Monday, May 26, 2008

Is Obama the new Reagan?

It’s like some sort of flashback, circa 1980.

Gas prices through the roof. Iran thumbing its nose. Americans deeply unhappy about the direction the country has taken. A bumbling president whose foreign-policy blunders diminished the United States’ capacity to shape the world in accordance with its national interest.

And a presidential candidate who is the polar opposite of the man in the White House, promising to change everything.

Back then, political cartoonists drew Jimmy Carter as a little boy whose feet didn’t touch the ground sitting in a big chair in the Oval Office, smiling insecurely, overwhelmed by the task of being president of a superpower.

There were two superpowers in those days. Pundits fretted that the Soviet Union was growing stronger while the United States became weaker — a perception reinforced by 444 humiliating days of Iran hostage crisis. Time magazine declared nothing less was in order than a “self-examination in which the U.S. weighs its role as a superpower and balances the inherent heavy burdens against the benefits.”

In other words: let us think about drawing back and leave a triumphant Soviet Union as the sole superpower. American confidence, at rock bottom.

On the 444th day, however, Ronald Reagan took office. Minutes later, the hostages were freed. And just about a decade later, the Soviet Union was gone, leaving the United States unchallenged (for a while, anyway) as the globe’s only hyperpower.

The extent to which Reagan’s assertive foreign policy should get credit for bringing about the demise of totalitarian Soviet Marxism has been debated since. But there should be no question that the Reagan presidency utterly changed the national mood from Carter’s “malaise” to the self-assured “shining city on a hill,” and restored muscle to a foreign policy paralyzed by indecisiveness. The United States under Reagan was a far more powerful actor on the global stage, its citizens far more confident in the future of their country, than under Carter.

Today, the country needs a sea-change every bit as transformative — but not in the same direction.

Put aside the orthodoxies of dove versus hawk that have dominated U.S. foreign policy since the beginning of the Cold War, and take an unbiased look at the geopolitical position of the United States five years after the invasion of Iraq, almost seven years since the 9/11 attacks, and just about eight years into the Bush presidency. What you see without ideological blinders is an America every bit as incapable of having its way in the world as the America of Jimmy Carter.

Last week, the Saudis just said “no” to Bush’s request to open the oil spigot. The Iranians continue to speed toward nukes, unchecked and unafraid of an America with its hands full in the unnecessary war in Iraq. Europe, which thinks we are nuts, rebuffed Bush’s proposal to bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, “a remarkable rejection of American policy in an alliance normally dominated by Washington,” as the New York Times put it. There is also the absence of a policy to deal with the rising power of China, or of a comprehensive regional approach to build alliances in Latin America willing to stand up to the Havana-Caracas axis.

The country’s international position is as weak in 1980 — but for entirely different reasons. The transition from Carter to Reagan was marked by a shift from vacillation to resolve. That was indispensable to re-establish American preeminence. But now, we are on the verge of losing that preeminence because of an excess of resolve — a unilateral, damn-what-anybody-thinks resolve born out of jingoistic arrogance, executive incompetence and cultural ignorance about the world beyond the borders of the United States.

That is not all. This administration has wiretapped citizens without a court’s permission, proclaims a right to torture by any other name and, as a harrowing story last week in the Washington Post put it, “injected hundreds of foreigners it has deported with dangerous psychotropic drugs against their will to keep them sedated during the trip back to their home country.”

Somebody has got to put a stop to this, the way that Reagan stopped the slide under Jimmy Carter. John McCain can’t do it — a watershed year like this one requires a comprehensively transformed leadership.

But Barack Obama has yet to succeed in assuring the American public that he can be not just smart, but also strong. Eagerness to meet “unconditionally” with the world’s worst dictators is no improvement over the recklessness of the Bush years.

Obama needs to show that he is no Jimmy Carter, but a liberal version of Ronald Reagan.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Between a Roca and a Hard (Right) Place

John McCain’s Cinco de Mayo announcement he will speak at the convention of the National Council of La Raza this summer sent a certain type of Republican into paroxysms of delusional angst.

Michelle Malkin called it an attempt “to legitimize the militantly open-borders, anti-immigration enforcement, ethnic nationalists who call themselves ‘The Race.’

The popular right wing blog Little Green Footballs asked, “Why is John McCain pandering to a rabidly racist Mexican-American group with an open agenda to turn the Western states of the US into ‘Aztlan?’”

And Joseph Farah at World Net daily added that the news “is beyond disturbing. It is sickening. It is repulsive. It is inexcusable. It is … immoral and evil” because the aim of the group is to turn the Southwest over to Mexico or establish “an independent, autonomous, Spanish-speaking socialist state.”

This is hilarious stuff. Back on planet Earth, the NCLR is boring in a Kraft burritos sort of way: there’s Mexican flavor in there, but safely Americanized (its “Corporate Partners Program” reads like the Fortune 500, from Allstate to Xerox). The NCLR is nothing more than a civil rights group with a focus on Hispanics. Yes, it leans left. It advocates for affordable housing, immigration reform, lowering the Hispanic school drop out rate — quintessentially mainstream, moderate liberal causes.

Radical separatists? A disclaimer on its website could not be clearer: “Another misconception about NCLR is that we support a “Reconquista,” or the right of Mexico to reclaim land in the southwestern United States. NCLR has not made and does not make any such claim; indeed, such a claim is so far outside of the mainstream of the Latino community that we find it incredible that our critics raise it as an issue.”

But they do. Just like they are also raising alarms about McCain’s launch of a Spanish-language website.

“McCain is basically letting us know that Spanish is now irrevocably becoming our second language,” someone posted at the website of Americans for Legal Immigration. At the hysterically anti-immigrant (its head honcho, nativist but British-born Peter Brimelow, once helpfully corrected me by clarifying his site was not white supremacist but "white nationalist") one Alan Wall wrote, “A common civic language is a great advantage, one we shouldn’t toss on the junk heap so easily. English is our national language. It’s our language of public discourse.”

An eminently reasonable point. Fascinating, too, to learn that a person with what seems like a normally functioning brain has actually convinced himself, and is trying to convince others, that the United States of America is junking the English language.

Such rantings from the Republicans’ lunatic fringe has been predictable ever since immigrant-bashing became de rigueur on the right. It’s become tedious. But the bombast will attract interest again as the presidential campaign draws closer.

What John McCain heard this week is just a little sample of what the anti-immigrant right has in store for him. These are people who will not forgive him for sponsoring legislation that offered qualified illegal immigrants a path to legal residency and eventually citizenship. The worse among them will not forgive him, either, for refusing to join their hallucinations about conspiracies to turn the United States into a Spanish-speaking province of Mexico.

Most people like that will stay home given a choice between McCain and a Democrat. But they will stay home screaming, and their yelling can influence voters who are not racist but do worry about illegal immigration. McCain cannot win if they stay home too.

At the same time, McCain needs Hispanic votes. He has proven he can get them: in his 2004 race for Senate he won 75 percent of Arizona’s, the same year George W. Bush won 40 percent nationally, highest ever for a Republican presidential candidate.

McCain will find it tough to top that. “The tenor of the [immigration] debate has harmed our image among Hispanics,” he acknowledged when he announced the Spanish website and NCLR appearance.

To win he will have to court Hispanics without making border hawks stay home. Good luck with that.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Obama the Patriot

Everybody knows about the two speeches Barack Obama needed to get past, or at least try to get past, his pastor problem.

There was the first one, early March in Philadelphia, when he said the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermons “expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country,” yet he insisted, “I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother.”

Then there was the second speech, after Wright’s rantings about a government plot to spread AIDS in black communities revealed to the world his hallucinations about the nature of America. A visibly stunned Obama disowned him — and learned that he didn’t have to also disown his grandma or blacks in general.

But there was a third speech. It came Tuesday night, after Obama’s win in North Carolina. And it helped the candidate muscle his now former pastor into a locked sound-proof box from which no more damaging YouTube loops can escape (at least until Republicans try to smash it open).

Yet in that victory speech Obama did not mention Wright, or even allude to the maelstrom that threatened his viability as a presidential candidate. What he did was try to soothe, without saying that’s what he was doing, the fear that fed that maelstrom: Patriotism.

It all came down to the anxiety that a man who might be President of the United States did not love his country.

The entire Wright episode has been denounced as a distraction from discussion of “real issues” like the economy, health care, the war in Iraq, terrorism, immigration (remember that?) and America’s deteriorated image and declining influence on the world stage.

But the questions raised by Obama’s relationship with the delusionally anti-American Wright did constitute a real issue. It is not just a partisan hatchet job to ask how it is possible for a man who loves his country, and might be president of us all, to think enough of Wright to have him as mentor — spiritual or otherwise — for 20 years.

Obama has yet to explain how that is possible. He has yet to explain what he was thinking about Wright, or what he had heard Wright say over those two decades. That’s almost half a lifetime for Obama. Did he entirely miss hearing the pastor’s bizarre views that seem to be not merely the product of a moment of loopiness, but an entire political philosophy? And if he did not miss it, how can he have put up with it?

No, he has not explained how all that is possible. Yet in North Carolina he made it clear that it is possible.

Obama needed to show that he loves this country as much as any old-fashioned Ronald Reagan patriot, even without the flag pin. Which is what he did in North Carolina.

“This is the country that made it possible for my mother — a single parent who had to go on food stamps at one point — to send my sister and me to the best schools in the country on scholarships,” he said. “I know the promise of America because I have lived it. It is the light of opportunity that led my father across an ocean. It is the founding ideals that the flag draped over my grandfather’s coffin stands for — it is life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Back in that Philadelphia speech, he spoke in front of an array of U.S. flags and praised the Founding Fathers, but he also denounced America’s original sin — the hypocrisy of permitting slavery in the world’s first democracy. Noting that then, in the context of trying to explain his relationship with Wright, was necessary.

In North Carolina, however, the task was to get past Wright and affirm the patriotism that had been questioned. Which he did as well as anyone could have hoped.

Time to stop it about Jeremiah Wright.