Nation-Building is a Team Sport
…So did President Obama describe the state of the union facing Americans as they recover from the near economic disaster that’s called the great recession, and prepare to decide whom to trust with the reins of government for the next four years. It was a well-crafted and effectively delivered speech. Partisans on both sides of the congressional aisle agree it was a tone-setting 2012 campaign speech. Over the next nine months, you and I will have to decide whether the president’s policy reform agenda is worthy of our support. Or whether we are willing to trust Republicans like Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich and a party with a very different policy record to which they promise to return.
I am a veteran of President Reagan’s Republican approach to nation-building. With very few exceptions, the foundations for policy change in domestic and foreign policy were laid by presidential leadership and the congressional leader response of both parties. Efforts to strengthen the economy and build the defense system’s capacity to end the bi-polar conflict with the Soviet Union were bi-partisan. Government programs were cut, but government spending increased. Taxes were cut, taxes were raised, and income tax policy was reformed. Entitlement programs like Social Security were saved by increasing taxes and the age of eligibility. Medicare spending was reduced by hospital price regulation and privatization and the benefit structure was reformed.
The Republican Vow To Make Barack Obama a One-Term President
As the president pointed out in his state of the union speech, he inherited two wars he didn’t support and an economic collapse that had already cost Americans 4 million jobs before he took office, and another 4 million before he and his congressional majority could staunch the flow. Without any support from congressional Republicans whose Senate leader famously swore that “our principal goal is to make Barack Obama a one-term president.”
Everything the Republicans have done since seems dedicated to that cause. Even though you have overwhelmingly voiced your disapproval of the tone-deaf polarization in Washington, the Republican presidential primary debates are all the evidence you need that bi-partisanship works only on their terms. Congressman Brad Sherman (R-CA) says it well: “We’re within nine and a half months of the country telling us whether to honor the instructions they gave us in 2008 or the ones they gave us in 2010.”
A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats
A popular description from the Reagan years of how a healthy economy, not government, can make everyone better off. But the Reagan experience reminds us, as President Obama did this week, that changing the role of government is more important to changing the economy than giving free rein, tax cuts, and deregulation to businesses that are unwilling to play by the same rules as everyone else.
We Americans are all in this together. We deserve to share in the success of working together toward shared goals. But how do we set those goals in a political system divided by partisans and ideologues and wealthy Super PACs? Someone has to show the way. It’s called “leadership.” In America, that task is the president’s because he’s elected to represent the country, not the state or regional interests of a federal system of representation. To represent America as a united country in the world of nations.
The party leaders of the Senate and the House have the responsibility for showing us how best to achieve these national goals. That’s how we built the capacity during the Reagan and Bush 41 years for the economic recovery of the Clinton years. Newt Gingrich deserves no special credit for this achievement. Until his ascendancy to power in the House, it was bi-partisan congressional policy reform in health, energy, the environment, trade, tax and entitlement policy – many of the policies about which President Obama spoke this week – that did the nation-building the country needed.
The Unique Case of Health Policy Reform – Obamacare
Analysts are asking why, in a state of the union speech loaded with policy reform designed to restore a uniquely American economy, was there no mention of what supporters and detractors have agreed to call Obamacare? Economists can agree that a national economy which commits twice as much to paying for worker and retiree health care as all of its competitors, without a value return, cannot compete in tomorrow’s global marketplace.
The national health goals and the financing, payment and accountability policies in Obamacare were designed to change that. They were agreed on and written over the years since the failure of Clinton reform by Republicans and Democrats in Congress. It was bi-partisan policy, supported by many leaders of the health business and professions.
The environment in which Obamacare became law in 2010 cast doubt on its credibility. There were no bi-partisan Republicans. Since August 2009, Republicans have dedicated themselves to making Obamacare a pejorative by which to defeat real health care reform and the president who made the tough “now or never” decision.
The rationale for the new law’s policy reforms can be found in health care leadership, in health care and medical system professionals. It can be found in the leadership of some of our largest health insurance companies who know from experience what it takes to improve health and reduce cost. Not a one of these leaders wants to be made a political pawn in a senseless battle in the campaign for the presidency and control of the congress. So you don’t hear from them.
The mystery, from the date of passage in March 2010, is why don’t we hear from the champion of change we can believe in? I don’t know the answer to that – and nobody I know who has to work hard to implement the law, and call on others in states across the country to help do so, knows the answer. That, in itself, casts doubt on the value of what could be a priceless piece of bi-partisan policy.
A Republican President Will Not Repeal Obamacare . . . Sen Norm Coleman (R-MN)
In a Sunday television interview, former MN Senator and close Romney adviser Norm Coleman said a Republican president “will not repeal the new law in its entirety.” Some of it will have to be replaced as too costly he said, but repeal is impractical. The Romney campaign immediately announced that Romney is totally committed to repeal. Or, as Romney said in the Florida debate: “What I will do if I’m president, I will repeal Obamacare and return to states the authority and the rights to craft their own programs to care for their poor.”
The Real Deal – Or – Just Another Newt
Real Republicans are scratching their heads over the new Republican voters. People who helped them “shellack” Democrats across the country in 2010 have now spent six months analyzing presidential candidates. And their choice may not be the real Republicans’ candidate at all. It might be “Mr. Speaker” – the man from Georgia who has been a Republican a lot longer than Mitt Romney and is clearly not the choice of those who know him best from his 33 years in Washington, D.C.
Is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for real as a presidential candidate? You betcha. And he’s doing it with a demonstrated lack of prudent judgment and moral character that would disqualify him for consideration in any election but this. So he’s got to be good. Why real? Because we have a different Republican audience this year. Newt can read an audience like no politician in America. He has a chameleon’s skill at marketing himself to the moment. Drawing on a mind for facts and figures, an imagination that translates what you are saying into what he wants you to hear, and an ego that doesn’t register error. Michael Gerson in the Washington Post hits Newt’s nail on the head.
All Newt needed was a chance to contrast himself with the other candidates. That didn’t come until the field narrowed and the primary voting began. After South Carolina, it’s simply Newt v. Mitt. The media heat and the need for money is so strong right now, that Santorum must follow Perry out the back door leaving Ron Paul to play the Republican Ralph Nader role. That’s the way the campaign to unseat President Obama will go – on into the spring.
What Newt’s Got That Romney Does Not
Newt’s a hot speaker. Both of them are in the $40,000 per speech category (compared to Bill Clinton’s $100,000). But Mitt doesn’t need the money and doesn’t seem to think it’s all that important. Here’s what one audience member at a trade association meeting says of Newt: “He was great. Everyone had fun. He gave us lots of time.” What more can a DC-based trade association ask for in a speaker that he be a crowd-pleaser?
Newt ‘s connected. This is the “lobbyist” thing they’re debating. Every lobbyist in D.C. knows Newt gets called on to help out his GOP leader successors when they’re in a pinch. Like when he was called in to lecture a caucus of conservative GOP House members to support the big-spending Medicare Prescription Drug bill in 2003 and came out having made a sale contingent on adding Health Savings Accounts – which certain of Newt’s Transformation Center clients wanted. Ask yourself why health care business interests would pay anyone $55 million over 2001-10 “to visit with a really important guy who really knows a lot,” quoting the Newt himself.
Plus, like a number of other former members who do not register as lobbyists, he is active in raising money for, contributing to and talking policy with elected reps and candidates.
Newt ’s bi-partisan. Actually, he’s not in fact, but that makes him an attractive buy for groups who can get him to co-endorse with Nancy Pelosi, Al Sharpton or Hillary Clinton.
Newt’s his own nonprofit private equity firm. Starting with the Progress and Freedom Foundation he created on his ascendancy to the speakership in 1995, Newt has made it a practice to take advantage of the perception that D.C. interest groups have that helping power will also help their interests.
Newt’s opinions on health care get considered. Lobbyists for organizations with membership in Newt’s Health Care Transformation Center use position papers, crafted by the center with attribution to Newt, to influence members and people like me who respect Newt’s knowledge of health policy.
Presidential candidate Rick Santorum says of his buddy Newt: “He has grandiose ideas, incoherent thoughts and no discipline.” Will Rick last long enough to help Romney prove that?
Is There an Alternative to Mitt V. Newt?
Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana proved once again in the Republican response to the president this week that he is. He always has been, but his family was more important a year ago, and must be today as well. Former Governor Jeb Bush of Florida has it in him to run for president. But he’s ineligible this time because his brother is being blamed for a lot of the spending problems and the financial industry problems that anger the Republican right. Former MN Governor Tim Pawlenty is solid for Romney and N.J. Governor Chris Christie is anxiously reading the GOP national base right now and preferring N.J.
Who Are These Republican Voters ?
Theda Skocpol is a chaired professor of government and sociology at Harvard who has long written on health policy. She recently teamed with a Ph.D candidate at Harvard named Vanessa Williamson to produce a most readable book on the Tea Party called The Remaking of Republican Conservatism.
In a nutshell, their research shows that these “new” Republican voters, like the Utahans who threw conservative Republican U.S. Senator Bob Bennett out of office and threaten to do the same to Senator Orrin Hatch, believe that Barack Obama is the face of a future they fear. They are predominantly older, white, educated, well-off, evangelical Christian Americans who believe that government income re-distribution policies favor people not at all like them. And that the growing sum of our national dependence on undeserved income substitution is endangering the economic futures of Americans like them and their children.
Exit polling of South Carolina primary voters also sums up why it is that a Newt Gingrich stands a chance to be their standard bearer. Just about half the voters said their choice for president on the Republican ticket is the person best able “to beat Obama.” In second and third place at 23% and 19% are experience and moral character. Can you believe these people capable of understanding what it takes to be president? Can you believe that Mitt Romney’s going to be able to elevate experience and character enough to win the endorsement battle?
David Brooks opines in the New York Times: “I wonder if the Republican Party has become the receding roar of white America as it pines for a way of life that will never return.”
The Republican Party ‘Shade Tree’ Problem
A friend likens the Republican voter base of 2010-12, as reflected in the Republican House of Representatives and in every one of the GOP candidates for president this year, to a shade tree. This Republican tree casts its shadow over everyone who carries a Republican label to the polls in 2012.
That may be good in the old confederacy and the mountain west, but not in the states that President Obama is likely to need most to nail down the Electoral College vote. As of today, he has at least 240 electoral votes; enough to win. Republicans can get the demographic edge by strengthening their political edge. They’re not doing a very good job of that right now.
How Much Does It Really Matter?
In 2012, Republican leaders and Republican voters and their billionaire Super PACs will get just what they’ve been asking for with their polarizing “party of NO attitude” nationally and in states like Minnesota. The message of the first Florida debate and the primary is simple: Mitt Romney can’t take it to Barack Obama, and Newt Gingrich is much too complicated and unpredictable to inspire the confidence we need in our president. The rest of Florida, and the rest of the country, will begin to focus on what we might expect from President Obama in 2013. And how this election experience affects both parties in the future.
Former Wyoming Republican Senator and classmate Alan Simpson of Bowles-Simpson debt-reduction commission fame says President Obama can credibly argue that he sought a balanced plan of spending cuts and tax increases, while Congressional Republicans would not. Simpson believes if and when Obama is re-elected, Republicans “will realize they spent four years in one noble cause, which was to defeat him. And they didn’t, which makes them easier to negotiate with in a second term.”
Steve Bell, long-time budget adviser to former Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) says that “if you really look at the issue of fiscal restraint and deficit reduction, the president has been much more in the center.” Bell argues that Republican behavior on fiscal issues is making the case for the president in this campaign.
Readings in Contemporary Policy And Politics
My holiday gifts included the following: Buckley by Roger Williams University Law Professor Carl T. Bogus. For an old-fashioned conservative like me, the book is an insightful journey through contemporary American conservative thinking/politics and its foundations and expressions (as in current Republican politics). Tom Brokaw’s The Time of our Lives reminds us why polarizing politics is for real, but isn’t really who we are. It’s “our moral muscles, our service muscles, and our sacrifice muscles that we need to exercise,” according to Brokaw.
Worried about the impact of campaign politics on federal spending and the national debt? While we concern ourselves with entitlement reform, what do we do to reform our entitlement attitude toward national security spending? Top Secret: The Rise of the New American Security State by award-winning Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin is a well-researched analysis of our national reaction to 9-11-01. It also answers the question: Why is Washington, D.C., the fastest growing city in America?
With all that investment in security, there is little in improving executive decision-making. Blink of an Eye, by my former Senate colleague Bill Cohen, is “a gripping tale of intrigue” according to Cohen’s former boss, Pres. Bill Clinton. From a true insider’s view of presidential decision-making, Cohen takes us to the edge of a nuclear war aimed at Iran with a believable surprise ending. And if you want more, there is The Increment by David Ignatius, a novel of the Iran War built on the foundations of the Iraq War by one of the best national security reporters in the business.