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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Change We Can Believe In

I am sure this will get me into a lot of hot water with those on the left. But so far so good with Barack Obama. I am not going to argue he's not going to make a good deal of mistakes along the way. What I am going to say is I like his governing philosophy so far. He is bringing in high profile people, who he doesn't necessarily agree with on everything, people with stature, experience, people who can challenge his assumptions. The biggest flaw of the Bush administration is that Bush never allowed his core assumptions to be challenged.

I will grant anyone that on paper his foreign policy team should have been able to do that--Powell, Rumsfeld, and Rice should have been formidable. However, Powell was marginalized from the beginning, and everyone fell into dangerous group-think. Under other conditions, Rice might have been more effective. So naming a strong team on paper is no guarantee. However, that's where the mentality of the leader comes into play. Bush never had a day of intellectual curiosity or philosophical doubt in his life. Obama from all accounts likes to be challenged, likes to consider opposing viewpoints, and I think that mindset will serve him well as long as he remains true to it.

We can talk about the Hillary Clinton pick all day, and go back and forth on it. To me it is a high risk-high reward endeavor. It hearkens back I think to the popular punditry prior to the democratic convention. The question was whether the Clintons could bury the personal hatchet with Obama and support him. I really was not concerned about that because the Clintons are political professionals first and foremost. For the same reason, Hillary is not going to go off on her own as a Secretary of State because that would undermine her own self-interest. She needs to succeed in this job if she wants a future. That's a powerful agent and motivation for checking herself.

In the meantime she brings a number of positives to the Obama team. She is well-regarded through out the world. She is smart and tough. I think the tough part appeals to Obama. A lot of people suggested that John Kerry would have been a good pick, but Kerry has a strong wimp side to him. He has strong principles and he's smart, but he could just as easily cave on things. One thing you know about Hillary is that she will not back down. What she lacks in pure experience in diplomacy and international relations, she makes up for in a lot of other ways.

The downside here is the Clinton drama factor and her own ego, but I think self-interest will check those problems. It was a powerful statement for Obama. The media has overplayed the team of rivals theme, what Obama has really done here is suggest that he is self-confident and not a person threatened by the stature and success of others in administration.

Let's face it, we have as tough a task ahead on the foreign policy stage as we do with the economy. Since 2003, I think the Bush administration has not paid a single bit of attention to the foreign stage other than Iraq. We have allowed our relationships with our allies to become strained and weakened with the one exception of Britain. We have allowed our relationships with friendly and somewhat unfriendly rivals to become distanced--I am thinking Russian and China as prime examples. We have lost a lot of standing with the conduct of the Iraq war, with Guantanimo, our acceptance of less than stellar human rights policy, our scorn of international institutions and diplomacy, and the perception around the world of arrogance and a cowboy mentality.

The irony is that on September 11, 2001, we really had the sympathy of the world and a strong mandate to do real change and in most real ways we squandered it, regardless of whether or not we might succeed in Iraq, which I think despite security gains is still very dicey at best. Meanwhile Afghanistan has backslid quite a ways, Pakistan is vulnerable at best, the rest of the Middle East is perilously close to far worse.

Shifting gears though, I want to talk about Lieberman. The internet-left as some are going it has universally deplored the stay of execution granted to Lieberman. For me it was the right move for a lot of reasons.

Let me start by suggesting that there are few who dislike Lieberman more than me. And few who have disliked him longer than I have. My dislike goes back to the mid-1990s when I worked for People for the American Way. One of my projects was to help save the National Endowment for the Arts. At that time, Republicans were trying to cut as many government programs as possible and the NEA went on the chopping block.

At issue were a few examples of federal funding going to objectionable materials. However, research done by myself and others, showed much of the objectionable material was quite dated by 1997 and there were already guidelines in place to prevent that type of material from being funded. Even if a few objectionable art materials had been funded, it was a tiny percentage of the overall budget. But the hard right seized on these examples to attempt to kill the NEA.

The heroes of this story were a couple of New England moderate to liberal Republican Senators--Jim Jeffords who would eventually become an independent before he retired and John Chaffee. One of the villains in the story was another New England moderate Joe Lieberman, who supported the stripping of the program. Long before Senator Lieberman was a hawk supporting Iraq and an independent supporting McCain and Senator Norm Coleman, he was a crusading moralist opposing questionable rock lyrics, violence in movies and television, and an opponent of questionable art.

In the end, the NEA won the day and Lieberman lost. My glowing moment coming in the fall of 1997 when I was back in Davis, there was Senator Tom Harkin from Iowa reading my research into the Congressional Record, essentially debunking the Republican arguments about objectionable art. The NEA was re-authorized and still exists today.

So yes, I have long disliked Senator Lieberman to the point it was difficult for me to accept him as the Vice Presidential candidate in 2000. His outspoken support for Iraq was unconscionable in my view. His attacking Barack Obama was repugnant. Frankly, I think he could be forgiven for a lot of things including supporting his longtime friend John McCain and even speaking at the convention (though it gets dicey there), but attacking Obama, giving aid and comfort to the socialist charge, and supporting Norm Coleman were the final death knells for him.

Or were they?

For some reason, I think back to the movie Schindler's List. There was an exchange between the hero Oskar Schindler and the Nazi Concentration Camp Commander Amos Goeth. They were having a discussion about power. Schindler was trying to manipulate Goeth who was power hungry and maniacal.

He argued that true power was actually mercy. "Power is when we have every justification to kill, and we don't." In the movie at least, it works for about half a second as Goeth pardons the first person he encounters when he has the opportunity to kill, but then resumes his murderous and barbaric rampage.

But Schindler was right. True power really is the power of mercy. Execution is actually the demonstration of force, rather than power. A subtle but real distinction. But mercy not only demonstrates power more effectively, it also elevates he or she who provides mercy.

The Democrats had every right and every authority to strip Lieberman of his position as chair. But to what end? Governance in the Senate requires compromise. It requires going across the aisle and getting on controversial matters, 60 Senators to go along with something. The Democrats even if they got to 60 votes (which would have to include Lieberman) would still need to convince more moderate Senators to go along with them. They cannot afford to alienate a potential ally. They cannot afford to drive Lieberman into the Republican camp.

They have put Lieberman on notice that he could lose his chairmanship down the line if he bucks them. That may be the most control over him they can exercise. Leading the way to give mercy was Barack Obama, the subject of the attack. He was able to show magnanimity and above all mercy. Revenge and retribution are empty gestures that show weakness rather than strength. Obama has elevated himself above pettiness, above revenge, and has bestowed mercy on a former adversary.

Let us not dismiss the gravity of disloyalty. If we are going to be philosophic, it is instructive to note that in Dante's depiction of hell, the lowest of the low, the worst spot in hell was reserved for Judas Iscariot, whose crime was betraying God. Of all the sins to be punished, the crime of betrayal was viewed by the ancients as the worst.

Obama and Senate Democrats did the right thing here by not exacting retribution against Lieberman for disloyalty. Lieberman may believe he is a maverick, but disloyalty is one of the gravest indiscretions you can commit. He forgot that. He is very fortunate not to have been stripped of his chair, but he also has to recognize that next time, the Democrats may not be as forgiving.

This was a step Obama had to take if he is serious about moving beyond simple and petty partisanship. It would have been difficult to argue that he was going to change the tone of the Washington discourse if he proceeded to watch over the execution of Lieberman for his crime of being a traitor.

At this point, Obama has been held up so high by so many. It is difficult to imagine he can fulfill expectations. And let us not discount how daunting the task really is. The United States has really had no political leadership for four years. In most ways, the Bush administration checked out after being reelected. If we look back, what is the major accomplishment of the second Bush term? Perhaps the surge--I cannot think of anything else.

Here we are in economic crisis and Bush has almost completely abdicated his authority. The bailout has become a fiasco, moving sideways. It is clear that there were not enough safeguards put into place. Any bailout of the auto industry will be done with the leadership of Congress, not President Bush. It is hard to imagine a more irresponsible administration. The only thing that may redeem Bush's Presidency would be success in Iraq, which is fragile at best and perhaps worse than that at this point. To many it looks more like a house of cards than a solid foundation.

To many in this country, the next sixty days cannot pay fast enough.

---David M. Greenwald reporting