Monday, June 20, 2011

Collapse of the Democrats

Our shortest President at five feet four, he was thought to weigh in at one hundred pounds and was said to be frequently ill.  He was known to mumble with speech-making skills less than inspiring but James Madison was a Giant of a man.

Acknowledged Father of the Constitution, Madison was the author of the Bill of Rights with a special pride in the First Amendment and a major contributor to the Federalist Papers.  President John F. Kennedy believed Madison to be our most underrated Founding Father.  A widely respected political theorist and scholar with a profound intellect, Madison championed  the concept of separation of powers with the need for checks and balances between three branches of government. Elected as the country’s fourth President in 1809, Madison served two terms and along with his political soul-mate, Thomas Jefferson, were founders of what became the Democratic Party, borne to protect the working class from Alexander Hamilton and his wealthy Federalist tax policies and  National Bank.

With the election of Andrew Jackson in 1824, the Democrats were regarded as ‘guardians of the common man” and as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal saved capitalism in the 1930’s, the Democrats were considered to be the ‘conscience of the nation.’  Since then, middle class American s have counted on Democrats to preserve the country’s social safety net.

It is not without some irony to consider that in 1780 a U.S. population of 2.7 million produced a generation of luminous Founding Fathers and yet a hefty 2010 population of 309 million Americans is almost completely devoid of political intellect or national leadership. There appears to be no Giant among us as an absence of progressive vision and principle is evident in every corner of the country – from government and religion and politics to media and the arts, academia and business and everywhere in between.   It is no wonder that the country finds itself in the unyielding grip of a hedonist me-first culture that thrives on the frivolous and the craven while the American people are starved for truth and quality of purpose.

As the world’s oldest political party, Congressional 'play it safe' Democrats have lost their moral compass    offering little leadership or resistance to the reactionary attempt to takeover government that is reminiscent of the collapse of Social Democrats in Germany in the 1930’s.  With German society in economic turmoil and naively believing in compromise,’ the Social Democrats, who had moved to the political center, grossly underestimated Hitler’s goal to abolish the Reichstag’s Constitutional powers.  On its last day in 1933, Socialist Leader Otto Wels was the sole Reichstag speaker to defend his country’s democratic principles.  As the remaining 96 Socialist Members joined him in voting against the Enabling Act, with all pretense of civil liberties swept away, the Act ended parliamentary democracy in Germany with the banning political parties, labor unions and the dismantling civil government.   

In today’s regressive political environment and its alarming parallels with pre-WWII Germany, it is essential to recognize that a coup d’etat of Constitutional principles may be accomplished slowly over time with a subtle erosion of civil liberties and a less than obvious subversion of egalitarian ethics rather than a Presidential candidate storming the White House or any political party’s overt campaign to dissolve Government.    
Sometime between the Presidencies of Ronald Reagan whose trickle-down plan was based on Calvin Coolidge’s failed economic policies almost a century ago yet still in vogue today and Bill ‘let the good times roll’ Clinton’s open door to NAFTA and Wall Street, saw Beltway neo-Democrats link arms with corporate America and walk away from the Party’s historic promise to American citizens. Losing its edge, its integrity and finally its credibility, generations of faithful Democrats, once nurtured by the New Deal and LBJ”s Great Society,  have been replaced by a lesser breed of Democrat, functionaries more devoted to a bi-partisan yet single political entity based on personality rather than public policy.  

While cold hard cash remains the root of all evil, nowhere is that more evident than the Democratic Party’s willingness to join the free-for-all with the R’s as big-time beneficiaries in exchange for legislative influence, votes and favors. (See   As the role of Congressional Democrats leading up to the 2008 economic collapse is yet to be fully explored, the Center for Responsive Politics reports that the real estate and securities and investment sectors each donated 50% of their campaign funds with the insurance sector donating 44% of its money to Democrats. Both the Senate and House are dominated by millionaire-Members with significant stock holdings, many of which constitute a clear conflict of interest yet never evoke a recusal during any part of the legislative process.

Even as Senate Democrats create a wasteland for bold ideas and bold action, rare heroic moments occur such as Senator Bernie Sanders' (who caucuses with the Democrats) brilliant solitary 8.5 hour filibuster last December against the President’s extension of Bush tax cuts.

It has been decades since Sens. Wayne Morse (OR) and Mike Gravel (Alaska) stood in the well of the Senate and worried about a too powerful Executive dictating to a well-mannered Legislative branch – but as the President initiates military operations in Libya and Yemen without legislative oversight, nothing has changed as the Senate steadfastly ignores Madison’s Constitutional mandate.  

Originally modeled after Britain’s aristocratic House of Lords, the U.S. Senate has now fossilized itself into a total inability to govern.  As the country continues to grapple with economic devastation, Democratic Senators remain eerily absent from MSNBC appearances and silent as the Vice President’s bipartisan budget-debt ceiling negotiations includes ‘everything on the table’ which translates into abandoning the Party’s long-time commitment to the country’s historic People Programs.    

Even with a comfortable majority in the last Session, Senate Democrats last January remained unwilling to reform the archaic filibuster rule which allows a minority to control the Senate’s Floor agenda.  Still unwilling to challenge Republican threats of filibuster with overnight debates and cots in the aisles, Democrats botched a golden opportunity with 35 million uninsured Americans to rally the country in support of a public option for health care.    

With a slight Democratic edge in the Senate, the Finance Committee’s recent hearing with Big Oil CEO’s modestly threatened  to modestly reduce the industry’s current $4 billion annual subsidy, was little more than political grandstanding.   Finance Committee Democrats comfortably nagged the Big Five since Democrats receive only 23% of the industry’s $30 M campaign contributions and knew full well that any cut in industry  subsidy would never make it to the President’s desk.  If Democrats truly wanted to effect gasoline prices at the pump, a more effective tack might have been an oversight hearing with the CFTC (Commodity Futures Trade Commission) demanding their regulatory powers rein in oil market speculators.   

While the House is home to as many as 100 progressive Democrats continue to hold the line (though vastly outnumbered) against the corporate and right-wing invasion, they are mostly marginalized by House Leadership. With a decisive Democratic majority in 2009, House Progressives pledged to support Obama’s industry-negotiated health care legislation only if a public option was included but once the White House weighed in that the President’s credibility was at risk, all House Members fell in line.   

As deficit debates continue, the House Progressive Caucus presented a Peoples’ Budget which offers a credible, comprehensive path to fiscal responsibility yet has been completely ignored by the Vice President’s deficit reduction group as the more demanding, better organized Republicans continue to dominate the political landscape.  Despite the best efforts of House Representatives like Dennis Kucinich and Barbara Lee on multiple wars, Ed Markey on environment and energy issues, Luis Guiterrez on immigration and Henry Waxman on just about everything, all of whom still remember what it is to be a Democrat, House Progressives can still be bamboozled by a White House that demands unfettered loyalty – which is exactly what Madison and Jefferson feared.    

Two dozen Blue Dogs in the House discovered in 2010 that when Congressional Democrats show limited support for Democratic values, local activists are not motivated to “Get Out the Vote” just because there is a D after their name.  Recent attacks on public workers in Wisconsin and elsewhere drew scant support from Beltway Democrats as Obama, dependent on recreating 2008 voter enthusiasm, faces the same re-election dilemma as Beltway politicians expect the locals to knock themselves out getting them re-elected.

Recent Congressional votes indicative of the continued erosion of the Constitutional checks and balance mandate meant to prevent one branch of Government from dominating continues virtually unabated with little resistance in the Senate.  In the aftermath of 911, the Patriot Act was approved 98-1 in the Senate with Sen. Russ Feingold the sole vote against.  With extension of the Act about to expire, the Obama Administration has broadened the Act to include a new “classified government re-interpretation” of existing laws and statutes that allows, according to Sen. Ron Wyden, ‘unfettered access” to American’s private information.  The Act was reauthorized (72-23) with 18 Senate Democrats against while in the House, 122 Democrats voted No (250-153).

As Congressional Republicans and their Presidential candidates continue to demagogue the Constitution (which many confuse with the Declaration of Independence), no Democrat of-note has spoken out against the loss of liberty under the guise of the War on Terror just as none have come forward to challenge budget ‘austerity’ as an effective fiscal tool. .   

While on the House floor, the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 included an Amendment (187 – 234) to eliminate the Forever War language that would allow Presidential authority to initiate military operations (ie Libya and Yemen) without congressional approval.  The Amendment failed with 166 Democrats voting to exclude the new authority.  The Act also included a narrowly defeated Amendment (204 – 215) with 178 Democrats supporting an ‘accelerated transition of military operations’ out of Afghanistan. The Act was adopted on final passage 322-96 and now goes to the Senate Armed Services Committee for action.  

Presidential rejection of the need for Congressional approval of U.S. military action in Libya as not constituting ‘sustained hostilities’ invoking the War Powers Act has encouraged a round of House votes.  The War Powers Resolution was adopted in 1973 by a bipartisan 2/3 vote of Congress which overrode President Nixon’s veto requiring military interventions to end after 60 days unless Congress votes to authorize. With escalated bombings in Libya and now Yemen, the first three months of U.S. action in Libya (up to early June) has cost $715 million (the same amount as cuts to the 2012 WIC program) and is estimated to cost $1.1 billion by early September.  Dutiful Dems like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi joined Senate Majority Leader Harry “it will be over before you know it” Reid in supporting the President’s position citing ‘no troops on the ground” are not as familiar with the War Powers threshold which includes an “introduction of hostilities.”  Like the Democrats, the Republican’s are split as Speaker John Boehner (OH) warns the White House of a War Powers violation while Sen. Lindsay Graham (SC) sides with the President.  Never regarded as a civil libertarian, it is somewhat mind-boggling to recall that even President George H. Bush sought and received Congressional approval before initiating both Iraq and Afghanistan invasions.          

In  more recent action and after urging by Secretary Clinton, in what might seem a rebuke to Obama's overreach of Presidential authority, the House voted against a Republican-sponsored Resolution authorizing the President to continue military action in Libya for one year while banning ground forces. The Motion failed with 295 against continued US military operations with black and progressive caucuses split as 70 Democrats voted to rein in Presidential authority - 123 (including 115 Democrats) voted in favor of Presidential authority in Libya.    In a second Republican Resolution which Rep. Ron Paul called a 'masquerade'  would have barred drone attacks and air strikes yet at the same time authorized continued U.S. military efforts in Libya, the House voted against defunding U.S. Libyan action 238 (149 Democrats and 89 R's) and 180 (144 R's and 36 Democrats) in favor.

In a warning that Beltway Democrats ignore at their peril, the Firefighters Union, which contributed over $3 Million to Democrats in 2010, summed up the situation by promising to ‘turn off the spigot to Federal candidates and Federal parties” citing “extremist Republicans trying to destroy us and too few Democrats standing up and fighting for us.”  The AFL-CIO later joined the Firefighters offering Democrats no assurance that rank-and-file union members will make Election Day, 2012 a high priority.  An historic pillar of the Party since the 1930’s, Clinton-era Democratic support for outsourcing millions of American jobs overseas not only set the stage for today’s unemployment crisis but has seriously weakened the Party’s strongest base of supporters – proving that political strategy may not be the Democrats strongest suit.  As organized Labor struggles for survival, whether the last bastion of established liberal support will respond to the coming ‘austerity’ budget with a general strike as other countries or whether Labor hierarchy prefers to visit the White House is a foregone conclusion.           

Polls that show overwhelming public support for increased revenues via tax hikes on the rich and strong opposition to Medicare and Social Security cuts make little difference to misguided Senate  Democrats and a White House that focus solely on the deficit while ignoring the massive foreclosure and jobs crisis that show no signs of recovery.   As the Vice President says, he is ‘confident’ that there will be a bi-partisan agreement of more than $1 Trillion in cuts.  Just the fact that Democrats agreed to 'negotiate' with R's early on rather than take a firm principled position with an eye to compromise down the road is indicative of a Party that has lost its voice.  Democrats have not yet learned the lesson of 2010 and appear willing to risk another election fiasco full of voter outrage.  The truth is that the soon-to-be $16.7 trillion deficit which grew as a result of the 2008 economic collapse and ensuing recession, is not the country’s most urgent problem.  Presidential assertions that he is ‘not worried’ about a deepening recession while urging the country to “not panic’ is indicative of a White House seriously out of touch with the suffering of too many homeless American families with hungry children, frightened and alone, deserted by their government and an Oval Office occupant  with no more compassion than his predecessor.  

As House Republicans pushed for a surprise vote on the much discussed debt ceiling to prove that a vote without massive cuts was politically untenable, and with Democrats unwilling to call the R’s bluff, 81 Democrats led by the House Leadership joined 236 R’s against raising the debt ceiling (without accompanying cuts).  This was contrary to the President’s request in April for a ‘clean’ bill without any cuts or changes to the budget.  More recently, however, in a strategic switcheroo with, no doubt, a green light from the now more complaint White House, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer sounded like an angry Republican as he urged his caucus to commit parliamentary hari-kari proving that Democrats could be “fiscally responsible” as he warned that a Yes vote to raise the debt limit would be seen as lacking ‘fiscal discipline.”   

In other words, those 81 Democrats siding with Republicans against raising the debt ceiling signaled their willingness to 'share the sacrifice' with Republican demands to put Medicare and other social safety net programs on the chopping block.  Congressional Republicans indicated weeks earlier that increased  tax cuts for the rich were ‘off the table’ and would only consider voting for an increased debt ceiling with trillion dollar cuts they had been unable to achieve through the legislative process. As Republicans draw the Dems into their web of not being the only Medicare vultures, the R’s successfully remove a major potent campaign issue from the Democrats.    
After getting stung on the public option in 2009, 97 progressive Democrats showed some spine repudiating their Leadership to support a 'clean' debt ceiling (w/o any cuts) just as Obama requested in April.   The bottom line reality now appears that the next debt ceiling vote sometime before August 2nd will include unspecified budget cuts including Medicare ‘reform.’ Anyone who believes that the Democrats will not sell-out the American people on Medicare or Social Security in order to save face for a President who has no interest in negotiations, has not been paying attention.   With all discussion centered on preservation of Medicare, liberal lawmakers have pointedly avoided the same commitment to preserve Medicaid whose constituency is less well-organized. . 

With Anthony Weiner’s resignation, after House leadership, some Senators and even the President found time to complain about the ‘distraction’, gone is the (sometimes) only Democrat willing to confront Republicans and willing to challenge the conscience of an overly-cautious political establishment.  Now the Democrats have no excuse to not take back the House in 2012. 

From a spectacular rise as State Senator (1997-2004) to the U.S. Senate (2004 – 2008) including an unsuccessful run for Congress in 2000 and ultimately to the Presidency in 2008,  candidate Barack Obama presented an idealistic version of 21st Century politics in his best-selling and somewhat sophomoric Audacity of Hope.  Based on that writing and campaign stump speeches, expectations for Obama were high.  With a pleasant public demeanor, a friendly open smile, a welcoming approachable manner and obviously a solid family man, Americans found a charismatic, ambitious candidate proficient at charming his way onto the national stage as he promised Change from politics as usual.  After two years in the Oval Office and with super (although impotent) majorities in both Houses of Congress, a profound disenchantment with a Presidential Noble Peace Prize winner who extols war has set in as many Obama supporters in 2008 now see the bloom is off the rose.    

At the half-way mark with re-election on the horizon, Obama has morphed into a seasoned globetrotter with an obvious love for a Versailles lifestyle within DC’s rarefied bubble.  Seemingly disconnected from the urgency at home and the misery of multiple wars, Obama is our first non-ideologic, non-partisan President with no real allegiance to the Party that elected him.  Even Americans who had hope for Obama’s success find his core values a conundrum providing little real insight into the complex nature of this President’s character.  His moods and temperament and private demons remain obscure, leaving guesstimates on how policy decisions are arrived at as the only real measure of the man’s inner grit and where, when and if he ever draws the line.  For all his privileged education, obvious intellect and soaring rhetoric that now rings hollow, Barack Obama’s election proves that leadership does not come from a textbook and that bare-knuckled negotiation skills require more than an eloquent command of English. 

As a professor of Constitutional Law who promised to ‘lead by example maintaining a highest standard of civil liberties…no more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient,”  it had been expected that the President would be true to his words and make a shape left turn on human rights – but that has not happened. Candidate Obama supported a return to the Rule of Law as he spoke admirably of whistleblowers and civil liberties protections; yet despite concern in Audacity that his predecessor played ‘fast and loose with Constitutional principles in the fight against terrorism” since 9/11, some Obama supporters are justifiably worried that the President’s aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers and continuation of Bush’s unconstitutional policies as he broadens the national surveillance network, are endangering democracy.  

The deep disparity between candidate Obama and President Obama remains a troubling puzzle raising alarms about a shadow government influencing the President’s policy choices.  Of note: the President's lack of traditional  year-end clemency for American (non-terrorists) prisoners while the family vacations on Hawaii's warm sand beaches,  reveals a remarkably unforgiving nature that may be an alarming metaphor for other areas of  Presidential importance  - as his preference for military action and increased drone attacks rather than diplomacy continues to disturb the public conscience.   His policy of continued rendition “with oversight” which allows transit of prisoners to Jordan, Egypt and Syria for torture and black ops some of which remain beyond Congressional review, assassination of American citizens without due process, continued operation of Guantanamo and suspension of habeas corpus rights allowing indefinite lockups and his most recent assertion of Presidential authority to initiate hostilities are alarming signs of an increasingly insulated Presidency.  If it is still illegal to assassinate foreign Heads of State, are we a more moral country if we only kill the grandchildren?   With the most recent four year reauthorization of Patriot Act increasing FBI surveillance and warrantless wiretaps (which he promised  to stop), is the President aware that the homes of peace activists in six states have been raided by the  FBI?   See  for details on Obama's civil libertarian record since becoming President.

Failure of the Administration to activate the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board is cause for concern as civil liberties protections continue to be abandoned.  Established in 2004 to advise the Executive Branch on the civil liberty impacts of laws, regulations and Administration  policies regarding the War on Terror, the Board continues to founder as a non-existent entity.
While Wikileaks’ invaluable revelations have profoundly embarrassed the Administration, Department of Justice prosecution of Julian Assange can be expected to, at minimum, tarnish Obama’s much valued worldwide reputation as his Administration’s attempt to silence and criminalize investigative journalism will be seen as a corrosive attack on the First Amendment.   

A recent San Francisco fundraiser included a song of protest at Bradley Manning’s imprisonment for six months before being charged with ‘aiding the enemy” while a video at the same event caught Obama affirming Manning’s guilt (who has yet to be tried) and later, a White House threat to exclude the San Francisco Chronicle from future privileged presence in the Bay Area for its coverage of the incident.  Soon after, the Boston Herald revealed that Obama’s Press Office had  banned its reporter from attending a Presidential event based on a front page article entitled “Obama Misery Index Hits a Record High.”   As re-election draws closer and the pressure mounts, both instances are unworthy of a Constitutional scholar President who once campaigned on a commitment to transparency and open government. 

The President’s masterful performance at the Washington Correspondents Dinner revealed a rare glimpse of a vindictive spirit as he took an unnecessary swipe at actor Matt Damon for daring to suggest he was ‘disappointed’ in the President’s performance.  As if to answer the question whether he could be tough as nails, Obama went on to unmercifully hammer on Donald Trump (not that he didn’t deserve a good thumping).   One can only hope Obama would treat the R’s, Wall Street and the Chamber of Commerce less deferentially with a similar display of hardball when it really counts instead of wasting political capital spanking the handful of progressives who dare challenge his vacillations.    

While a natural adversarial tension frequently exists between any President and the media but this President, known during his tenure in the Illinois State Senate as thin skinned and defensive with reporters (see David Mendell’s From Promise to Power), has successfully charmed a mostly fawning White House press corps into accommodation.  As White House reporters depend on favors and access and collegiality for their livelihood, the White House depends on a Beltway media that is not overly persistent or inquisitive at press conferences with only pre-selected reporters permitted to ask questions.   

According to the American Presidential Project, during his first 27 months in office, President Obama presided over 15 White House press conferences.  By comparison, President George W. Bush, held 8 White House press conferences while JFK held 51 press conferences with Ronald Reagan holding 16 White House press conferences during their respective first 27 months in office. 

Citing an ad nauseum ‘look forward, not backward’ mantra, Obama’s lack of interest in prosecuting the same Wall Street banditos who were the primary engineers of the crisis and Bush neo-cons who shredded Constitutional law, offered no satisfactory explanation for Presidential immunity speaks volumes of where the President’s loyalties lie.  Allowing those responsible for criminal activity to walk free and prosper encourages a national climate of corruption and institutional lawlessness and probably is not the lesson in accountability the President would like to teach his two lovely daughters – or how the President would like to be remembered.

While the author of Audacity assures us he is “angry about policies that consistently favor the wealthy and powerful over average Americans,” millions of Americans who lost their homes, their jobs and their savings are still waiting for some Presidential expression that reflects their own deep-felt anger as FDR did when he said the banks “are unanimous in their hatred for me and I welcome their hatred.”  

As the Weimer Republic discovered to its horror in 1930, the quality of democracy is directly dependent on the quality of politicians.   The dilemma is whether today’s Democrats are capable of a renaissance of constitutional authority and  whether, with an opposition party intent on turning back what has taken 200 years to build - a once-thriving middle class now reduced to chronic unemployment, the nation’s poor that once relied on a compassionate government, a country once proud of its heritage are now betrayed in favor of an international military fortress and obscene wealth - and whether the Democrats are capable of reasserting James Madison’s checks and balances.    

There is an arrogance that comes with unfettered power for any President to assume he has accomplished sufficient progress, that he specifically is necessary to the Nation's well being and deserves to be re-elected. 
As they appear no match for the better disciplined Republicans, there is little evidence that the Democrats are sufficiently motivated or that the President has the necessary leadership skills and professional experience to prevail against the R’s in their rough street game   While  Audacity reminds us that ‘pragmatism can sometimes be moral cowardice,” it is essential to consider that in order to be deemed a Great President, one must be more than a Great candidate and that to act on the courage of one’s convictions, one must first have convictions.  

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