A Time For Fire? (November 15, 2010)

ATimeForFireSmallHeader1

It is fair to say that when Barack Obama accepted the mantle to become America’s first African-American President on an unseasonably warm evening in November of 2008, the proverbial world was his oyster. Unlike the shaky “mandate” that George W. Bush declared on behalf of himself and the GOP in 2004, a claim that ran up against unprecedented electoral polarization, it was hard to imagine two years ago that the inspirational “Yes, We Can!” message, which resulted in the new President’s receipt of 365 Electoral College votes to McCain’s 173, could be harpooned.

An energized and gleeful Democratic party, which had succeeded in a full sweep of the White House as well as both Chambers of Congress, got to work right away with a transition team and the development of a first term policy agenda (because really, how could there fail to be a second?). In the meantime, the presumed dead GOP retreated to the political wilderness to lick its wounds and try to develop a comeback plan.

Although hindsight is always 20/20, I doubt that either side of the aisle could have envisioned that the key to Republican resurgence would present itself in the summer of 2009 ,with the young President’s plan to tackle an issue that had stymied every Commander-in-Chief and one tough First Lady throughout the 20th Century – an overhaul of our nation’s wasteful, overpriced and under-performing health care system. On paper, the plan to render it impossible for insurance companies to deny coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, to allow dependent offspring to remain on their parent’s plan until the age of 26, to bring down the costs of a system that consumes almost 20% of the nation’s GDP, seemed like a no-brainer. The overhaul would attempt to address a myriad of bi-partisan issues at once: a reduction in the long-term deficit, coverage for middle and lower-class families that did not have access before, and a blow to the usurious, corporate greed that has underwritten the health insurance industry for far too long.

Then along came the Tea Party…

The GOP, which quietly feared the backlash of the insurance lobbyists, but didn’t have the votes to blow a hole in the President’s plan, was relegated to passerby status. Suddenly a double-edged sword presented itself in the radicalized, and very loud, populist voice that began with a single rally held in upstate New York in early 2009.

Famed pollster Scott Rasmussen wrote of the generation of the Tea Party movement, “They think federal spending, deficits and taxes are too high, and they think no one in Washington is listening to them, and that latter point is really, really important.” The Tea Party’s biggest problem with Obama’s health care plan was the price tag – almost a trillion dollars. Hot on the heels of the TARP “bailout” for banks and auto makers, and the equally pricey stimulus, deficit hawks and small government activists had enough. They were mad as as hell and ready to take to the streets.

And so they did – quite effectively. At first, GOP leadership was as wary of this new breed of political activists as anyone else. After all, the group’s poster woman was failed Vice-Presidential candidate, Alaskan Governor and media plaything Sarah Palin. After a series of gaffes throughout the 2008 campaign and the clear impression of the McCain staff that the Governor was a loose canon, Palin was relegated to a state of Washington untouchability in the early months of 2009.

However, as Republicans began to hone their strategy of becoming the antithetical “Party of No,” to Obama’s full steam ahead “Change,” platform, it became clear that the goals of the Tea Party and the GOP were one and the same – to stop the expensive and big business adversarial momentum that comes with implementing systemic restructuring. Thus the strange bedfellows found it increasingly comfortable to work together as the measured debate over health care degenerated into hateful rumor mongering involving “death panels.” Whatever works, right?

And according to this columnist, this is where the Democrats really erred. Believing incorrectly that the average American voter would be impervious to the Tea Party hysteria that played out on cable news each evening, the White House team refused to get into the trenches. Insisting, with an air of martyred sacrifice that would have made Jesus proud, that it is better to be benignly right than to go to war, that noble causes will always win in the end, the party very nearly lost its advantage. It took the political will and bravery of the now former Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, to take the bill off life support.

Though the landmark legislation was narrowly passed, the damage was done. The GOP, with the suddenly clout-heavy Tea Party, did a magnificent job of branding the Dems as socialists. Obama became the heir apparent to Hitler, while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi were marketed as the Devil and his handmaiden. Suddenly the team that had been elected to clean up the eight year mess of the Bush administration became the problem itself. It should have been easy for the Democratic PR machine to roar back, reminding voters that although change can be scary, it is wholly necessary in order to correct systemic failures that imperil the American Dream.

That is where President Obama’s team and the Democratic establishment erred for the second time. “Yes We Can,” morphed quickly into “Yes, We Can…after we read the poll numbers.” As the Left increasingly found itself on the defensive – compromise, rather than bold strategy – became the order of the day. Diverging wholly from Machiavelli’s belief that as a leader, it is always more productive to be feared than loved, the Dems began courting public opinion with increasingly diminished returns.

After health care, Democrats became scared of their own shadows. Obama, wanting to show his friendliness to the business community, was viewed by many as being too soft, too unfocused throughout the Gulf Oil spill crisis this past Spring. Where strong, decisive leadership was wanted, the American public was instead treated to helpless soundbites from the White House about locating “ass to kick.” Suddenly the President, elected as the presumed crusader for Everyman, is this close to extending the unpaid for, deficit-inflating Bush tax cuts, alienating the left and center bases that figured so prominently in his election. Thus in the span of 24 months, we have witnessed a stunning reversal in the Democratic method. Fearless policy formation has devolved into placating, and when this fails to please anybody – over and over again – Obama and the liberal leadership appear to be at a paralyzing loss.

The Democrats don’t do angry well and seem almost afraid to touch it. The intellectual, measured approach has failed to resonate with an American public staring down the barrel of a 10% unemployment rate, home foreclosures and “underwater” mortgages, a time when affording college for one’s children seems like an ever elusive pipe dream and retirement a near impossibility. The bipartisan masses are angry, sad and frustrated. The increasing sense is that the lack of passion displayed by the Left means they don’t get it. The vicious cycle of lowered poll numbers continues.

As opposed to the GOP, the liberal end of the political spectrum also does not have the disciplined mass media arm of Fox News to help spread its messages. In fact the traditionally blue media powerhouses, NPR and MSNBC, are far too preoccupied with the present Left attraction to self-censorship to help formulate an ideological response to Republican attacks. Witness the firing of commentator Juan Williams and the recent suspension of Keith Olbermann. How does a body put together a coordinated, organized response to the “un-American,” “socialist,” and “dangerous” epithets fired at them by the re-energized Right, when its spokespeople are busy imploding?

The fundamental reason for the Left’s refusal to radicalize, the cause for the Democrats’ inability to re-capture the hearts and minds of the voting public, stems from their misplaced appreciation for the middle road. The results of a recent Gallup poll, in which lawmakers of both parties were asked whether a leader was more admirable in compromise or rigidity to his or her own beliefs, access the heart of the Left’s political listlessness. 54% of the Dems chose compromise, to the Republican’s 33%. Likewise, the Right vowed to “stick to positions” a full 62% percent of the time, to the Democrats wishy-washy 39%.

Negotiation only succeeds when you have two sides at the bargaining table. Democratic refusal to adjust to the reality of the GOP’s comfort with inertia bodes for another “shellacking” in 2012.

Advertisements

NPR: National Public Ruckus (October 25, 2010)

NPRSMALLHEADER

Bill O’Reilly is having a hell of a month. The professional muckraker and Fox News pugilist managed to manipulate his proffered vision of a tyrannically liberal media into a self-fulfilling prophecy on October 14th. That was the Thursday when, embroiled in a heated discussion with the ladies of “The View” over whether or not the “Ground Zero” mosque should ever see the light of day, O’Reilly caused co-hosts Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar to walk offstage mid-broadcast with five little incendiary words: “Muslims killed us on 9/11.” When head diva Barbara Walters responded by saying “I love my colleagues, but that should not have happened,” I am sure old Bill had trouble containing his glee.

Over the course of O’Reilly’s long career, I have witnessed this pattern over and again, the consistency of a practiced bully: keep yelling and poking until you hit the right nerve, then stand back and act befuddled, telling your adoring audience, “See, you can’t even have a conversation with these guys!” But why fix what isn’t broken? If nothing else, I admire the man’s PR savvy. After “The View” confrontation, that evening’s broadcast of “The O’Reilly Factor” welcomed over four million viewers, easily trouncing the competition at CNN, MSNBC and Headline News.

Joy and Whoopi played right into O’Reilly’s hand and all parties earned a couple of days of front and center media coverage. This is a page from the Fox host’s established playbook. However, I don’t believe the talking head was egomaniacal enough to predict that lightning would strike twice for him in the cultural zeitgeist this month. O’Reilly was nothing more than a fortunate bystander in last week’s blow up between NPR and longtime political analyst Juan Williams, and yet one can be certain that the incident created another occasion for the Fox News star to do the happy dance.

By now anyone who hasn’t been hiding in an underground bunker (a tantalizing prospect before next week’s midterm elections to be sure), has heard the famous exchange between Williams and O’Reilly that led to the former’s axe from liberal media stalwart National Public Radio:

“I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot,” Williams said. “But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.” To the suggestion that an expression of these views might be a bit, un-PC shall we say, Williams went on to state: “Look, political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don’t address reality.”

NPR did not wait long to act. In a tersely worded statement, the media giant called Williams a “valuable contributor” but said that his comments “were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.” And there you have it, right?

Wrong. In a turn of events that it is now certain NPR never predicted, the conglomerate began to take hits from all sides of the political and ideological spectrum. The axis of most of these potshots rotates around a single question: in this age of corporate media domination, a time of 24-hour viral spin, is there room left for free speech? For one moment, professionals of all stripes have been able to put aside the partisan spin to take an overdue look at the journalistic profession, a sector that has begun to have the kind of approval ratings that make members of Congress appear positively loveable by comparison.

The behemoth “liberal media” banner has taken so many punches lately from so many silos, I sincerely hope the vocation has given consideration to investing in one of the “Cadillac” health care plans that President Obama discussed last summer. Predictably, Fox News chief Roger Ailes, who has since offered the sacked Williams a job at the conservative outlet, labeled the analyst “an honest man whose freedom of speech is protected by Fox News on a daily basis.” One can hardly blame the network for its carpe diem approach to casting itself as the last bastion of the First Amendment, irritating as it may be.

However, more surprising was the response from left leaning publications like The Washington Post, which labeled the NPR imbroglio, “Williams’ Shirley Sherrod moment.” This reference to the former Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the USDA, who was unceremoniously dumped by the Department after a manipulative video produced by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart framed her as a racist, is pregnant with meaning.

While Juan Williams’ statements on “The O’Reilly Factor” may have been cringe worthy to a subset of the American audience, they were clearly offered as opinion, a reflection of the commentator’s own experience and internal struggles, rather than a journalistic conclusion. The point of the dialogue, which lovers of Western democracy claim they desire, was to facilitate a discussion about the visceral reactions associated with wearers of traditional Muslim garb onboard aircraft. While Williams’ comments may have been clumsily framed, they should not have been cause for dismissal. Was O’Reilly sacked for his blanketed, incendiary rhetoric on “The View?” Once we start firing people for sharing their fears openly, no matter how misinformed we might find them, we have entered a new era of McCarthyism.

And the association between NPR and intolerance may lead to expensive repercussions beyond the costs of image repair. As the Associated Press reports:

“In response to the firing, South Carolina Republican U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint planned to introduce legislation to end federal funding for NPR, his spokesman Wesley Denton said Thursday night. Denton said the senator would expand upon his proposal in a statement on Friday.”

In rejoinder to this bit of legislative opportunism, sometimes Republican lawmakers and full-time media whores Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee joined the braying chorus for NPR’s figurative head. Yes, the non-profit membership media organization acted hastily, and perhaps unfairly, in its handling of Juan Williams, but blatant cynicism on top of cynicism is clearly no solution at all.

There are, however, questions to answer. Many card carrying liberals are uncomfortable with the proximity of NPR’s recent intolerance of dissenting opinion to the “fair and balanced” right wing slant from which the media warhorse once sought to set itself apart.

Is This What We Were Sold? (October 9, 2010)

ThisIsWhatWeWereSoldSmallHeader

For the second time in a 10-year professional career, I find myself in the position of having to collect government cheese. By that I mean I have joined the ranks of the approximately 11 million people who currently collect some type of unemployment benefit. Every other week, like so many of my fellow Americans, I call-in or go online to “certify” that I am not a complacent, louse of a person content to rake in $275 a week before taxes, instead of looking for a gainful occupation. It is truly a dehumanizing ordeal, as has pretty much always been the case.

However 2010 is no ordinary year. We are now a full 24 months into an economic collapse of epic proportions. Through the use of some magic formula that millions of suffering and out of work Americans (including me) don’t comprehend, the unemployment rate has remained steady at 9.6% for several months. I think I speak for a lot of us when I declare that more than 9.6% of my inner circle are either looking for work, or have taken a job with ludicrously bad pay, hours and/or benefits simply because they have to survive. Be that as it may, we’ll go with 9.6% for now. Even those with jobs have lost their homes by the truck load, or are in the process of doing so, less fortunate than those so far “underwater,” owing to the rapid decline in home prices, that they can reasonably expect to be stuck in place for a decade or longer. It’s not pretty for members of the middle and lower classes, to end this paragraph with a gigantic understatement.

In fact upon reflection, there are many differences between my experience as a newly unemployed worker today versus October 2001, the last time I received a pink slip and an invitation to purchase ridiculously expensive COBRA health coverage. I am not saying that being handed my post-9/11 walking papers was easy, especially with no work experience outside the foundering travel industry. The two months it took me to find a new job were no doubt anxious times. Yes, I said TWO MONTHS. And I was 23 years-old. And the job I accepted paid more than the one I lost. Seriously, in this decade, can you imagine?

So with that in mind, for your reading pleasure and my need to make sense out of the current tailspin in which I find my career, I have prepared the following bulleted list of varying experiences as a person standing in the bread line, 2001 versus 2010.

  • 2001: Age – 23
  • 2010: Age – 32

I assume it goes without saying that this difference is more than just numbers. At 23 years of age, I was too dumb to be terrified after losing my first post-collegiate job. Not to mention I didn’t appreciate what I had. In a short time I had worked my way up from corporate travel agent at a large firm, to a communications coordinator role, which means I had the thankless task of being wined, dined and partied by ostentatious hotel representatives. I was routinely plied with free cocktails and comped luxury suites, for the favor of publicizing a particular chain’s “hot rate” in Salt Lake City via newsletter. When I was released with the freedom to “find myself,” I had the nerve to be relieved.

In 2010, I’ve lost a mind-numbingly stressful administrative management job, far from creatively satisfying and definitely minus the chi chi parties and fruity drinks. Oh, and I earned roughly the same as I did in the position I lost in 2001. Stagnant wages anyone?

  • 2001: Cause for Dismissal – Bottoming out of travel sector after 9/11 use of airplanes as weapons.
  • 2010: Cause for Dismissal – Disapproval of my outfit one day (or something equally arbitrary)

It’s certainly an employer’s world, isn’t it? I recall vividly the heady days of Summer 2000 when I posted my resume online, cobbled together from work “experience” at Bob Evans and an adult bookstore, sat back and relaxed. Interested employers came to me and in the end, my fresh out of college ass had more than one job offer to consider. When I was laid off, I knew it to be little more than bad timing in the wrong industry. I couldn’t take it personally, and as we have already concluded, I wasn’t worried in the least about finding another position.

But this time, it took me 11 months of constant hustling after leaving my previous employer to find a “good” job, and once earned, I found it nearly impossible to keep. As part of a two-person operation where the only other full-time employee, my boss, held all the power, I was sacked after enduring a half year’s worth of working lunches, late hours, ungodly deadlines and emotional blackmail that would have made Miranda Priestly, the uber bitch slave driver of The Devil Wears Prada, proud. It is telling the level of insecurity with which I view my future prospects that I still burst into tears upon learning I was being “transitioned.” Instead I should have been sashaying out of the building, vacation pay firmly in hand to put toward the cost of therapy.

  • 2001: Method of unemployment claim filing – Analog paper and pen at the offices of the Illinois Department of Employment Security
  • 2010: Method of unemployment filing – Internet(?)

How relieved I was to learn that government bureaucracy had entered the digital age. I could sit at home indulging in a major depressive episode with unwashed hair and a wicked case of acne, escaping the thick film of sadness that clings my body after each trip to IDES. Online avoidance contained mass appeal for me.

Yet when I received a letter two days after filing my web application, stating that I was “ineligible” for benefits because my employer had yet to report third quarter payroll to the State, I felt horrifically duped. Why had I fallen through the obviously naive trap door? The government, efficient and easy for taxpayers? The hell you say! Of course I had to go and stand in a 90-minute line, cloaked in that familiar and desperate sadness that only a 30 year-old dimly lit building can provide. Now I must hope and pray that the check stubs I submitted as evidence of my work from July 1 to October 13 will be deemed acceptable to the unemployment gods.

I could go on with my little exercise, but you get the idea. Times have changed. But beyond using the space of this page to pander to my personal need for a pity party, what exactly is the point?

The answer is simply another question. Why? Why have all the rules changed? Why is it no longer enough to obtain a higher education, amass a solid work history, and attempt to play by the rules? And most of all, why do we sit around complacently and act like it’s out of our hands?