“I Voted.” Small sticker, precious step

Today I’m as powerful as Sheldon Adelson, Sean Hannity, Paul Ryan, John Roberts, David Axelrod or Elizabeth Warren.

My vote counts as much as each of theirs. And as I cast my vote today my heart lifted. I could feel it. For too many months I’ve been worrying and griping and moaning and arguing and living in fear of the unthinkable. An hour ago I took action. I feel empowered.

img_5163Our country has flaws. Disparity of rich and poor. Gross overconsumption of the planet’s resources. Poor education and a paucity of hope for too many. A system designed by those who already have the most to assure they get more. And our election system is far from perfect. Voter suppression. Hanging chads. Too much influence by the wealthiest. Gerrymandered districts that permit little challenge to incumbents.

But I just cast a vote that counts the same as Barack Obama’s. And it will be counted. The regular citizens who handed me the ballot and watched me slide it in the machine are the volunteer custodians of the dream the founders dreamed. My Uncle Bob died in World War II to protect the vote I cast today. John Lewis had his skull cracked to preserve the right of all of us to not just speak up about where we’re going as a country but to put our hands on the wheel.

There was a man standing at the corner of the street that leads to our local government center where Lisa and I voted. He was showing the world a life-size picture of Hillary Clinton behind bars. I firmly believe he’ll be disappointed a week from today. And as we drove past him I felt less of the despair I’ve been feeling for months, despair that the candidate he supports might actually, how could this possibly be true, win the election. I felt less depressed because I had just taken action. I had voted. To turn away that man’s vision and to bring my own closer to the light.

In a world full of despots I stood up and said to the preposterous, self-absorbed, ignorant, immature poseur who would be president: “I banish thee. Slink back under the foul rock you crawled out from. Begone.” Little old me, a guy of scant power, wealth or influence. But a guy with a vote.

In the car, Lisa and I did a Barack-Michelle fist bump. Is this a great country or what?

— Bruce Benidt

The Hagel Circus

NEW SLAUGHTERAs counter-productive as they are, I doubt Senate Republicans will block Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be Secretary of Defense. “The Club” may have become a rancid redoubt of bag men (and a few women) for special interests, but Hagel has far deeper roots and cred with that crowd than Susan Rice.

But there’s already enough cynical posturing in the air over this guy, a truly endangered species, a “moderate Republican”, that it’s worth commenting on a couple of things.

1: Hagel was absolutely right when he described Israel’s out-sized influence on Congress as the result of the “Jewish lobby”. There’s nothing anti-semitic about that at all, as moderate and liberal Jews have argued in his defense. It’s a simple fact of life, stated bluntly, which is to say, rarely. As an embattled democracy in a region of genuinely lunatic conservative religious tribalism Israel deserves special support and attention from American lawmakers, many of whom have constituents or constituents’ relatives living in Israel. But Hagel’s point was the monolithic influence of Israel’s pan-Jewish supporters. Specifically, hyper-conservative religious tribal factions over there … compounded by extraordinarily well-funded, like-minded stateside supporters/zealots, one of whom is named Sheldon Adelson. (Adelson being a guy who should fear Islamic jihadists less and prosecution under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act more). Looked at big picture, “Jewish” is a more appropriate description than “Israeli”. But Hagel’s now modified his verbiage to calm the precious feelings of the few.

Discussions of Israeli behavior — settlement building, third-class citizenship treatment of Arab laborers — invariably involves the same inflamed, paranoid rhetoric the right has deployed for decades, on so many other issues. “Weakness in the face of terrorism.” “Lack of respect for democracy.” I’m certain there’s also a variation on “our sacred Second Amendment rights” in there somewhere if you look deep enough.  Leaders like Benjamin Netanyahu retain power only by kow-towing to the most conservative, most militant, least tolerant and unyielding religious forces (some of whom, a lot like our chicken hawk neo-cons — Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney — were long exempt from actual military service).

By all accounts Barack Obama can barely stand the scent of so cynically compromised a politician as Netanyahu. But they’re stuck with each other. We can only imagine the constant horse-trading on intelligence and cyber-warfare that must go on to give Netanyahu something to tranquilize Israel’s “deep praying” bullet-avoiding zealots.

2: I have no illusions that Chuck Hagel represents a sea change in US policy toward Israel, or North Korea, or Iran, or … name the scary monster-under-the-bed of your choice. But a standard rule of foreign policy is a bit like the old “Fight Club” line. Namely that you never actually say a dramatic change is taking place. Instead, you just quietly play a smarter game than before, which in the wake of Rummy and Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz (all still held in esteem by current Republican Senate leadership) is a very low bar for improvement.

But I suspect Hagel is in step with Obama’s pretty obvious determination to develop broader means of avoiding multi-trillion dollar ground war fiascos — like Rumsfeld so appallingly botched and Hagel voted against. My guess is that Hagel too snickers at “statesmen” like Lindsey Graham and candidates like, well, every Tea Party-fearing Republican, thumping their pampered chests for a preemptive military “solution” to the Iran problem. Though far less heroic and visibly macho, espionage and cyber-warfare hold far better potential for controlling rogue states — conservative religious tribal and/or purely sociopathic — than another round of “shock and awe”.

3: On the topic of Graham: He continues to reassure FoxNews that he’ll keep the emergency brake on the whole damned government until he gets answers on Benghazi. Now, since the Hillary Clinton smackdown blew up in his face, he wants out-going Pentagon boss Leon Panetta to give him … something … anything … to hold against Democrats for the 2014 election cycle. Personally, I’m still waiting for Graham’s theory of why exactly “we were lied to”? Because in the middle of an election campaign Obama couldn’t risk admitting the truth, that terrorists — i.e. a bunch of thugs with machine guns — had attacked Americans somewhere in a violent region? If that’s his argument, I really did miss Obama’s solemn promise that no American would ever be harmed by terrorism ever again.

4: I like Hagel’s rather more sophisticated thinking on the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons. Have even the neo-cons run a simulation in which an attack on the US is thwarted by the possibility the bad guys in question will get … nuked?

Paul Ryan, Spawn of Newt.

The classic line about Newt Gingrich, the architect of the strategy of rigid partisan obstruction that has rendered problem-solving virtually impossible, was that “He’s a stupid man’s idea of what a smart man sounds like.” * Newt, now pasty, blubbery and entirely beholding to a casino owner who could soon be in very deep (and long overdue) trouble for padding his fortune with the help of Chinese gangsters, has finally been dismissed from the public stage. (Not that the Beltway talk shows won’t continue to trumpet an “exclusive” with a guy more familiar with a microphone than a light salad.)

It took over 30 years for America’s political/media culture to work the wisdom of Newt Gingrich through its system. But even before he was properly deposited and disposed of, his replacement has stepped in to the spotlight. I speak of course of Paul Ryan, for whom the famous Gingrich quote applies … in spades.

PX90-trim, jut-jawed, clear-eyed and armed with a cherry-picked “understanding” of Ayn Rand, Ryan is very much Gingrich’s spawn. He is, like Gingrich, a man who sounds informed, serious and authoritative despite the uncomfortable fact that his visionary notions for solving The Big Problems … don’t really make any sense once you put paper, pencil or computer to the numbers and get into even superficial detail about … the details. It’s not quite a lunar colony — which would actually have more of a pump-priming quality job creation benefit — but’s it’s nearly as unrealistic.

But for a party, the modern GOP, that has a kind of “Project Runway” response to candidates who look like the characters they are supposed to be –Mitt Romney, job creating businessman who looks like a Hollywood president and now Paul Ryan, serious student of hard numbers from humble origins with matinée-idol appeal — Ryan is a dream candidate. Or rather a “dreamy” candidate.

Ryan’s various budget ideas will get picked apart like a dead deer on a hot Wisconsin highway in the next few weeks. This may be illuminating for those who have no idea who he is or what he’s been talking about and why the GOP cognoscenti (FoxNews, Michelle Malkin, Limbaugh) has such a crush on him. For others, who know about how the Congressional Budget Office scored his budget (which he insisted they judge based on a vast number of closed tax loopholes and cuts… that he did not specify), it’s enough to keep in mind a few key bits of information that wreak havoc with Ryan’s approved personal narrative.

1: He’s “courageous”. In the same way that perpetually campaigning on “cutting taxes” is the single easiest, least courageous thing any politician could ever do, Ryan’s career to date is built on never proposing or seriously countering any tax or legislative initiative supported by this country’s enfranchised financial elite. An act of “courage” would be to have at some moment, as a “serious” thinker, found something somewhere that might have readjusted the tax burden away from the middle-class and on to those around whom money has pooled like fast-rising flood water since the Bush cuts of 2003.

All of his “serious” talk to town halls in southern Wisconsin involve selling middle-class voters on the idea that times are very tough, and it is their patriotic duty to accept sacrifices … none of which are required from the people who have supported him through the entire adult working life he has spent in Congress, mastering the game of modern politics.

2: He’s a “deficit hawk”. Again, were he a true hawk and not merely a hyper-partisan in the Gingrich mold, he would have leaped at the so-called “grand bargain” in last year’s budget talks … but didn’t because to have voted for something that would have so significantly cleaned up the country’s books — post the Bush-Cheney era where Ryan voted for every budget-busting war and idea that crowd of drunken sailors came up with — would have facilitated Barack Obama’s reelection. There is no “courage” or pragmatic patriotism, or seriousness in capitulating to every act of partisan obstruction required from party leaders … who are essentially nothing more than circus dogs for their heavy-lobbying financial masters.

3: He’s a “rising star”. On this point there is no doubt. Ryan is on the ticket because of his appeal to voters for whom the appearance and sound of “seriousness” is good enough, and certainly better than anything said by a Kenyan Muslim socialist. Who the Tea Party crowd was going to vote for, if not Mitt Romney, I have no idea. But I doubt they needed Paul Ryan to vote against Barack Obama. Still, Ryan, assuming he leaves the ring in November with only character-enhancing scars from his run with Romney, is very much the modern GOP’s answer to Wally Pipp. In fact, in the event of a Romney loss, you can already hear the worst of the hyper-partisan zealots caterwauling that “we had the wrong guy at the top of the ticket”.

What I do like is that Ryan has been in Team Obama’s sights for quite a while. A shrewd read of what today’s GOP regards as a courageous rising star. I doubt they were surprised or unprepared for Ryan, and considering the gift he provides in terms of his re-design of Medicare and Medicaid and the focus he restores on the modern GOP’s concept of an equitable balance of balance to the 1% and everyone else, I suspect they are delighted to see Ryan, spawn of Newt, take that act back on the national trail.

Oh, and BTW, today on the campaign trail, Ryan will give a speech on the economy and all the tough choices middle-class Americans are going to have to make … then stop by the Venetian Hotel and Casino for a meeting with the aforementioned friend of Chinese mobsters, Sheldon Adelson, Newt’s one-man deep pocket and now devoted to bankrolling Mitt Romney.

The courage is breathtaking.

* Paul Krugman.