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Politics Without Purpose: September 11 Should Not Be Another Media Event

It was another one of those weeks in the capital when our leaders debated matters crucial to the survival of American civilization.

Did President Obama try to upstage the Republican presidential debate by asking to address a joint session of Congress that same night? And did House Speaker John Boehner dis the president, and the presidency, by denying him that slot?

Tempted though I was to weigh in on this important matter, I decided instead to head over to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, to preview a small but immensely powerful exhibit marking the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

There, displayed for the first time, are sacred relics of 9/11: the crumpled piece of the fuselage where the American flag had been painted on the Boeing 757 that crashed in a Pennsylvania field, a flight-attendant call button from the plane, a window shade, a landing gear strut, and a log book with the pages intact. The exhibit is simple and raw, without glass or showcases. Some dried mud caked on an airplane seatbelt was flaking off onto a tablecloth.

Nearby is the door from a fire truck crushed at Ground Zero and the beeper of a man who died in the South Tower. There’s a Pentagon clock frozen at about the time American Airlines Flight 77 struck the complex and the phone on which Ted Olson received the last call from his wife on the doomed plane. Most poignant, perhaps, is the postcard from another passenger, written to her sister the day before the crash to give the address of a new home in which she would never live.

The spare exhibit brought back the horror of that time. But it also reminded me of the pride in what followed, the national unity and sense of purpose.

The warm feelings didn’t last long, of course, destroyed by the war in Iraq and the politicization of homeland security. By now, we have lost all sense of purpose in politics, alternately distracted by Sarah Palin’s bus tours, Anthony Weiner’s private parts, David Wu’s tiger suit, Donald Trump’s birth-certificate campaign, and Dick Cheney’s broadsides.

Obama, whose uncertain trumpet has ceased to rally even his own troops, contemplated his long-delayed jobs agenda while lounging on Martha’s Vineyard last month. His leading Republican rival for the presidency talks of treason and secession. Another challenger arranges to quadruple the size of his California home (his defense: He’s only doubling the living space). Lawmakers play games with the debt ceiling and wound the nation’s credit rating but can’t agree on anything to put Americans back to work.

The political extraneousness of the moment, in other words, is like that of early September 2001. We spent those days amusing ourselves with Gary Condit and shark attacks. President George W. Bush spent August on a record-long ranch vacation. The biggest issue under debate: stem-cell research. Warnings about Osama bin Laden were ignored while the administration obsessed over rewriting a missile treaty with Russia.

What will it require to end the drift this time? A depression? Another attack? Or is there a less painful way to regain national purpose?

“For most people,” curator David Allison told me as I toured the Smithsonian exhibit, “Sept. 11 is only a media event.” The exhibit is a modest attempt at changing that, taking that day’s ruins out of storage and rekindling memory. The lucky few who see the exhibit during its short run will be reminded that there are things more important than whether the president addresses Congress on a Wednesday or a Thursday.

Consider the simple postcard, written by Georgetown economist Leslie Whittington to her sister and brother-in-law, as Whittington, her husband and their 8- and 3-year-old daughters headed off to Australia for a sabbatical. The card, postmarked Sept. 12 at Dulles Airport, must have been mailed just before the family boarded American Flight 77. The note says, in its entirety:

9/10/01

Dear Sara & Jay,

Well, we’re off to Australia. When we return we will have a new address (as of 11/30): 8034 Glendale Rd. Chevy Chase, MD 20815

We don’t know our phone # yet. While we are in “Oz”, email will work best for contacting us: whittinl@georgetown.edu.

Love, Leslie, Chas, Zoe & Dana

I thought about Sara receiving that postcard from her dead sister, and about those little girls who never made it to Glendale Road – because of 19 evil men and a government distracted by less important things.

Then I went out onto Constitution Avenue, where, across from the museum, a bus labeled “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” had just parked.

 

By: Dana Milbank, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 2, 2011

September 3, 2011 Posted by | 911, Congress, Conservatives, Democracy, Democrats, Disasters, Freedom, GOP, Government, Ground Zero, Homeland Security, Ideologues, Ideology, Journalists, Lawmakers, Liberty, Media, National Security, Politics, President Obama, Public, Pundits, Republicans, Right Wing, Teaparty, Terrorism | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Karl Rove: Setting The Bar For “Success” Too Low

Karl Rove’s new Wall Street Journal column is all about House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) “surprising success” so far in 2011. As Rove sees it, Boehner has had a “remarkable run” by having “out-maneuvered” President Obama repeatedly.

Mr. Boehner may not be an inspiring orator, but he has moved the country and Congress in his direction. He has succeeded in large part because he had a more modest view of the post than his recent predecessors. […]

So Washington’s agenda this fall will reflect the priorities not of the glitzy Mr. Obama but of the modest, well-grounded Mr. Boehner.

Rove’s larger point seems to be that Boehner — or at least Boehner’s caucus — is largely dictating the agenda in Washington, and there’s obviously some truth to that. By refusing to compromise, adopting an unyielding right-wing agenda, and normalizing extortion politics, House Republicans have had considerable success, at least insofar as they’re dictating terms and fighting debates on their turf.

But Rove’s column comes across as kind of silly if one stops to think about the larger context.

For all of Rove’s gushing about the Speaker’s “surprising success,” Boehner’s tenure has been a seven-month-long fiasco. The Speaker has routinely struggled to keep his caucus in line behind his leadership, for example, and has found in many key instances that House Republicans simply don’t care what Boehner thinks. Whereas the Speaker traditionally is one of Washington’s most powerful players, Boehner is arguably the weakest Speaker we’ve seen in many decades — he’s not leading an unruly caucus; his unruly caucus is leading him.

Indeed, Rove seems especially impressed that Boehner has blocked White House attempts at additional revenue. What Rove neglects to mention is that Boehner was fully prepared to make an agreement with Obama for additional revenue, only to find that the Speaker’s caucus would forcefully reject the compromise.

What’s more, looking back at Boehner’s “successes,” it’s hard not to notice that Congress hasn’t passed any meaningful legislation at all this year — and in all likelihood, the Speaker will help oversee a Congress in which nothing of significance passes at all.

What have we seen from Boehner’s chamber since January? Five resignations, zero jobs bills, two near-shutdowns, no major legislative accomplishments, and the first-ever downgrade of U.S. debt, attributed almost entirely to the antics of Boehner’s Republican caucus.

Also note, thanks to Boehner’s sterling work, Congress now has its lowest approval rating in three decades, and Boehner’s personal approval ratings are spiraling in the wrong direction.

If Rove finds this impressive, I’m afraid he’s set the bar for “success” much too low.

 

By: Steve Benen, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, August 25, 2011

August 26, 2011 Posted by | Congress, Conservatives, Debt Ceiling, Economy, Elections, GOP, Government, Government Shut Down, Ideologues, Ideology, Jobs, Lawmakers, Middle Class, Politics, President Obama, Public Opinion, Republicans, Right Wing, Standard and Poor's, Tax Increases, Taxes, Teaparty, Unemployed | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Incredible Shrinking Speaker: The Inmates Have Taken Over The Asylum

On Thursday, President Obama asked the top eight officials in Congress — four from each party — and Vice President Biden to express a preference about a debt-reduction target. Should the negotiations focus on a more modest series of cuts ($2 trillion), a larger package in line with the Biden-led talks ($3 trillion to $3.5 trillion), or a more ambitious approach (roughly $4 trillion)?

Of the 10 people in the room, eight, including all the Democrats, said they want to go big. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was one of them, “enthusiastically” endorsing the notion of a grand bargain, telling Republican lawmakers that bold action is necessary, and that this is why he wanted to be Speaker in the first place.

Two of the 10 balked. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said there’s no point in trying to strike a grand bargain because rank-and-file Republicans will never accept a compromise on revenue.

As of yesterday, Boehner abandoned his plan and came around to Cantor’s and Kyl’s way of thinking. The Speaker discovered his caucus just wasn’t willing to follow him.

The sweeping deal Obama and Boehner had been discussing would have required both parties to take a bold leap into the political abyss. […]

[Some] Republicans said Boehner had finally realized that he could not sell the tax framework within his party. Many House Republicans, particularly the influential 87-member freshman class, won elections vowing to never raise taxes. At a Thursday meeting at the White House, Cantor said the tax package could not pass the House. And at a Friday morning news conference, every member of Boehner’s leadership team denounced the idea of including tax increases in the debt legislation.

As a substantive matter, the anti-tax extremism that dominates Republican politics is well past the point of being farcical. Given a chance to cut the debt by $4 trillion, GOP leaders who claim to be frantic about a non-existent debt crisis have been exposed as frauds.

But the political issue that stands out for me is realizing just how weak a Speaker Boehner really is.

He started this debt-limit process saying, “We’re going to have to deal with it as adults. Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations and we have obligations on our part.” Republicans proceeded to ignore him. This week, Boehner believed he had the power and influence to convince at least most of his caucus to rise to the occasion. Republicans proceeded to ignore this, too. Even the Speaker’s own leadership team didn’t want to follow him, and in the end, it looks like Cantor understood the extremist attitudes of the caucus far better than the Speaker did.

The Speaker of the House is arguably one of the most powerful offices in the government, at least in theory. It’s supposed to be within Boehner’s power to simply tell his caucus what they have a responsibility to do, and demand their fealty.

But a leader with no followers is, by definition, weak. Boehner may be the Speaker, but as he’s quickly realizing, he’s taking the orders, not giving them.

In the asylum known as the House of Representatives, is there any doubt as to the inmates’ power?

 

By: Steve Benen, Contributing Writer, Political Animal-Washington Monthly, July 10, 2011

July 10, 2011 Posted by | Budget, Class Warfare, Congress, Conservatives, Debt Ceiling, Debt Crisis, Deficits, Democrats, Economic Recovery, Economy, GOP, Government, Government Shut Down, Ideologues, Ideology, Jobs, Lawmakers, Middle Class, Politics, President Obama, Republicans, Right Wing, Taxes, Wealthy | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Debt Ceiling Hostage Taking: Section 4 Of The 14th Amendment Was Designed To Stop John Boehner

Kevin Drum is skeptical that the Obama administration would really be within its rights to ignore the debt ceiling:

Maybe I’m missing something here, but it strikes me that this doesn’t come close to implying that the debt ceiling is unconstitutional. What it really suggests is merely that the public debt is the only untouchable part of the federal budget.

Jack Balkin delves into the legislative history and shows why the 14th Amendment has a provision guaranteeing the debt in the first place. The sponsor of the provision, Benjamin Wade, wrote at the time:

[The proposed amendment] puts the debt incurred in the civil war on our part under the guardianship of the Constitution of the United States, so that a Congress cannot repudiate it. I believe that to do this wil give great confidence to capitalists and will be of incalculable pecuniary benefit to the United States, for I have no doubt that every man who has property in the public funds will feel safer when he sees that the national debt is withdrawn from the power of a Congress to repudiate it and placed under the guardianship of the Constitution than he would feel if it were left at loose ends and subject to the varying majorities which may arise in Congress.

Balkin explains:

If Wade’s speech offers the central rationale for Section Four, the goal was to remove threats of default on federal debts from partisan struggle. Reconstruction Republicans feared that Democrats, once admitted to Congress would use their majorities to default on obligations they  disliked politically. More generally, as Wade explained, “every man who has property in the public funds will feel safer when he sees that the national debt is withdrawn from the power of a Congress to repudiate it and placed under the guardianship of the Constitution than he would feel if it were left at loose ends and subject to the varying majorities which may arise in Congress.”

Like most inquiries into original understanding, this one does not resolve many of the most interesting questions. What it does suggest is an important structural principle. The threat of defaulting on government obligations is a powerful weapon, especially in a complex, interconnected world economy. Devoted partisans can use it to disrupt government, to roil ordinary politics, to undermine policies they do not like, even to seek political revenge. Section Four was placed in the Constitution to remove this weapon from ordinary politics.

In other words, it’s in the 14th Amendment to guard against exactly what Congressional Republicans are doing right now.

Balkin does not suggest, nor do I, that the legal merits are open and shut. It’s certainly risky to take a flyer in the middle of a debt crisis. But if we do reach h-hour, we’re probably better off if the Treasury simply announces it’s going to continue to pay the bills and dares Republicans to take them to court than repudiating the debt, right?

Matt Steinglass argues that the Supreme Court would likely side with the Treasury:

If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the past 11 years, it is that the Supreme Court’s decisions on critical issues are very strongly influenced by political pressure. In a situation where the entire weight of world bond markets was bearing down on Anthony Kennedy’s head, would he really vote to crash the economy and destroy the credit rating of the United States? Would any individual do that? I don’t think even Eric Cantor would, if he were solely and publicly responsible for the decision. The ability of the GOP to push the government to the brink of default, and possibly ultimately over it, depends on the diffusion of responsibility: Republicans can only do it because they can hold Democrats to blame. It’s also driven by political vulnerability: Republicans have gotten themselves into a spiraling tea-party-driven political dynamic where they seem, on issue after issue, to be incapable of voting for any proposals that a Democrat might be able to accept, for fear of the consequences from their base. Anthony Kennedy does not have to fear a primary challenge, and if the United States’ ability to pay its debts comes down to his single vote, he’ll have no excuse. Maybe I have no idea how these things work. But I can’t see a Republican Supreme Court going toe to toe with the entire massed forces of Wall Street and not blinking.

A point that I think is worth drawing out here is that it’s not even clear the GOP leadership wants the power to take the credit of the Treasury hostage, or  — more likely — if it’s simply been forced into this position by a financially uneducated base. Republicans in Congress might be relieved to have a deux ex machina absolve them of the need to walk a fine line between the demands of the base and the demands of their business constituency.

 

By: Jonathan Chait, The New Republic, July 1, 2011

July 1, 2011 Posted by | Congress, Conservatives, Constitution, Debt Ceiling, Debt Crisis, Democracy, Democrats, Economic Recovery, Economy, Elections, Federal Budget, GOP, Government, Government Shut Down, Ideologues, Ideology, Lawmakers, Politics, President Obama, Republicans, Right Wing, SCOTUS, Teaparty | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“That’s Why They’re Called Leaders”: Congressional Republicans Need To Do Their Job

One of the more common Republican criticisms of President Obama, at least in the context of the debt-reduction talks, is that he hasn’t shown enough “leadership.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took to the floor late last week to cry, “Where in the world has the president been for the last month? … He’s the one in charge.”

One of the parts of Obama’s press conference this morning that I especially liked was the president’s pushback against the notion that he’s been a passive observer in this process.

“I’ve got to say, I’m very amused when I start hearing comments about, ‘Well, the president needs to show more leadership on this.’ Let me tell you something. Right after we finished dealing with the government shutdown, averting a government shutdown, I called the leaders here together. I said we’ve got to get this done. I put Vice President Biden in charge of a process — that, by the way, has made real progress — but these guys have met, worked through all of these issues. I met with every single caucus for an hour to an hour and a half each — Republican senators, Democratic senators; Republican House, Democratic House. I’ve met with the leaders multiple times. At a certain point, they need to do their job.

“And so, this thing, which is just not on the level, where we have meetings and discussions, and we’re working through process, and when they decide they’re not happy with the fact that at some point you’ve got to make a choice, they just all step back and say, ‘Well, you know, the president needs to get this done.’ They need to do their job.

“Now is the time to go ahead and make the tough choices. That’s why they’re called leaders…. They’re in one week, they’re out one week. And then they’re saying, ‘Obama has got to step in.’ You need to be here. I’ve been here. I’ve been doing Afghanistan and bin Laden and the Greek crisis. You stay here. Let’s get it done.”

I’m glad the president pressed this, not just because he sounded a bit like Truman slamming the do-nothing Congress, but because many in the media have bought into the notion that lawmakers have dug in on this, and the president hasn’t. That’s nonsense.

Congressional Republicans haven’t been slaving away, trying to strike a credible deal. They’ve been making threats, drawing lines in the sand, and barking orders about what is and is not allowed to be on the negotiating table.

“They need to do their job.” Part of those responsibilities includes working in good faith to find an equitable compromise with a Democratic Senate and a Democratic White House, and then doing what they must do, but what the president cannot do: passing the damn debt-ceiling increase.

Tick tock.

 

By: Steve Benen, Contributing Writer, Political Animal, The Washington Monthly, June 29, 2011

June 29, 2011 Posted by | Congress, Conservatives, Constitution, Debt Ceiling, Democracy, Democrats, Economic Recovery, Economy, Federal Budget, GOP, Government, Government Shut Down, Ideologues, Ideology, Journalists, Lawmakers, Media, Politics, President Obama, Press, Pundits, Republicans, Right Wing, Senate | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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