When Joseph Smith, the religious genius and sometime-treasure hunter who founded the Mormon faith, announced in 1844 that he was running for president of the United States, international affairs were not his top priority. In a pamphlet outlining his campaign platform, Smith quoted James Madison’s inaugural address declaring that he would “cherish peace and friendly intercourse with all nations.” But he never got the chance to elaborate on his foreign policy: Later that year, while Smith was in jail awaiting trial on charges that he had ordered the destruction of an anti-Mormon newspaper, a mob of armed men stormed his cell and fatally shot him as he jumped out of the window.
On the face of it, the Mormons angling for the White House in 2012 could hardly be more different from the founder of their faith. Where Smith turned to seer stones and wildcat banking schemes to raise money, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are paragons of fiscal caution and big-business capitalism — one a self-made millionaire, the other an heir to a billionaire’s chemical fortune. Smith was a charismatic prophet who commanded his followers to accept new scriptures and doctrines, like polygamous marriage and baptism of the dead, distinguishing the Mormon faith from mainstream Christianity. Romney and Huntsman, by contrast, appear to be respectable and rule-bound to a fault.
Both have distanced themselves from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ more idiosyncratic beliefs, and Huntsman has implied that he is no longer devout. Yet their domestic records and approaches to politics speak volumes about the Mormon worldview and what a Mormon president might mean for U.S. foreign policy. Despite the partisan rhetoric that the campaign trail may require, they are realists whose international experience and instinctive prudence would rein in their commitment to any ideological grand strategy.
Smith’s risky and mercurial behavior — and the conspiracy theories of today’s most famous Mormon guru, Glenn Beck — are exceptions in the church’s history and culture, not the rule. The early Latter-day Saints (so called because they believe that Smith restored the true church in the “latter days,” the last era before the Second Coming of Christ) did not build a self-sustaining empire in the Salt Lake Valley without a fair dose of caution and business sense. Some historians argue that Smith’s schemes were more pragmatic than they seem: His church’s survival and subsequent thriving suggest he did something right. In part, Mormons have prospered by adapting their beliefs to changing times. When doctrines like polygamous marriage and the prohibition against blacks in the Mormon priesthood became politically untenable, the LDS church denounced them: New revelations indicated God had changed his mind. Mormons’ talent for careful planning and flexible strategy has contributed to the rapid growth of their church around the globe and the expanding influence of Mormons in the corridors of Washington and the business world.
This is not to say that Mormons are opportunists. On the contrary, they tend to be stalwart defenders of conservative social values and American exceptionalism. After all, the LDS church teaches that Jesus Christ appeared in America, that the true faith was restored in upstate New York when Smith uncovered the golden plates, that the Garden of Eden was in present-day Missouri — as is the site of Christ’s future Second Coming. It’s no wonder that Leo Tolstoy saw in Mormons the quintessential “American religion.” Today, popular culture stereotypes Mormons as teetotalers proud of their enormous families and patriotism. Rumor has it that the CIA and FBI treat the Mormon faith as a de facto background check and recruit more heavily on the campus of Brigham Young University than almost anywhere else.
Yet while America plays a prominent role in Mormon theology and history, Mormons have always been missionaries with no intention of stopping at any border. Over the past century and a half, the LDS church has become one of the most international organizations in the world. The church claims about 14 million members worldwide, more than half of whom live outside the United States. Of the 25 announced locations for new Mormon temples, 14 are abroad (most in Latin America). The church is increasingly non-American and nonwhite. That global missionary ethos has implications for how a Mormon president — especially ex-missionaries like Romney (France) and Huntsman (Taiwan) — would view foreign affairs.
Missions demand a paradoxical combination of ideological commitment and pragmatic flexibility. The two years (or, in the case of female missionaries, 18 months) that young Mormons are urged to devote to full-time mission work often send them overseas and leave them not only fluent in new languages and charged with a saintly esprit de corps, but sensitive to the challenges of communicating in a culture different from their own. Successful missionaries in any religion are nothing if not farsighted and practical: They are inured to doors slammed in their faces and realistic about the compromises and adjustable expectations that their work requires. Romney, for example, learned to put aside his church’s disapproval of alcohol and approach patrons in French bars.
Experiences like these teach Mormons to temper the American exceptionalism inherent to their theology. Neither faith nor patriotism stopped the church-owned newspaper, Utah’s Deseret News, from recently bucking the region’s nativist tendencies by protesting growing hostility toward illegal immigrants (it so happens that those immigrants are a growing Mormon constituency). A similar streak of apolitical pragmatism — and, it must be said, human compassion — marked Romney’s tenure as Massachusetts governor: He defied ideological taboos by pioneering a model for government-mandated universal healthcare. Huntsman, for his part, accepted an ambassadorial nomination from a Democratic White House, presumably because he was more interested in representing American interests in China than in toeing a strict party line.
But these candidates’ preference for pragmatism over politics seems to cut little ice with the Republican faithful. Many evangelical Christians, in particular, view the Mormon faith as a non-Christian cult. When Romney first ran for the country’s highest office four years ago, he tried to quiet rumors that a Mormon president would be the puppet of the church hierarchy in Salt Lake City or that a Mormon is too “weird” to be president. “We share a common creed of moral convictions,” he told an audience at Texas A&M University. (Never mind that shared morals do not mean shared doctrine: Yes, the LDS church seems to focus more on outward obedience than on theological details, but the faith’s fundamental tenets include some very distinctive ideas. For starters, Smith taught that God is an “exalted man” of flesh and bone and that humans themselves can ascend to godhood, while the Book of Mormon describes Christ’s visit to the Americas after his resurrection — notions that would make most Christians blanch.)
Given the lingering suspicions of such a core Republican constituency, it should come as no surprise that Romney has given his 2012 campaign, including his foreign policy, a partisan makeover. His hawkish manifesto, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, opens with an epigraph from Dwight Eisenhower, but the main tone of the prose is pure Ronald Reagan: Romney calls the Gipper “brilliant” and declares that “history proved Reagan right,” an exemplar that the next president ought to bear in mind if America is to remain “the leading nation in the world.” (The LDS church, incidentally, considers Reagan a “true friend”: His administration employed at least 14 Mormons in prominent roles.)
No Apology tries to dispel the notion that Romney is a technocrat without the guts to defend America’s superpower clout (though, with graphs of home prices and test scores, the book hardly hides his wonkishness under a bushel). He writes that unless Washington reverses the country’s economic downturn and ramps up defense spending and war on fundamentalist Islam, America faces a terrifying fate: “I suspect the United States will become the France of the twenty-first century — still a great country, but no longer the world’s leading nation.” The thought of middling-power status and Gallic godlessness may give Romney a special fright: During the late 1960s, he served as a missionary in France, where student riots and Sartre-style atheism may have hardened his conservative views.
None of this is to say that Romney won’t follow through on his pledges to expand America’s armed forces if he is elected. However, his current foreign-policy fulminations are probably as much an effort to find daylight between himself and Barack Obama as they are a reliable indication that he would pursue another round of ill-conceived, George W. Bush-style wars of ideology. Likewise, Huntsman may warn that U.S. troops are “deployed in some quarters in this world where we don’t need to be,” but his criticisms of mission creep in Afghanistan and military action in Libya are unlikely to translate into a White House staffed with America-firsters.
In the end, however, the main problem facing 2012′s Mormon candidates is not mainstream America’s suspicion of their faith, but the fact that ideology has increasingly polarized voters — and voters seem to enjoy the rancor. Detailed PowerPoint presentations rarely win primaries. And in these dark days of economic woe, when Americans are feeling impatient and desperate, voters are especially liable to be attracted to heated, rather than sober, arguments. Americans may simply be too committed to the religions of red and blue to heed the gospel of pragmatism.
By: Molly Worthen, Foreign Policy, June 13, 2011
There isn’t much credibility left in Congress, perhaps none at all. In fact, the ceaseless C-SPAN sitcom we call government has offered plot lines from titillating tweets to illegitimate children, foreign lovers to shady cover-ups. But even their writers sometimes run out of ideas. Last week, when they thought you weren’t watching, they stooped to acting out their actual jobs: faking a vote on the debt ceiling.
A group of Republicans and Democrats alongside them turned sacred duty into dramedy. Pretending they would favor something they actually don’t endorse, they voted against their own beliefs and our national interests.
Of course, they first sold their banker buddies the good seats. Along with popcorn and reassurance that they weren’t actually planning a default on our debt, they were just pretending to do so in order to exact concessions.
These “leaders” admit that not raising the debt limit is untenable. Defaulting on our loans, we’re told, has the potential to wreck our economy. In fact, we’re supposed to be very concerned about this economy. It’s not “healthy”; it’s in “free-fall”; it’s “crumbling into ruin”.
But this belies the true damage these members of Congress seem intent to bring upon us. The economy is nothing besides the people that work, buy, save and invest within it. The collateral damage here isn’t to some numerical abstraction; it’s a serious and even fatal blow to Americans. We talk so much about the economy suffering; it’s easy to forget it’s actual people who stand to be hurt badly, over and again.
Even Republicans know raising the debt ceiling is not really negotiable. This issue is at core about whether or not we do what we say, whether or not America can be trusted. And raising the debt ceiling without precondition is about whether we make good on our promises not just to our creditors, but to each other. For all Republicans talk about not being able to afford things, it seems to apply only to food, health care, housing and electricity for their constituents. We’re flush when it comes to not collecting taxes from corporations, giving more to millionaires, subsidizing polluters and bombing other countries.
Without raising the debt ceiling free of conditions, we cannot honor our commitments to our grandparents who need to see their doctors and purchase their meds, to our children who need trained teachers and classrooms with heat and to our neighbors who need help when jobs are scarce and earnings don’t cover what life costs. Further gutting social spending will hurt those least equipped to sustain further injury. The jobless, the homeless, the young and the old will be the ones maimed.
With all this at stake, those of us without Goldman-sized bonuses to cover the cost of a heads-up beforehand are left watching in horror from the nose bleed section. This is a scripted show mocking not only we the people but the very exercise of elected office.
If voting among the masses is democracy in action – the votes of those we’ve voted for should be even more important. This is the logic behind representative democracy as our beloved Constitution has enabled it. This is the belief that has served us as a nation and as a people.
We all like to have occasional fun at the office. Some facebook checking, coffee drinking, office gossiping stress relief help the hours tick by. Republican House Members and some Democrats have turned workplace tricks into a dangerous practical joke on us, and we’re not laughing. This is the scariest kind of reality television. No more theatrics about our security and prosperity. Our elected leaders need to stop playing at their jobs and step up to do them.
By: Anat Shenker, AlterNet, June 12, 2011
Every once in a while a politician comes up with an idea that’s so bad, so wrongheaded, that you’re almost grateful. For really bad ideas can help illustrate the extent to which policy discourse has gone off the rails.
And so it was with Senator Joseph Lieberman’s proposal, released last week, to raise the age for Medicare eligibility from 65 to 67.
Like Republicans who want to end Medicare as we know it and replace it with (grossly inadequate) insurance vouchers, Mr. Lieberman describes his proposal as a way to save Medicare. It wouldn’t actually do that. But more to the point, our goal shouldn’t be to “save Medicare,” whatever that means. It should be to ensure that Americans get the health care they need, at a cost the nation can afford.
And here’s what you need to know: Medicare actually saves money — a lot of money — compared with relying on private insurance companies. And this in turn means that pushing people out of Medicare, in addition to depriving many Americans of needed care, would almost surely end up increasing total health care costs.
The idea of Medicare as a money-saving program may seem hard to grasp. After all, hasn’t Medicare spending risen dramatically over time? Yes, it has: adjusting for overall inflation, Medicare spending per beneficiary rose more than 400 percent from 1969 to 2009.
But inflation-adjusted premiums on private health insurance rose more than 700 percent over the same period. So while it’s true that Medicare has done an inadequate job of controlling costs, the private sector has done much worse. And if we deny Medicare to 65- and 66-year-olds, we’ll be forcing them to get private insurance — if they can — that will cost much more than it would have cost to provide the same coverage through Medicare.
By the way, we have direct evidence about the higher costs of private insurance via the Medicare Advantage program, which allows Medicare beneficiaries to get their coverage through the private sector. This was supposed to save money; in fact, the program costs taxpayers substantially more per beneficiary than traditional Medicare.
And then there’s the international evidence. The United States has the most privatized health care system in the advanced world; it also has, by far, the most expensive care, without gaining any clear advantage in quality for all that spending. Health is one area in which the public sector consistently does a better job than the private sector at controlling costs.
Indeed, as the economist (and former Reagan adviser) Bruce Bartlett points out, high U.S. private spending on health care, compared with spending in other advanced countries, just about wipes out any benefit we might receive from our relatively low tax burden. So where’s the gain from pushing seniors out of an admittedly expensive system, Medicare, into even more expensive private health insurance?
Wait, it gets worse. Not every 65- or 66-year-old denied Medicare would be able to get private coverage — in fact, many would find themselves uninsured. So what would these seniors do?
Well, as the health economists Austin Frakt and Aaron Carroll document, right now Americans in their early 60s without health insurance routinely delay needed care, only to become very expensive Medicare recipients once they reach 65. This pattern would be even stronger and more destructive if Medicare eligibility were delayed. As a result, Mr. Frakt and Mr. Carroll suggest, Medicare spending might actually go up, not down, under Mr. Lieberman’s proposal.
O.K., the obvious question: If Medicare is so much better than private insurance, why didn’t the Affordable Care Act simply extend Medicare to cover everyone? The answer, of course, was interest-group politics: realistically, given the insurance industry’s power, Medicare for all wasn’t going to pass, so advocates of universal coverage, myself included, were willing to settle for half a loaf. But the fact that it seemed politically necessary to accept a second-best solution for younger Americans is no reason to start dismantling the superior system we already have for those 65 and over.
Now, none of what I have said should be taken as a reason to be complacent about rising health care costs. Both Medicare and private insurance will be unsustainable unless there are major cost-control efforts — the kind of efforts that are actually in the Affordable Care Act, and which Republicans demagogued with cries of “death panels.”
The point, however, is that privatizing health insurance for seniors, which is what Mr. Lieberman is in effect proposing — and which is the essence of the G.O.P. plan — hurts rather than helps the cause of cost control. If we really want to hold down costs, we should be seeking to offer Medicare-type programs to as many Americans as possible.
By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, June 12, 2011