I thought this bit of journalistic playfulness was worth pausing over. The Illinois Supreme Court ruled this afternoon that the Chicago Board of Election Commissions cease printing ballots without Rahm Emanuel’s name on them. The NY Times piece on this ruling (here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/26/us/politics/26rahm.html?_r=1&hp) included this:

“By noon, 300,000 ballots without his name had been finished when the Supreme Court issued its order that no ballots should be printed without his name. “We absolutely called the printers and said, ‘stop the presses,’ ” Jim Allen, a spokesman for Chicago’s Board of Election Commissioners, recounted not long after.”

He’s a spokesman for the Board of Election Commissions, and he recounted this information. Nice.

I was watching Bill O’Reilly yesterday, and was struck by something in his daily “Talking Points” piece (http://video.foxnews.com/v/4492969/when-law-enforcement-goes-political/). The title of yesterday’s was “When Law Enforcement Goes Political.” O’Reilly showed video of Sheriff Dubnik talking about how right-wing rhetoric had contributed to Saturday’s spree killings in Tucson. O’Reilly’s point was that, as an elected law enforcement officer, it was inappropriate for Dubnik to venture into these political waters. So far, so good. I completely agree with O’Reilly on that point. I think Dubnik was out of line expressing those views, especially in a public way.

Here’s the crazy part, though. Immediately after he was through with the Talking Points, O’Reilly brought on Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County. Consistent with Sheriff Arpaio’s high-profile reputation, O’Reilly characterized him as “180 degrees opposite of Sheriff Dubnik” and “as conservative as Dubnik is liberal.” Perhaps not verbatim quotes, but very very close. And just how does O’Reilly know this? Only one way: Arpaio does exactly the same thing that Dubnik now is doing: using the media to espouse his political views. Arpaio has been doing this incessantly for years.

What a profound double standard. Dubnik is attacked as an example of law enforcement “going political,” and here the most politically-charged sheriff in Arizona — and arguably in the nation; outside of my own county, I could not begin to name a single other sheriff from anywhere — is used to emphasize the point.

I wish this were astonishing.

Almost from the moment of the Tucson shootings, we have been hearing a stream of reporting along the lines of: “While it appears the shooter had indications of mental illness and nothing connects him to any extremist rhetoric,…” — pause — “we are going to latch onto this story as a platform from which to discuss extreme political rhetoric anyway.”

This isn’t just silly, it is dangerous. We do have segments of our political class who use virulent rhetoric to achieve political ends. Whether the media gives such messages a pass, under free speech considerations or otherwise, or the media condemns it as reprehensible, the result is the same. Rhetoric requires attention to be powerful, and either way the corrosive speakers gain their desired power.

There is a particularly raw example going around the past couple of days, the now-infamous political map issued by Sarah Palin, identifying vulnerable House Democrats in swing districts, using an unfortunate “cross hairs” graphic. What interests me most is the reaction of the anti-Palin forces who, in the wake of the Tucson shootings, have decried Palin’s map as a prime example of this sort of violence-inciting rhetoric. I ask myself, are there people who really think the intent of this map was to incite people to pick up a gun and assassinate Democratic candidates?

I can list all sorts of reasons not to believe this. Right at the top of the list is the obvious reality that nothing would be more politically counterproductive. Think how potent a political force sympathy for Rep. Giffords will be going forward, just as it would have been for, God forbid, her Democratic successor. Killing — literally killing — one’s political opponents is not a recipe for majority electoral success.

Beyond that, there are these truths. The very term “cross-hairs” is widely used as a metaphor. Here is an article from the NY Times just this past November, headlined, “Corporate Lawyers in the Cross Hairs” (http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2010/11/11/putting-lawyers-in-the-cross-hairs/). Was the NY Times reporting that snipers had taken up residence in various corporate boardrooms, their gun sights trained on the corporate lawyers? Don’t think so.

I use the “cross hairs” phrase occasionally myself, and I’ve never owned, held or shot a gun since an entertaining hour of skeet shooting with a work associate more than 25 year ago. I never even connect my use of the phrase to the literal idea of a gun scope. For that matter, cross hairs are used in periscope sites, too, right? I doubt submarines were in Palin’s mind at the time her map came out, but it serves to demonstrate that this is a generic, multi-purpose phrase used in many contexts besides gun scopes.

To those who have been quick to condemn Palin’s use of this unfortunate metaphor, and have raised the spector of this type of rhetoric in connection with this weekend’s shootings, I urge you to be midful that extremist rhetoric works only because we have created a world in which shaded information and outright disinformation are effective. One may think that stretching and distorting the meaning of Palin’s map into “go shoot Democrats” is a necessary counterweight to right-wing rhetorical excess. But doing so only perpetuates the destructively fertile conditions in which rhetorical excess of all stripes can flourish. You distort them; they justify distorting you. And thus the cycle continues, and we the people lose.

The NY Times is reporting on an email exchange between Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. According to the Times (http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/10/with-e-mail-palin-and-beck-discuss-the-arizona-shootings/?hp):

“Sarah, as you know, peace is always the answer,” said Mr. Beck, reading from an e-mail he sent her. “I know you are feeling the same heat, if not much more on this. I want you to know you have my support. But please look into protection for your family. An attempt on you could bring the republic down.”

I had no idea. Through the actual assassination of four presidents, and at least 20 serious assassination attempts of presidents, not to mention all manner of wars, depressions, scandals, terrorist attacks, and the rise and fall of disco, we have persevered. Who knew our republic would be so vulnerable to an attempt on the life of one ex-governor.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Ages ago, at the dawn of politics, by which I mean in late 2008, our country had just finished an election cycle of historic significance. Collectively, we knew that we needed something or other that fell under the term “change,” and that’s what we voted for. Along came the 2010 mid-term elections, and we felt confused and anxious. Somehow the meal of change we had voted for last time didn’t taste as good as we were expecting it to. We sent the plate back to the kitchen and asked the chef to prepare us a fresh plate of some other kind of change. Now, as the 112th Congress takes office, we can ask ourselves, exactly what is the chef whipping up back there?

In our hearts, I think we know that our change needs to embrace a new kind of fiscal restraint at the federal level. It’s hard to define, but deep down we know that annual trillion dollar-plus deficits, with federal debt now exceeding $14 trillion, just cannot be sustained. In fact, we voted in great numbers for those candidates who promised such things as “balancing the budget” and “reducing the federal debt.” But that was in the campaign season. As someone (Nixon, I think?) once said, one campaigns in poetry and governs in prose.

What do we know so far about the governing reality? One, we know that our elected officials chose lameduckedly not to capitalize on an opportunity to reduce future deficits — foregoing an opportunity to reduce our federal debt over the next decade by $2.7 trillion. Not that there weren’t good reasons for doing so, but the action did display the stark tradeoff between tax cuts and deficits.

Two, we know that House Republicans intend to trim $100 billion in spending from the next budget. Well, if one is a deficit hawk, I suppose you can at least say that points in the right direction. The federal government spent $6,412.7 billion in FY 2010. So the Republican idea is, apparently, to move us to the $6,312.7 billion annual spending level, an overall reduction of about 1.6%. Personally, I find it hard to discern why spending $6,412.7 trillion (and incurring a deficit of $1,555.6 trillion) is catastrophic, while spending $6,312.7 trillion (and presumably incurring a deficit of $1,455.6 trillion) — each amount being $100 billion less than FY 2010 — is good policy. Seems kind of like saying, you can eat 20 donuts a day and not gain weight… but if that 20th donut has sprinkles on top, then you’re going to rush headlong into morbid obesity.

Three, Republicans are putting a lot of stock into Rep. Paul Ryan’s fiscal “Roadmap.” I like his roadmap, at least in concept; like any smart politician (campaigning in poetry, as I said), he leaves the details fuzzy. But we also must understand how greatly the Roadmap departs from the campaign rhetoric. Taken at face value, the Roadmap envisions non-stop federal deficits for the next 41 years. Those deficits will decline annually until 2017/2018, and then will start to increase again, and will do so through 2037.

Let’s state the fiscal reality out loud, my friends. The Republican plan does not balance the budget. It does not reduce federal debt. It contemplates nearly endless deficits and non-stop additional federal borrowing. That’s not me saying it, that is what is in Rep. Ryan’s Roadmap. If anyone still thinks that deficits and debt accumulation are a function of recent Democratic policies, they are wildly information-averse. These deficits are structural to the core. They are the result of decades of entitlement spending growth and tax cutting.

If there is any remaining doubt that governing reality will fail to match the political rhetoric, let’s all watch today as the new House Republican leadership has the U. S. Constitution read on the floor of the chamber. There’s another bit of powerful campaign poetry: “Restore the government to its constitutional boundaries!!!” Really? Keep a list in the weeks to come of federal programs the Republicans deem unconstitutional and therefore targets for elimination. Then ask yourself, if those programs fail to pass constitutional muster, on what basis do these programs pass: Social Security? Medicare? Medicaid? Food inspections? NASA? National Parks? DEA approvals of prescription drugs? The EPA? Nursing home oversight? Financial market regulation? Are Republicans really going to propose elimination of all these federal programs? Or they are somehow constitutional, but “Obamacare” is not? Where is the line???

In other words, if the Republicans sincerely believe in strict constitutionalism, then go after them all. But if they only target a select few programs, then we will know that their actions are driven by political calculations, and not by true constitutional principles. Another plate of “change” served up to us that ends up being inedible.

Tune out the rhetoric. It is meant only to deceive and pacify you. Observe the actions, and assess the results.

My close friend Todd and I have a running political debate about the legacy-in-the-making of Pres. Obama. This debate dates back to a wee hours of the morning dinner in Vegas after a full day of watching the Mosley – Mayweather fight and playing countless hours of poker, but please overlook its dubious origins, as I do.

Todd is fond of ticking off the legislative accomplishments of the past two years. Stimulus, healthcare reform, financial regulation reform, and here of late, the tax cut extensions, START treaty and repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Personally, I have strong disagreements with some of these accomplishments. I think the healthcare reform that finally passed is a bizarre amalgamation of ideas that somehow collectively fails to address either imperative facing us: the imperative of universal coverage and the imperative of cost containment. Todd would say that presidents have tried and failed (or not even tried) for decades to address this issue, and Obama should be lauded for getting this done. True, but ultimately there is something not at all satisfying about the result. I also rather dislike the recent tax cut extension legislation, for its devastating impact on current deficits.

But I do give Todd his due. Obama’s legislative accomplishments have been astonishing. Where Todd and I begin to part company is the long view. It is Obama’s failure to capture the zeitgeist of America these days, or, perhaps better said, having briefly captured it, his failure to keep hold of it and shape it. There was a window, roughly from the time that he vanquished Hillary Clinton in the primaries until the Republicans seized control of the healthcare debate narrative, during which Obama was perfectly aligned with America’s mood. His particular brand of political freshness and intellectual candor felt just right.

Since the end of that period, America’s mood has shifted rapidly while Obama’s pitch has not. This puts Obama’s legacy in peril. Already, a Republican-majority House of Representatives prepares to thunder into town with the very specific intent of clipping the wings of Obama’s healthcare program, his energy program, his budget vision, his financial reforms. Count me among those who believe Obama will win reelection, probably even handily. This is based on two core ideas: that the economy will continue to improve over the next two years, and that Obama remains by far the most popular policial brand in the country.

Even assuming his relection, though, I think the question is completely valid: What will remain of Obama’s legislative legacy after six more years? After 20? This is what I have been trying to express to Todd. Is it good enough if a president leads Washington through an amazing legislative agenda, only to find that the country hasn’t deeply embraced the political values needed to sustain that work? For example, Pres. Bush led us through a dizzying recalibration of the national security/personal liberty tradeoff in the wake of 9-11, telling us — correctly, in my opinion — that this required a multigenerational commitment to defeating the forces of radical Islam. Yet less than a decade later, our personal liberty values are once again overtaking our national security concerns, as support is dissipating for everything from military action in Afghanistan to aggressive TSA screening procedures. It seems to me that Bush was more successul at getting the policy implemented than he was at forging an enduring national consensus around those policies.

That sounds like Obama. I contrast both Bush and Obama with two presidents who I think transcended these political boundaries. The first was Franklin Roosevelt. Of course he sheparded a staggering remaking of the legislative map in the 1930s, but he went far beyond that. He ushered in five decades during which his progressive vision dominated the political landscape. Through presidencies Democrat and Republican, the nation consistently reflected that progressive mentality, with a willingness to employ the powers of government to shape our economic and cultural lives. The result was the creation of the broadest, strongest middle class in history of the planet.

Similarly, Ronald Reagan came along, and his message of the danger of overextended government has remained the single most dominant theme in American politics for three decades now. Even with mostly Democratic control of Congress during those years, and the presidency of Bill Clinton, Americans have remained solidly committed to this defining principle. Voters proved this in 2006 and 2008, brusquely shoving aside even Republicans, usually reliable partners of the limited government ethic, for their failure to adhere to the creed.

This brings us to the Obama question. Is he merely the next in a succession of elected leaders consigned to operate within the Reagan framework, or is he the first in line to set the nation on a new political course for the decades? Obama’s curse may be that his unmatched rhetorical skills during the campaign gave us a tantalizing whiff of being the next FDR or Reagan. He felt transcendent. But so far, despite his towering legislative achievements, he has not transcended. That’s not a horrible indictment. Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton would be listed among such competent presidents who rode their respective existing waves to considerable policy advancement.

Five years from now, or ten, or twenty, the nation will face challenges that demand courageous, thoughtful, far-sighted action by our government. Today’s political reality is that, shaped by the Reagan legacy, we are not disposed to trusting our government to do so. If Obama is able to transform the landscape, give back to us a willingness to invest our government with confidence and optimism, then he will have transcended the political conventions of his time and ushered in a new era. Otherwise, we will face these challenges with the underpowered armature of a Reagan-era viewpoint.

I hope he succeeds. I haven’t seen it yet. Lots of important legislation, Todd, but not that.

I’m sure everyone knows by now that Henry E. Hudson, a federal judge in Richmond VA, has ruled against the provision of the health care law that requires most American’s to buy health insurance. So, now we have to brace for a howl of outrage about judicial activism, judges who legislate from the bench.

Just tweaking noses, of course.

By the way, two other federal court jurisdictions have ruled these same provisions to be constitutional, paving the way for a lot more litigation and confusion. Certainly the Supreme Court will have to decide this one.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.