” (Nicole Murphy). The expectation seemed to be that all incumbents were out and all Tea Party Republicans were in and the whole shebang would be one big referendum on Obama.

It wasn’t that bad, really. (Or good, depending).

House went Red, Senate lost the 60 but stayed Blue. In fact, Senate may be a little truer in hue after losing some rather purplish Blue Dogs. While Rand Paul did make it in for Kentucky, most of the audaciously unserious candidates were dismissed by voters. So long, Ms. O’Donnell. Farewell, Sharron Angle. Auf Wiedersehen, Herr Buck. And I think this speaks well for the Ordinary Americans: (a) smarter than we look and (b) not yet quite that mad or desperate. And happily, though four billion dollars were spent on the midterms (and seriously, four billion? People are starving, but whatever…), money can’t quite buy an office against the will of the people, which is maybe surprising and definitely encouraging. Or something.

But still, if you’re a left-leaning Independent, a Progressive, or a Democrat, this felt like a loss. Biggest loss of seats in the House since 1948 and all. And whether it’s true or just sounds more exciting to talk about a defeat, the Fourth Estate and the punditry have been every bit as hyped as they were before the elections and speaking of Obama’s devastation and what will this mean and, well, the usual drama. The post-mortems for the Democrats, according to the media: They lost because they lacked a strong single message. (I say anyone with a marginal grasp on the big picture who can condense it down to one message is hopelessly out of sync with reality or not being honest. Frankly, I am totally uninterested in any candidate who can pull a singular out of a complex ever-changing web of simultaneous pluralities.) Or: they lost because the best they could say was “It could have been worse.” (To which I reply, “Yep. True.” It could have been worse. It wasn’t. And there again, anyone who expected more than that is not being frank about the realities or the possibilities.) Or: they lost because it’s the economy, stupid, and President Obama frittered his time away with health care, Afghanistan, Iraq, education, financial reform, Supreme Court appointments and winning a Peace Prize. (Only: Obama worked on long-term issues while dealing with short-term crises. There is no solution for the economy or the future if the long-term issues aren’t addressed and he did the adult thing in not only acknowledging the big picture but trying to deal with it responsibly. But in 24-minute news cycle world when 10% are unemployed, these things aren’t popular. And that’s too bad because incremental actual change plus the capacity to notice the fullness and complexity of the real situation seem like positives. The economy is a negative, god help us, but reference again: It could have been worse.) In the end, though, win or loss, the midterms may result in more action. The Republicans in charge of the House will surely have to be a little compromising and active now that they officially have day jobs. And, an opposing party House worked out alright for Clinton.

As for the Republican Post-Mortem: (1.) John Boehner. I don’t know what to make of him. The people who know say that he is a deal-maker with a record of compromise and of action. He publicly says differently. Though maybe that is necessary in a time of Tea Parties and hard-line vocal Conservatism; in a time when people are saying “if ballots don’t work, bullets will” (Joyce Kaufman, Allen West’s no-longer chief of staff); in a time of apparent desperation to Go Red. So we’ll go Orange with Boehner and see where that leads and whether the John of pundits or the John of the public is more accurate. The truth will out. (2.) Curious that so many members of Team GOP claim to be Constitutional Fundamentalists but are wishing to revoke amendments and add new (to permanently, constitutionally require an annually balanced federal budget. Which is good if the federal government is Joe the Plumber paying a mortgage and bad if it is the prime mover of a country: balanced budget restrictions haven’t worked out so well for the states. See: California.) Wonder how those who speak of the sacrosanct nature of the Constitution work out the inherent inconsistency when they demand to alter it. Too, how do they decide to which Constitution they and we should adhere? The 1789 version or the 1864? The 1925 or the 1970?* (3.) And how will they fulfill promises to both cut taxes and reduce the deficit? Those two can’t belong together. As Fareed Zakaria has pointed out, “this isn’t politics. This is math.” It would require magic. Perhaps the Red Team should have pulled harder for Christine O’Donnell after all.

And on to 2012. Perhaps some accidental governing can occur before we saddle up for the next election. Though I’m betting that would require magic, too.

Hoosier, Baby (Briefly): (1.) Question One on the ballot: Hoping with all my might that those who voted yes to amend the constitution to permanently cap property taxes are not the same people who will ever kvetch about cuts in education, since Indiana education is, oh yeah, funded by property taxes.Similarly, hoping that no one who voted yes to question one expresses astonishment when local, state, or sales taxes rise.

(2.) In my little corner of the world, eight offices were uncontested. Why?

* This point about the Constitution articulated better and more fully in Andrew Romano’s article “America’s Holy Writ: Tea Party Evangelists Claim the Constitution as Their Sacred Text. Why That’s Wrong.” Newsweek. October 25, 2010.



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