Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Post-racial America? Not so much for DC voters...

With the election of Barack Obama as President the United States was supposed to be transitioning to the post racial America. Unfortunately for the children attending the public schools of the District of Columbia, someone forgot to tell their parents.

Earlier this month the voters of the nation’s capital threw out Adrian Fenty, perhaps the best mayor they have ever had. Why? Because of soaring crime rates, plummeting school test scores or a surging unemployment rate? No. Rather, Adrian Fenty, a black mayor, was fired from his job because he hired the best people possible for the jobs in his administration and many of them happened not to be black.

Like presidents, mayors are political animals. While the stakes they deal with may not be as global in scale the President’s, for their constituents, a mayor’s decisions are often more tangible and immediate. Presidents deal with federal tax policy, national defense and state dinners. Their actions affect 300 million Americans and billions more around the world. A mayor on the other hand deals with neighborhood crime, Rotary Club meetings and the local zoning disputes. Presidents rarely have to respond to anything immediately while a mayor’s immediate response or lack thereof (either good or bad) is usually chronicled in the local paper or leads the local news.

Because the mayor is so critical to the lives of the people in the community it is that much more perplexing that the people of Washington decided to vote according to race rather than success. Breaking with the past, Adrian Fenty decided that his measure of performance would be one thing: success.

And succeed he did. Washington DC has historically had some of the worst schools in the country despite spending more per pupil than most jurisdictions – this year they will spend almost $30,000 per pupil. During the 2002-2003 school year the city’s graduation rate was an abysmal 58%. Last year, after 4 years of Adrian Fenty the rate was 72% and heading higher. Not only are graduation rates increasing but test scores as well.

Rather than be hailed by the black citizens of Washington, who make up 57% of the city’s population and 82% of the student body, Fenty was shown the door to the tune of 80% of the voters. This is particularly disturbing because as the single biggest beneficiaries of an improving school system, blacks were benefiting the most from Fenty’s leadership. Whites on the other hand, who make up 35% of the city’s population but only 7% of the student body, gave him much support, well in excess of 80%.

This is not a liberal or conservative issue. Washington DC is a city full of liberals where Barack Obama received 92% of the vote while John McCain received just 7%. No, at the end of the day the Washington DC mayor’s race was about race rather than success, education, crime or otherwise.

Much of the black population in the city was angry that Fenty threw out the color bar when he decided to populate his cabinet. In choosing to fill his cabinet he chose the people who he thought could best serve the citizens of the District of Columbia. His resulting cabinet included 5 whites, 3 Asians, 1 Hispanic and 1 black. That was a problem for many in the city – particularly those in Ward 8, who are currently represented by convicted ex-mayor Marion Barry. The criticism started early in Fenty’s administration and to his credit he did not cave. He was called arrogant, uncommunicative and was frequently accused of turning his back on black Washingtonians.

For the most part Fenty brushed off such objections believing that voters would instead look at the tangible benefits he was bringing to the city and its citizens. At the end of the day, Fenty did what mayors are supposed to do... tackle crime, improve schools and generally try and create an environment for success for the city’s citizens and his single biggest impact was felt in schools. They were where he shined. Fenty brought in Michelle Rhee as Schools Chancellor and she immediately went to work. She closed underperforming schools, she fired 241 teachers for poor performance and she forced the corrupt Washington’s Teachers Union to accept weaker tenure rules and even allow some performance based flexibility in compensation. Her results speak for themselves and Adrian Fenty believed, for him.

Not so much. Despite his success, 80% of the black population of DC decided Fenty had to go for the crime of being post racial. Inexplicably, rather than focus on what was actually making their lives better, from better educated children to safer streets, black voters in Washington DC decided to focus on the pigment in the cabinet. Unfortunately it’s likely to be their children who suffer as the unions and the old guard seek to roll back many of the advances that Fenty and Rhee put in place.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Christine O'Donnell - Senator or martyr for the cause...

Tuesday’s selection of Christine O’Donnell as the GOP nominee in Delaware has brought to a boil the debate that has been simmering in the Republican Party for years. The front lines of that fight played themselves out in front of cameras throughout the week. The first shot came from Karl Rove on Tuesday night when he savaged her on Sean Hannity. While Rove said that he was supporting the Republican, he made it crystal clear that he thought she was unelectable and that Delawareans had made a huge mistake. The other side of the argument was delivered by South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint. In responding to criticism that his support of O’Donnell essentially stripped the GOP of the opportunity of picking up Delaware and potentially gaining a majority in the Senate, DeMint said: “I don’t want the majority back if we don’t believe anything” and “I’d rather lose fighting for the right cause than win fighting for the wrong cause.” The lines have been drawn… just in time for the American people to make a decision.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but what Rove and DeMint are seeking to do is the same thing… compile a governing majority. Where they differ however is how they want to govern. For Rove the goal is to have a majority that is part of the squishy middle whereas DeMint wants a majority that is clearly conservative. Rove and many of the GOP establishment are happy to maintain the squishy / big government policies that were part of the Bush administration. Amnesty, prescription drug programs, steel tariffs, billions for AIDS research in Africa, etc. While Barack Obama may have perfected the big government model, George Bush was no stranger to its design and Karl Rove was right there with him the whole way. Jim DeMint on the other hand, along with the tea party movement, is largely focused on small government, lowering taxes and securing the borders. Jim DeMint states point blank that he doesn’t want a governing majority simply for the sake of getting cushier offices and new letterhead. Rather, he would rather stay in the minority fielding a team upon whom the GOP can count to support basic conservative principles than field a winning team full of RINOs.

His reasoning is simple: It’s better to have players on your team who you can count on than to have a roster full of players about whose support you are dubious. There is a battle royale taking place for the heart of the American people. In any battle a general wants to focus his attention on the objectives ahead rather than have to spend his time plugging leaks in his foundation. In this battle, Jim DeMint wants the American people to have a clear choice. He wants the Republican brand to stand for something specific, something conservative. He is making the case that Americans, when given a clear choice between the progressive agenda the Democrats have foisted upon them and a conservative agenda that focuses on smaller government and lower taxes, will choose the latter. That clarity of message is imperiled when people running under the Republican banner don’t adhere to its most basic tenants.

When the established GOP puts forward candidates like Mike Castle who do not understand the fundamental difference between Democrats or Republicans, it’s easy to see how the electorate might be confused and think there’s not much difference at all – see Dede Scozzafava or Arlen Specter. Every time a RINO votes for bigger government or higher taxes, the public gets confused as to who stands for what. A perfect example of this is Olympia Snowe’s vote for ObamaCare in the Senate Finance Committee. Her vote allowed Robert Gibbs to claim that ObamaCare had bipartisan support. When a politician’s votes or positions demonstrate that either an R or a D by their name would fit equally well, then the letters have ceased to have any meaning at all and as a result voters feel like they have no real choices.

That is what Jim DeMint is trying to avoid. He understands that the only option in this battle for the soul of the country is to give voters a clear choice. Having once voted for the disastrous mirage of “Hope and Change” most Americans are looking for candidates who will give them sensible ideas about how to solve our economic malaise. Christine O’Donnell is clearly not a perfect candidate, but then church is where one goes to find perfection, not the ballot box. She is however a conservative who promises to man the ramparts against higher taxes and the metastasizing cancer of government intervention and regulation. Delawareans may indeed choose to send to Washington a tax and spend big government progressive like Chris Coons, but by nominating Christine O’Donnell the tea party has forced the Republicans to strengthen the foundation of the message they will carry into the 2012 elections. She may end up being a martyr for the cause, but if in the process she helps save the country from the progressive contagion that is rapidly eviscerating our freedom and prosperity, I’m guessing that is a sacrifice she is more than willing to make.

Monday, September 13, 2010

2011: A Republican Opportunity to Define the Debate

Republicans are poised to take control of the House in November and with a little luck may well pick up the Senate too. The last time this situation occurred was November 1994 when Newt Gingrich and the Republicans picked up 54 seats and took the House for the first time in 40 years. They also picked up 8 seats in the Senate, enough to take back that body as well. As a result of that shift, Bill Clinton was forced to pivot to the center, abandon some of his more liberal designs, and as a consequence he won a second term in office.

Many people expect a similar outcome from the 2010 elections. Conventional wisdom holds that when faced with a split or Republican legislature, President Obama will have no choice but to rein in some of his more ambitious attempts to “transform America”. In doing so he will set himself up for reelection as the forced moderation will lay the groundwork for a (relative) wave of prosperity that voters will attribute to him.

That might be plausible if 2010 were anything like 1994… but it’s not. On the most basic level, the last two years have been nothing short of an economic disaster. Not so much the continued meltdown of the housing market or even the two point increase in the unemployment rate. No, the disaster that has befallen the country is entirely manmade, and that man is Barack Obama. By passing ObamaCare, dramatically increasing federal regulation of – and intervention in – the economy, and by laying the groundwork for higher taxes, President Obama has removed the one element that businesses need to begin investing in the future, hiring and spurring economic growth: certainty of the playing field they are competing on. Without knowing what the future holds in terms of regulation or taxes, they can’t build a business, period.

The other thing that differentiates 2010 from 1994 is that Bill Clinton had the luxury of a multi billion dollar “Peace Dividend” and a nascent Internet that was beginning to transform much of the economy. That “Peace Dividend” allowed President Clinton to significantly reduce defense expenditures and shift much of the remainder into the domestic market as bases across Europe were shuttered and troops and equipment returned home, putting dollars to work in Ft. Lee, Virginia or Ft. Collins, Colorado rather than Heyford, UK or Berlin, Germany. Simultaneously the advent of the Internet was beginning to have a significant impact on American business and consumers, both in reality and in optimism. From communications to retail to the building of the Internet infrastructure, the Internet was beginning to spur the economy the way the railroads did 150 years before. At the end of the day the outlook in 2010 is far cloudier and darker than it was in 1994.

The yoke the President has placed around the necks of citizens and businesses is simply too heavy a burden for a slight adjustment of course to fix. A little moderation will not turn around the economy or the public’s state of mind. Dramatic change is necessary and the process could be wrenching. Not that voters will necessarily know where the blame should lay given the mainstream media’s vested interest in keeping the Democrats and Obama in power. Nonetheless if Republicans want to regain the White House in 2012 and build a working majority in Congress, they are going to have to demonstrate bold leadership and make a clear argument for what they want to accomplish.

They will get their chance starting in January. Rather than muddle through and just stop President Obama from doing further damage to the economy and the Nation, the Republicans should instead take advantage of the somewhat unprecedented attention that Americans are giving to governance in general and the economy in particular to clarify what they stand for. They should put forth bills as if a Republican were sitting in the Oval Office, fiscally responsible bills that clearly demonstrate their priorities. President Obama would no doubt veto them, but doing so would lead to a discussion of the merits of the policies. Republicans should welcome such a discussion… just ask Paul Ryan.

Republicans can make their case by borrowing from the Democratic playbook. Democrats are experts at the art of using numbers to define fairness: Barney Frank, Chris Dodd and many others used skewed data to demonstrate that banks provide home loans to blacks or low income borrowers at a lower frequency or higher interest rate than white or wealthy borrowers and therefore must be discriminating against blacks or the poor. Their remedy was, naturally, government intervention. Using that same model, Republicans should highlight the actual fact that federal employees earn on average twice what private sector employees do. The federal government must therefore be practicing discrimination against the private sector. The Republican remedy for this should be to cut by half the personnel budgets for all federal agencies (save Defense and Homeland Security) and they should pass a bill mandating such. Let President Obama take to the teleprompter and make the case that federal employees deserve to be paid twice as much as their civilian brethren when unemployment is at 10% for the nation, 16% for blacks and 20% for youth.

Fundamentally, Republicans should (regardless of whether they control one house or two) vow to only pass bills that demonstrate fiscal discipline and foster pro growth policies. Their budget bill should cut all discretionary funding back to 2004 or 2006 levels and refuse to pass anything that exceeds those levels. They should pass legislation rescinding ObamaCare and bills that explicitly limit the scope of agencies such as the EPA, the FCC and others, and they should slash the budgets of regulation heavy Departments such as Education and Energy. President Obama would no doubt veto virtually every one of those bills, and as the White House suggested on Saturday, that might result in a shut down of the government like 1995.

But 2011 is not 1995 and Americas will no longer allow themselves to be so easily hoodwinked. Whereas in 1995 the electorate looked askance at the government shutdown and largely blamed Newt Gingrich for it, in 2011 after two years in the death grip of the Democrats, Americans may indeed welcome a government shutdown as an opportunity to debate the very nature of government itself. That is a debate Republicans can win if they stand by their conservative principles and let men like Paul Ryan, Jim DeMint and Marco Rubio make the case to the American electorate. They may not win all of the battles, but by fighting the good fight they can demonstrate to the American electorate that when they go to the polls in 2012 there is a very clear alternative to a reheated “Hope and Change” agenda.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Cold War lessons never learned by Golfer in Chief Obama

In a nod to President Obama’s attempted pivot on Tuesday from Iraq to jobs, on this Labor Day I’d like to pivot from jobs to national defense.

I’m a child of the Cold War. Born in the 1965, I spent 12 of my first 24 years living outside the United States. My family spent five years in Naples, Italy, where both parents worked on a NATO base. We spent another five years living on the thorn in Fidel Castro’s side known as Guantanamo Bay. After school I spent two years in the Army stationed in what was at the time called West Germany. The Cold War just was. The Iron Curtain was the line of demarcation between freedom and oppression.

The Cold War was called the Cold War because it was, well… cold. Not in the anti-global warming sense, but cold as opposed to hot, where bullets fly and lifeless bodies lay strewn on across the battlefields that make up the front lines. As uncomfortable as friction zones like Korea and Vietnam were, they were a far cry from the 16 million killed in World War I and 60 million in WWII. The Cold War stayed cold because everyone knew there were severe consequences for turning it hot. Those sentiments held for both conventional war – with over a quarter of a million American troops stationed in Germany alone, and unconventional – with the well understood doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. As distressing as the visions that inspired “duck and cover” were, they were far better than the actual loss of millions of lives.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a President Obama who spent 20 years in Jeremiah Wright’s church and somehow never picked up that the pastor was an America hating racist, similarly spent his life under the umbrella of security provided by a stalwart American foreign policy yet never understood its most basic lessons. This lack of understanding is clearly demonstrated by his oft stated determination to pull American troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan according to an arbitrary calendar on his desk.

The fact that the world has existed in relative peace, absent a significant hot war with major players directly confronting one another for 65 years is a monument to the lessons learned between 1918 and 1939. After WWI Woodrow Wilson put his faith in his Fourteen Points and the League of Nations to maintain the peace and America returned to isolation. Hitler’s 1938 designs on the Sudetenland and Chamberlain’s “Peace for Our Time” demonstrated Wilson’s folly.

Seeking to avoid Wilson’s mistakes, Truman initially left hundreds of thousands of troops in Japan and Germany to keep the vanquished from somehow reassembling their war machines and starting WWIII. Soon it became clear however that the primary threat did not come from vanquished enemies but from our erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union. The result was that the American presence in both countries morphed from an occupying force to one of mutual defense. Ostensibly that defense protected those countries from an invasion. What it did somewhat more subtly was just important; it acted as a midwife to their nascent democracies.

By making it clear whenever necessary that the United States was willing to go to the mattresses to protect its interests and its friends, we were able to avoid the horrors of the first half of the 20th century. Simultaneously, by providing the people of Germany and Japan with the stability to develop their democratic institutions the United States was able to midwife two former enemies into two of the most robust and dynamic economies (and trading partners) in the world. In the end everyone won.

The success of this model did not always play out on the same timetable: In the Philippines and South Korea democracy took much longer to develop. Nor were the lessons always heeded: We abandoned Vietnam (and later the South Vietnamese government when Congress balked at support), let Afghanistan become a vacuum after the Soviets departed, and left an armed Saddam in power after the first Gulf War.

The lessons of the Cold War success are lost on President Obama. By continuously signaling his plan to pull American troops out according to his arbitrary deadline he is killing two birds with one stone. On the one hand, he is telling the people of Afghanistan and Iraq that they had better get this democracy thing right – now – because soon they are going to be on their own. This is a monumental error. Democracy is a difficult form of government even in the best of circumstances and only more so with a violent enemy within who has no compunction about slaughtering innocent civilians by the thousands. Four years after the end of the Revolutionary War the United States had a true government in name only. The Constitution was written and ratified in 1787 and it was the child of accomplished patriots such as James Madison, Benjamin Franklin George Mason, John Hancock, John Adams and of course George Washington. Without them who knows what might have become of those 13 states. Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan has such men of skill and stature.

At the same time he is warning the Iraqis and Afghanistanis that they had better get things right, President Obama is signaling to the Taliban and insurgents across the middle east that if they lay low and bide their time they will soon have a clear field for launching their assaults on these precarious democracies. Like a burglar who waits for the security guard to make his nightly rounds before stealing a coveted masterpiece, the terrorists who seek to take over Iraq and Afghanistan understand their chances of success are far greater if the Americans are gone. As such, given President Obama’s promised timelines, they know they can simply husband their resources to strike when the Americans are gone. From any terrorist’s perspective, that is a far different playing field than one where they knew the Americans were focused on victory rather than the calendar.

At the risk of interrupting a Labor Day golf vacation I might suggest President Obama also start doing a little Cold War research to find out what it takes to be victorious in wars not fought within ivory towers. A good place might William Manchester’s American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880 – 1964. Not only did McArthur say “In war there is no substitute for Victory” but he was also the man who set the foundations for a non aggressive, economically successful and democratically stable Japan. It even comes in a paperback, just the right size for a golf bag pocket...