Cuba Libre!

Our policy against Cuba has always been one of those issues that gets me into fits. I start ranting, my head begins to ache, and I get lost in a morass of incomprehensibility, because the policy is incomprehensible.

But yesterday I was liberated from that.

Now if someone can only end the war on drugs; and explain to me how financing stadiums helps cities.

I agree, of course, that the Cuban state has been poisonous; it has also been at war. But no matter how one thinks of Castro’s legacy, the embargo was not successful, and it was only internal American politics that stalled our ability to move forward.

That the Vatican was essential to the reestablishment of diplomatic relations illustrates how the church can use its power well. The church has always had a useful diplomatic role to play; it is different because it does not have an army, and like most organizations with a degree of moral heft, it can be ignored. It also has built up relationships over a longer period of time than most states. Granted, it makes choices the way any other institution makes choices, but because its stakeholders are different, it’s perspective is valuable. Although I disagree with the Vatican on almost everything they say, in particular, about sex, in the role of encouraging people to collaborate and work together, I’m glad to see how it’s doing the work.

I’m ready to book my trip.

Why Obama’s Conservatism Will Cost Him The Election

Obama’s tried.  He’s negotiated with the opposition, attempted to assess all the factors and bring in the stakeholders.  But if he agrees to the budget cuts that the Republicans are proposing, he will lose the 2012 election.

Obama should recognize that the fantasy of “cut and grow” simply doesn’t hold.   Even capitalists don’t believe it.  In fact, in the Goldman study cited, the budget cuts would further contract the economy.    What Republicans are betting on is a win-win strategy for them:  keep talking about deficits; if Obama blinks, he strangles the economy.  Then the Republicans and blame him for his economic mismanagement.    They know that balancing the budget and stimulating the economy can’t be done together.  Guess which policy actually wins elections.

Obama should refuse to play the deficit cutting game.  What is on the horizon, alas, is steep price increases.  Republicans will argue that this has to do with the deficit, when it has everything to do with supply and demand.     Yet, if he doesn’t create jobs, there will be rising food and oil prices, and a more dissatisfied populace, who will be more likely to give bad economic policies a try in a different president (although, personally, I think Huckabee is more likely to have the populist capital to actually raise taxes).

So by 2012 Obama may do what the Republicans want him to do: cut the budget, thereby diminishing the economy – ensuring he becomes a one term president.   He has an alternative:  focus on jobs; and do what Harold Washington did when the aldermen talked smack about his leadership.  Visit them in their home state and tell the people directly what he can do for them.  In this way he challenges Republicans on their home turf; instructs the population how supply and demand really work; and begins his campaign for reelection.

No Labels

As someone who has often claimed unusual monikers to describe my political persuasion, I’m fascinated by this week’s gathering of a number of politicians and thinkers I respect.  I respect them not because I agree with their political ideology, but because most of them are effective leaders.   They understand power, are committed to the common good, and recognize that ideology isn’t the way to get work done.

But I admit a little puzzlement.   Our current president comes from this set of people.  He compromises.   He takes ideas from different groups.  There seems to be some serious misinformation that President Obama is a partisan, a socialist, a “left winger.” The opposite seems to be the case:  he is a moderate who works with organized power, caught in the middle of a policy fights where there is no serious organized “left-wing.”

I am also confused by the complaint we need a new moderate party.    But moderation seems to be less a set of ideas than a description of a certain sort of person.  Radicals can become practical when necessary; Reactionaries can accept modest changes.    If were actually looking for moderate ideas, our current president embodies it, to everyone’s dissatisfaction.

What we really need is a party that represents the interests – the real interests – of the working and middle class.   Unfortunately, the Democrats have abdicated this role by taking money from Wall Street.  And their supporters – trial lawyers, teachers, unions, African Americans and Latinos – are poor at relationship based organizing.

There is a multi-million dollar industry of not-for-profits, churches, social welfare institutions and schools that have lost their independence from both governments and large corporations.  Progressives who might work for a more responsive democracy entered these institutions, losing their ability to actually build long-term power organizations that could put pressure on the government or businesses.   They do good work, but they are fragmented and ineffective.

The institutions that did not want effective government, who found environmental, civil rights, and workplace regulations arduous have funded, for the last 40 years, a highly sophisticated network that has diminished the power of smaller democratic, people led institutions such as the church.

We may need another party.  But it needs to be a party that is responsive to the great majority of people, and isn’t too timid to defend those interests.   It may look like a labor or socialist party in another country, but I suspect it would be different because Americans have less instinctive class resentment and tend to prize individualism.   But we do have an interest in good schools, a reliable infrastructure, and insurance programs that mitigate the precarity of everyday life.

We definitely need more people who care about the common good.  But we also need organizers who can build relationships with institutions apart from government or business, and a party that can truly represent those interests in the halls of congress.

But if this movement can identify those Republicans and Conservatives who seek to serve the common good rather than destroy it, may it thrive.

Fighting the War in Afghanistan

After WWI, my grandfather was placed in an area of the British Empire called “The Northern Frontier.”  It’s on the border of what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Then, as now, the empires – in this case Russia and England – were engaged in a rivalry known then as “The Great Game.”

The British had been suspicious that Russia would invade India through Afghanistan.  Russia wanted to dominate the continent the way Americans believed in “manifest destiny.” It resulted in a century long conflict between Russia and England that ended only during WWII.

My grandfather knew that the Tribal soldiers he encountered were some of the most fierce and courageous men he would ever fight.  He also knew of them as charitable hosts.

One evening he stumbled upon a camp.  There were several Afghan soldiers drinking tea around a fire; he was one.  They saw him and stood as he appeared out of thin air.  There was no question that if he pulled out his revolver, he would come out on the losing side.

Captain Ray (pronounced “Rai”) simply said, in Pashtun, “I’ve been hoping to find you.”  Best to treat the enemy as a friend.  Why don’t you sit down with us, they said.  Apparently, my grandfather apparently had a winning smile and a generous charism, so he spent the next couple days getting to know his enemies.

At the end, they led him safely back to his camp.  When the second world war ended, they would visit the house on Parliament Street with nuts and dates.  Apparently, they came by bicycle.  Enemies once, friends forever.

War offers a clarity that is exhilarating and profound – even sacred.  But it is the task of the gospel to shatter that clarity, to reveal the hidden interests, to expose war’s banality, to desacralize the chants and the cheers that send us into the battle.  The gospel reveals it all:  the marks of heroism, the reality of cowardice, the needless misery, the fruitlessness of honor and pride.  The gospel says, you’re really surprised that our friends are funding our enemies? You really think that the president will save us?  You really believe that this war will lead us mutual admiration and respectability?  Do you really think that the “best and the brightest” are made of a different character than the rest of us? You really think that if we leave we won’t still bear the consequences?  Really?  I’ve got news for you…

And this is the gospel truth:  as we demonize our enemies, we become more like them.  Yes – let us fight the glorious battle, but our armor of righteousness cannot be based on our moral superiority, but instead in our mutual humanity.

When we fight these wars, the gospel reminds us that we battle as sinners in need of redemption, not as heroes desperate for vindication.

Learning to Obey the Law

Over the last year, most progressives have disparagingly noted the Obama’s administration to defend Bush’s wiretapping policies in court.  It’s disappointing; it seems to reveal Obama’s flexibility about issues that most civil libertarians hold dear.  But I suggest there is an upside.

By defending, and losing, Obama’s placing the executive branch within the bounds of law.

Bush’s administration tried to circumvent the law.  It’s view of the executive was high; it went where it wished because it’s task, theoretically protecting Americans, was deemed more important than process. The law was inconvenient:   if it lost a case, it would just find another way of maneuvering around the pesky intrusions of the judiciary.

Losing, however, establishes an important precedent:  it allows Obama to set an example of obeying the law against his will.   This establishes a precedent of losing with integrity.  And that benefits the country because it curtails executive power more assuredly than if he had just withdrawn the cases.

Issuing an executive order to switch gears, while laudable, would have simply signified that the executive’s priorities had changed.  It would not have done the more important work of actually exemplifying how an executive should behave.    Executives can push.  They can win.  And they can lose.  It’s important that when they lose, they obey the law.

The Bush years were marked by a radical, revolutionary, disregard for the law.  If anything, this is why he disenfranchised paleoconservatives and Republican moderates.   By Obama fighting for Bush’s policies he may have done a more interesting thing:  demonstrate their illegality.  Not merely because he thought they were illegal.  But because the judges said so.    It had to defend them as best as could be defended; they had to make some process changes as well.   But by fighting and losing, they can more credibly go other directions, with greater executive capital, and a public opportunity to demonstrate restraint.

And that’s a virtue that last administration never had.

On Obama’s Conservatism

Obama was able to do what no president has been able to do since Teddy Roosevelt tried a hundred years ago.

He succeeded because he’s a conservative.

Against what many people claim, Obama is far more institutionally conservative than most progressives.  He works within institutions.  He build relationships.  He is skeptical about broad ideological claims.   He understands the nature of personal power.  It’s in his community organizing background.  It’s also a traditional part of conservative thinking.

He didn’t impose a plan.  The plan came from congress; it was developed in committee.  He appropriated some of the policies from Republicans.  The plan created was politically moderate, imposing modest restrictions upon various parties.  Everyone had to give.  It was written after every stakeholder had its say.

Obama was patient.  He was more patient than the left, who wants everything immediately.  His patience allowed the Republican party, alas, to dissemble.  They could not offer a coherent plan, and the foot soldiers were revealed to also be incoherent, if not also adolescent and racist.  Their claims were often imaginary, the hyperbolic product of resentment and fear.  Obama’s patience – a conservative trait – exposed the opposing side to be uninterested in serious matters of policy.

Obama was also strategic.  Republicans are right to note that the proposal, as is, is probably a bit inaccurate when it comes to future costs.  There will have to be more government involvement to manage the competing claims of the various parties involved.  They are also going to have to confront the fact that plenty of their constituents – registered Republicans – will benefit from broader health care, especially lower-middle class race populists.

I think it is relevant that a black president passed this reform.  This reform will especially impact poor Americans, both black and white.  They will be indebted to this bill.  It is a very practical way, especially, our government can diminish the impact of racism.

Yes, Obama may be more sympathetic to the progressive cause.  But his success is not because he’s a progressive.  His success is because he’s a conservative.  He is not motivated by ideology or political correctness.  He moves once he has built relationships with people who represent institutions.  This will irritate both liberals and race-populists.  But it is why he is successful.

If more progressives were as conservative as Obama, they’d have a lot more success.

A year after the inauguration

From 2009

Like the two million people who went to the inauguration, I’m captivated by the change in administration.

Although my personal politics are *ahem* non-partisan, or “Red Tory,” I think that Obama has demonstrated – even apart from his political slant – sophisticated and agile leadership. The most important evidence is his ability to stay connected to people who think differently. He is motivated by curiosity and a sense that everyone has a view worth sharing.

I share some interests with our President. I moved to Chicago in 1992 for because Chicago was where community organizing was part of the Divinity School curriculum. The city’s physical landscape was organized around neighborhoods. In 1982 it elected Harold Washington, who some think was one of the truly great politicians of all time – a man who combined realism with idealism in a way that transformed Chicago. At the time, I was fascinated by the city more than New York.

The university itself was also the center of rigorous conservative thought. It avoided an instinctive leftish position but was rigorous and fair, generally unimpressed by identity politics. Obama’s teaching at Chicago was a time when he would have been connected to both social action, politics, and conservative thought that would help ground his ability to look at the world in complicated ways. I think this is a worthy gift – being able to see the world through many different lenses.

He inherits a challenge. Yet, our role is not to assent without understanding, to idealize without reflecting, or to worship. We must still organize ourselves as witnesses to love in the world, speak truth to power, and hold up a mirror to our leaders, holding them accountable for their actions. We can do so by remaining magnanimous and remembering the cardinal rule of organizing: there are no permanent enemies. Which is another way of saying, “love your neighbor.”

Better than Nothing

Senate Democrats on Monday evening dropped a plan to expand Medicare, winning the support of moderates and the reluctant acquiescence of liberals, in another major step toward building enough support to pass a health-care overhaul.

It’s better than nothing.

Nate: Yes, it is.

Rev. Currie disagrees

Quote of the day: Socially transformative legislation doesn’t happen at once. It evolves. Obama takes the long view.

Revealed: why Lieberman opposed expanding medicare – Liberals supported it.

Obama Wins the Peace Prize

I told a friend that he had won.

He said, with a brightness in his voice, “cool. What for?”

I said, “Yeah, exactly.” In fact, that’s kind of what Obama said.

A few think that this shows how meaningless the prize is. After all, the prize survived Arafat and Kissenger. Other conservatives are infuriated. If Obama were walking on water, Michelle Malkin would complain that he couldn’t swim. She suggests that he refuse the prize. Why? He can use the money for some good, and it shows respect the Nobel Committee. Further, that he won is a source of pride for all American Citizens. Besides, if he refused he’d be accused of being a pacifist.

I was also perplexed. Contrary to what most conservatives think, Obama’s not exactly a peace-nik. He’s not taken on the Military-Industrial complex, except in its most egregious forms. He hasn’t pulled out of Iraq, and is probably going to increase troops in Afghanistan.

What he has done is move from an ideological liberalism/neoconservatism that framed Bush’s foreign policy to a pragmatic realist position. Ironically, what Bush showed the world is that a liberal world order can not be achieved through military force.

Winning the Nobel Peace Prize does not mean Obama has been anointed to solve the world’s problems. It says more about how the committee has reflected the world’s optimism now that he is president. We should congratulate him.