“Celebrating The Nation That Can’t Stay Still”: The Purpose Of The Past Is To Serve The Present And Future
It is the birthright of all Americans to be patriotic in their own way, something worth remembering at a moment of great political division. Instead of challenging each other’s love of country, we should accept that deep affection can take different forms.
There is, of course, the option of setting politics aside altogether on the Fourth of July. Anyone who loves baseball, hot dogs, barbecues, fireworks and beaches as much as I do has no problem with that. Still, I’m not a fan of papering over our disagreements. It is far better to face and discuss them with at least a degree of mutual respect.
When it comes to the varieties of patriotism, I’d make the case that some of us look more toward the past and others to the future. Some Americans speak of our nation’s manifest virtues as rooted in old values nurtured by a deposit of ideas that we must preserve against all challengers. Others focus on our country’s proven capacity for self-correction and change.
As a result, one stream of reverence for our founders flows from a belief that they have set down timeless truths. The alternative view lifts them up as political and intellectual adventurers willing to break with old systems and accepted ways of thinking.
These are broad categories, and many citizens are no doubt drawn simultaneously to aspects of being American that I have put on opposing sides of my past/future, continuity/change ledgers.
Nonetheless, most of us tilt in one direction or the other. Standing at either end of this continuum makes you no less of an American.
Eighty years ago, Franklin D. Roosevelt went to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Charlottesville, to offer an Independence Day address insisting that the inventors of our experiment created a nation that would never fear change. He spoke nearly seven years after the onset of the Great Depression in the election year that would end with his biggest landslide victory. FDR was in the midst of the boldest and most radical wave of reform that the New Deal would produce, and you can hear this in his speech. It still serves as a rallying cry for those of us who see our founders as champions of repair, renewal and reform.
What, he asked, had the founders done? “They had broken away from a system of peasantry, away from indentured servitude,” Roosevelt explained. “They could build for themselves a new economic independence. Theirs were not the gods of things as they were, but the gods of things as they ought to be. And so, as Monticello itself so well proves, they used new means and new models to build new structures.”
Not the gods of things as they were, but the gods of things as they ought to be: Thus the creed of the reformer.
As for Jefferson himself, Roosevelt said, he “applied the culture of the past to the needs and the life of the America of his day. His knowledge of history spurred him to inquire into the reason and justice of laws, habits and institutions. His passion for liberty led him to interpret and adapt them in order to better the lot of mankind.”
Here again, the purpose of the past is to serve the present and future. History is about testing institutions against standards and adapting them, as Roosevelt put it, to “enlarge the freedom of the human mind and to destroy the bondage imposed on it by ignorance, poverty and political and religious intolerance.”
There is a straight line between Roosevelt’s understanding of our tradition and President Obama’s as he expressed it in his 2015 speech on the 50th anniversary of the voting rights march in Selma.
“What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished,” Obama declared, “that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?”
No doubt many Americans celebrate a narrative on our national holiday that has a more traditional ring than FDR’s or Obama’s. We can jointly honor our freedom to argue about this but perhaps agree on one proposition: If we had been unwilling in the past to embrace Lincoln’s call to “think anew and act anew” and to find FDR’s “new means” and “new models,” we might not have made it to our 240th birthday.
By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, July 3, 2016
“The Political Perils Of Taking Attendance”: Committee Hearings Important For Democrats, Irrelevant If A Republican Misses Most
In the closing days of the 2014 campaign cycle, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) traveled to North Carolina in the hopes of defeating then-Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.). The Republican specifically went after the Democrat for having missed some Senate Armed Services Committee hearings.“Here we are with Americans being beheaded, and Sen. Hagan doesn’t even show up for the briefing,” McCain griped.
The same week, the Arizona Republican traveled to New Hampshire to complain about Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s (D-N.H.) imperfect attendance at Senate Armed Services Committee meetings. “I don’t see her at very many of the hearings,” McCain said, citing this as proof that the Democrat is not a “serious member” of the panel
In retrospect, this might not have been the ideal line of attack for the GOP.
Ted Cruz thunders about what he calls a “fundamentally unserious” U.S. defense policy, but when he had a chance to weigh in during Senate Armed Services Committee hearings, he rarely showed up.
Cruz, who announced last week he’s running for president, has the committee’s worst attendance record – by far.
Politico found that Cruz, after just two years on Capitol Hill, has become quite cavalier about showing up for official committee gatherings, skipping 13 of the panel’s 16 hearings this year. The Senate committee has 26 members, and Cruz is literally the only who’s absent more than half the time.
Asked for an explanation, Cruz’s office told Politico the senator, because of his lack of seniority, is “often last in line to speak, and any questions he may have for witnesses have already been asked.”
That’s true, but the point of the hearings is to help members learn things. Whether or not Cruz has to wait his turn to press witnesses, he might benefit from listening to the Q&A anyway.
Simon Maloy raised an excellent point, comparing Cruz to another ambitious young senator from several years ago.
When Obama came into the Senate in 2005, he kept his head down and actually did the nitty-gritty work of a freshman senator, which meant slogging through interminable hearings. Richard Lugar, formerly the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, once concluded a day-long hearing on Iraq by congratulating Obama for being the only committee member to sit through the whole thing. It was minor stuff, but it gave Obama a reputation as someone who was willing to do the basic work needed to get things done, which helped defuse questions about his “experience” when he jumped into the 2008 presidential campaign.
Cruz’s strategy is the exact opposite. He’s trying to inflate his own leadership and experience well beyond the reasonable expectations one would have for a freshman senator, and he’s getting tripped up by the reality of his life in the Senate to date.
Cruz and his backers, not surprisingly, balk at the comparison between the Texas Republican and the president they hate, though there are some superficial similarities. Young, ambitious senators from large states? Check. Celebrated orator? Check. Harvard Law Review editor? Check. Son of an immigrant father? Check.
But early on in Obama’s Senate career, the Illinois Democrat showed up, did unglamorous work, and put together some legislative accomplishments. Cruz doesn’t like to show up, has no patience for unglamorous work, and hasn’t legislated much at all.
If anyone should be annoyed by this comparison, it’s Obama.
In fairness, there are better metrics for evaluating lawmakers than committee-hearing attendance, but in 2014, it was Republicans who characterized this as a critical issue, pleading with voters to take this seriously.
The trouble is, Republicans can’t pick and choose – it’s tough to tell voters that committee hearings are critically important if a Democrat misses some, but they’re largely irrelevant if a Republican misses most.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, April 2, 2015
“How’s About You And Him Fight?”: Get Ready For A Whole Lot Of Hillary Vs Barack Stories Based On Nothing
Hillary Clinton has about a year and a half before she needs to make the final decision on whether she’ll run for president in 2016. Between now and then, and after she becomes an actual candidate (if she does), we’re going to be seeing an awful lot of stories that read as though an editor said to a reporter, “Give me a story about Hillary turning her back on Barack, and the two camps sniping at each other,” and the reporter replied, “Well, I haven’t seen much evidence of that, but I’ll see what I can come up with.” That gets you stuff like a piece in today’s Washington Post, under the headline, “In the Clintons’ talk of brokering compromise, an implicit rebuke of Obama years.” Let’s get to the stinging barbs Hillary and Bill are aiming at the President:
In recent stump speeches and policy remarks, Bill and Hillary Clinton have offered sharp criticisms of the partisan gridlock paralyzing Washington, signaling a potential 2016 campaign theme if Hillary Clinton chooses to run for president.
The Clintons’ critiques in recent days have been explicitly aimed at congressional Republicans, who helped spur a 16-day government shutdown and potential debt default in October. But their remarks also seem to contain an implicit rebuke of President Obama’s failure to change Washington as he pledged when first running for the White House.
The arguments suggest a way that Hillary Clinton could attempt to run in 2016 as an agent of change — potentially putting her at odds with the two-term Democrat she would be seeking to replace.
So her “implicit rebuke of President Obama’s failure to change Washington” is … criticism of Republicans? And if Hillary Clinton says she wants to see everyone work across the aisle to solve problems, that’s some kind of slap in Obama’s face? Well that’s odd, since Obama ran for president saying he wanted to bring Democrats and Republicans together, just like George W. Bush did before him (remember “I’m a uniter, not a divider”?), and Bill Clinton did before him. It’s what every presidential candidate says, even the most partisan ones.
I don’t imagine that Clinton thinks Obama has been a perfect president, and I’m sure there are things she thinks she could have done better than him. But there is going to be an endless stream of stories like this one, trying to gin up some kind of dramatic struggle between the two, full of anger and recrimination and Machiavellian machinations, all based on nothing but the barest wisps of evidence. It’s driven by the journalist’s endless need to frame stories around conflict, their preference for writing about personality, and the fact that if you’re going to write a story about the 2016 campaign three years before the actual election, you don’t have a lot of material to work with. But give me a break.
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, November 1, 2013
“Thank You And Goodnight”: My Fellow Americans, Barack Obama Is The President, Not An Action-Movie Hero
Sometimes it appears that everybody in Washington yearns for an action-hero president to make them feel important. That’s never more apparent than during a crisis like the Syrian civil war President Obama stands accused of “dithering” about.
Of course, his chief journalistic accusers are columnists Maureen Dowd and Charles Krauthammer, of the New York Times and Washington Post respectively. Dowd turns everything into a movie scenario. She wrote a column about George W. Bush’s 2003 “Mission Accomplished” aircraft carrier stunt that’s almost too embarrassing to quote.
“Out bounded the cocky, rule-breaking, daredevil flyboy, a man navigating the Highway to the Danger Zone,” Dowd wrote. “He flashed that famous all-American grin as he swaggered around the deck of the aircraft carrier in his olive flight suit, ejection harness between his legs, helmet tucked under his arm, awestruck crew crowding around.”
Sure, there was mockery in Dowd’s Top Gun take on Bush’s “joystick politics,” but hero worship too. Here’s how her imaginary flyboy summed up America’s adventure in Iraq: “Aggression breeds patriotism, and patriotism curbs dissent. Aggression has made Democrats cower, the press purr and the world quake. Aggression—you mark my words—will not only save humanity, but it will soon color all the states Republican red.”
So how did that work out?
Ten years later, Krauthammer thinks things would have worked out better if the U.S. still had troops occupying Iraq—the better to menace Iran and Syria too, formerly Saddam Hussein’s job. Obama, he opines, “simply does not understand that if America withdraws from the scene, it creates a vacuum that invites hostile outside intervention. A superpower’s role in a regional conflict is deterrence.”
Also known as perpetual war in the Middle East.
Even Bill Clinton famously piled on, which is what set Dowd off. At a public forum in New York, he explained that Obama risked looking “like a total wuss” if he blamed opinion polls showing that 80 percent of Americans oppose U.S. intervention in Syria for his own indecisiveness. Clinton said that presidents sometimes have to act, “and hope to God you can sell it.”
It’s not clear that Clinton spelled out exactly what a take-charge guy like himself would be doing in Syria—which may be a good thing, given his wife’s key role in the Obama administration’s wait-and-see policy.
Indeed the former Secretary of State’s pronouncement at a 2012 conference in Istanbul that dictator Bashar al Assad needed to leave Syria contributed mightily to the White House’s predicament. Taking sides in a sectarian civil war while refusing to get involved wasn’t terribly clever. That Clinton reportedly urged Obama to arm anti-Assad Sunni rebels makes the diplomatic blunder no less egregious.
Now that the Syrian dictator, with Russian and Iranian assistance, seems on the verge of defeating his enemies, President Obama has agreed to provide small arms to rebel groups—something unlikely to prove decisive.
Asked how he imagined Syria after Assad, a rebel commander told the New York Times’ Bill Keller “maybe Somalia plus Afghanistan.” In short, chaos and slaughter, a horrifying prospect to the crusading editor, who nevertheless thinks Obama needs to get the U.S. more deeply involved in deciding which mob of Syrian religious fanatics gets to massacre its enemies.
Perhaps sensitive to criticism, President Obama gave an extraordinarily frank interview to CBS’s Charlie Rose. “This argument that somehow had we gone in earlier or heavier in some fashion,” he said, “that the tragedy and chaos taking place in Syria wouldn’t be taking place, I think is wrong.”
In essence, the president argues that there are no good options in Syria and never were. Would establishing a no-fly zone, for example, mean bombing Damascus? What about civilian casualties? And what happens if chemical weapons stored there get hit?
“Unless you’ve been involved in those conversations,” he said, “then it’s kind of hard for you to understand the complexity of the situation and how we have to not rush into one more war in the Middle East.”
In other words, no Barack Obama doll to match the official “TOP GUN George W. Bush 12-Inch Action Figure in Flight Suit” available from Amazon.com. Also, however, no 10-year occupation of Syria, no thousands of American dead and hundreds of billions of dollars lost in the desert.
Instead, Daniel W. Drezner argues in Foreign Policy, Obama’s stalling constitutes a kind of cynical realpolitik American presidents can’t openly admit: “[t]his is simply the United States engaging in its own form of asymmetric warfare. For the low, low price of aiding and arming the rebels, the U.S. preoccupies all of its adversaries in the Middle East.”
Here’s what Obama ought to say, a friend wrote recently: “My fellow Americans. I don’t give a rat’s [posterior] who wins the civil war in Syria. And neither should you. Thank you and good night.”
In effect, he has.
By: Gene Lyons, The National Memo, June 26, 2013
If you walked into the home of an acquaintance and found yourself facing a wall of dozens of pictures of him shaking hands with powerful people, you’d probably think, “What a pompous ass. And how insecure do you have to be to put these things up on your wall? I get it, you’re important. Sheesh.” In Washington, however, these “brag walls” can be found all over town, particularly on Capitol Hill, where nearly every member of Congress has one.
Maybe some offices do it just because that’s what everyone else does, but you’d think that if you’re a senator or member of Congress, the fact that you’re an important person would be self-evident, and it wouldn’t be necessary to make sure everyone who comes into your office knows that you’ve been in the same room as presidents and other high-ranking officials. There are some commercial establishments, like your local deli, that might put up pictures on their walls with the celebrities who have stopped in, but that’s an understandable marketing effort. But when it comes to individuals, the only other place I can think of that I’ve seen that sort of thing outside of Washington is on MTV Cribs, in the homes of athletes, actors, and musicians, who often have displays of them with other celebrities. And they, I imagine, are also desperately insecure about their importance, forever fearful that it could evaporate at any moment and they’ll wind up the next Corey Feldman. So they put up the pictures of them hanging out with Tom Brady or Usher to assure themselves that they really are as big a deal as the people around them are contractually obligated to tell them.
I raise this because of an absolutely pathetic article in Politico today, detailing how Democrats on Capitol Hill aren’t feeling enough love from President Obama:
The topic of Obama’s relationship with his own party in Congress invariably draws raised eyebrows and did-you-hear-this-one stories.
One of the most well-connected Democrats in the capital said he came away from a recent meeting with Hill Democrats “astonished at the contempt they have for our president.” The members made clear that, after largely backing Obama in his first term, they would oppose him if he tried to make cuts to entitlements in the name of deficit reduction.
Obama and his top aides generally get along well with the Senate’s Democratic leadership — though there were real tensions over the fiscal cliff compromise – but while the likes of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and New York Sen. Chuck Schumer are in frequent contact with the White House, rank-and-file Democratic senators rarely hear from the president.
To bring up the topic of Obama and his old colleagues with members of Congress themselves, not a class of people lacking in pride, is often to get stared back with daggers. Hemming and hawing often take place, good-sport recollections of always hearing back from staff are brought up and occasionally come requests to go off the record. But, among some Democratic senators, there’s a willingness to put their names with their statements.
“I think they might have done more,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) when asked about the president’s outreach to the Hill in the first term. “I think they might have learned more by doing more.”
Now, I understand that building personal relationships with members of Congress is important, but it’s not important as an end in itself, it’s important because it helps the president accomplish his policy goals. To paraphrase the line spoken by a thousand reality show contestatnts, the president isn’t in Washington to make friends. Are there policy implications to Obama’s alleged indifference to congressional Democrats? Was there a critical bill that failed because some senators felt they weren’t being massaged enough? Provisions in big bills that Obama didn’t get because he couldn’t fend off a fit of pique from a member of his party over the lack of invitation to a late-night poker game up in the residence? You won’t find the answer in the story, because this is Politico, and they find policy questions like that to be dullsville.
In fact, a better question for a piece like this might be, if Obama does so little to massage the fragile egos on Capitol Hill, how was it that he got so much legislation passed? He did more legislatively in his first term, even with an unusually intransigent opposition, than any president since Johnson. Could it be that the non-personal factors end up being much more important than how many members of Congress get to utter the phrase, “As I told the president when I was at the White House the other day…” on a regular basis?
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, February 4, 2013