The Strength of the Union

DDIn last night’s State of the Union speech, Machiavelli and modern video would both have embraced the hope and pain, and the courage, in the eyes of a mother and wife desperate to save her new family home after working all her life and losing her job; her clap tapped out a determination of her resolute strength. The video framed the misty-eyed look of thankfulness of a mother whose surgery was insured just days before her emergency, and the proud shoulders of a business owner who stood because he raised his employee’s wages. It captured the deer-in-the-headlights group grimace of the Republican Caucus, embarrassed and sullen, when called out for “stale arguments” and 47 votes to repeal health care.

These images deeply touched hearts and souls—and revealed our political divide. Large and small, the pictures were unvarnished snapshots of our republic, its pain and promise.

Among this tangle of images, the President’s words found the ridge line, the high ground on either side of the valleys, that long, undulating strip that unites and traverses both; the difficult terrain that any hiker of ridge lines knows, though politicians often seem to miss its trail markers.

The President’s lofty words weren’t the cause of the applause. The noisy agreement came from his presentation of irrefutable examples and facts and the vision of his ideas—his presentation of the solid record of his successes we so rarely hear from him. His speech connected how policy and politics touch the lives of our neighbors and friends. He triumphantly defied Republicans to show how eliminating “big government” would save the small things that government provides that aid in bringing about success.

The alteration of small and large has led to higher graduation rates, 8 million new jobs, ending war, and moving the country toward self-sufficiency in energy.

The mention of a key three—a barkeep’s son, a factory worker’s daughter, a single mother’s son—offered another set of personal stories to show the length and breath of American opportunity. The inclusion of the barkeep’s son reminded us of the President’s graciousness—and Machiavelli’s axiom. Continue reading The Strength of the Union

A State of the Union Address Filled with Common Sense

My first college course in anthropology instilled in me a profound appreciation for best practices. It’s been a personal mission to uncover the best ideas and chart how they work, identifying their structures and functions. One discovery has been that even bad ideas can work well. It sounds strange, but the success of an idea often has nothing to do with its truth or level of insight. Its power and influence has more to do with its context and how it functions with other assumptions and tasks.

We would all prefer strong ideas that work well. Alaska’s Iditarod grips my imagination most winters, more than the State of the Union. The long distance grit of lead dogs Andy, Larry, and Granite guiding teams through 50-50-50s—winds 50 miles an hour, temperatures 50 degrees below, with visibility less than 50 feet—across wilderness and glaciers is a test of endurance rarely seen in politics. And the Iditarod offers equal opportunity. Susan Butcher won three in a row and four out of five between 1986 and 1990, and once had two dogs killed mid-race by a pregnant moose.

Last night’s State of the Union had Speaker Boehner making pregnant moose faces; his uncomfortableness with the President’s proposals was obvious—but was it a bad idea that served, from Boehner’s view, a good intent? Did it function to keep the GOP brand alive, apart from the pockets of craziness where they are winning elections, winning not really based on their platform of budgets (most states have laws that require balanced budgets), but more on hot button issues like immigration and race, or winning in one-party states out west?

The President, often criticized as a poor team player, continued to prove he is an effective leader (Susan Butcher’s dog Granite suffered from the same criticism!) with good ideas.  He has also proven he can outrun the lumbering herds of opponents who have not adapted to the new environment and are using outmoded best practices.

The silent test of last night’s State of the Union was to outflank Ronald Reagan. Even President Obama has described Reagan as someone who reset the arc in America’s politics. Yet we forget the circumstances of that reset. Reagan created the meme that all of the problems of society were created by government excess. But what were the problems?

Women pushing for access to opportunity and self-determination, blacks refusing to be exploited, physically intimidated or discriminated against; massive resistance to corporate interests; food purchased from the bins of co-ops rather than on sale in plastic packages and cans stocked by chains. Reagan realized that the government protected those actions and had played a major part in expanding these rights. He coined the idea that government “created” these problems and caused the disturbing sight of school kids being bused and women deciding about pregnancy, and colleges graduating more critical thinkers who challenged the system and the status quo. The government didn’t reflect the will of the people, the people reflected the will of the now all-powerful government. But without the help of government, the gains of the people probably couldn’t be sustained.

In Reagan’s view, stop government, stop the advance of the people. He couldn’t sell an attack against the people—couldn’t demagogue blacks, women, youth as the problem (which for conservatives, they were!)—so he brilliantly assigned blame to government and used exaggerated stereotypes to knock it down. The welfare queen and other non-existent stories were repeated until the bad idea of government’s bad ideas became the Republican best practice for winning elections. Even Reagan’s ideology of cutting taxes to provide greater wealth to the rich didn’t happen during his administration, but the idea survived and is the basis of Republican policy today.

Despite widespread thinking that liberalism (again a code word for blacks, women and youth, packaged as “growing government”) was dead, Barack Obama somehow made it through and revived it in his first term. No matter; the new GOP plan was to blame his success and go after the old groups with a vengeance. If the stimulus succeeded, blame Obama for its size. If the economy recovered, blame entitlements, loudly arguing it could be even better without them. Turn obstruction into patriotism. Sprinkle the discussion with a little of the sour sickness of race—always heretofore cured by blaming the victim. Continue reading A State of the Union Address Filled with Common Sense

Dems and GOP to Also Mix at SOTU After-Party

After a week which has seen a flurry of activity on Capitol Hill in which members of Congress have scrambled to secure the most attractive and prestigious dates for Tuesday’s State of the Union Address, leaders of both parties announced on Monday that the celebration of bipartisanship would continue throughout the rest of the evening — namely extending to the traditional gathering which always follows the more formal festivities, or as it is known among Capitol insiders, “The Kegger”.

At a Monday night joint press conference, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell joined forces to emphasize that this year’s parties, normally held separately by senior members of both the Democrats and Republicans at cheap roadside motels in the DC area, would be combined into, “The Kegger to end all Keggers.”  They also provided a word of warning to junior members of both houses regardless of affiliation, with McConnell saying, “So long as you’re cool, you’re welcome.  I think you all know who you are, but just to clarify — if you show up tomorrow night with a freshman whose name is not Marco Rubio, don’t bother trying to get in.”

Ms. Pelosi further added, “Formal invitations shouldn’t be necessary — I think pretty much everybody’s clear on who sits at the best tables in the cafeteria and who hangs out with who, and where, during recesses.”

Mr. Rubio, the popular new freshman senator from Florida, has impressed many of his colleagues with his ability to reach across the aisle, dealing equally well with members of both the Republican and Tea parties.  In what is regarded as a major coup, senior Florida Senator Bill Nelson landed Rubio as his date for the evening. Continue reading Dems and GOP to Also Mix at SOTU After-Party