Thursday, December 23, 2010

Obama's year-end victory celebration - and the dark cloud inside the silver lining

This 33-minute news report from the PBS Newshour 12/22/2010 presents Obama making his case for the success of his post-election legislative victories.

The Beltway Village take on this is illustrated by the first question he receives after his speech: she asks if this makes him the Comeback Kid. Howard Fineman, one of the Huffington Post’s less inspiring recent additions as a regular reporter, gives what could be a White House press release version of this in Obama’s Got (Found) Game 12/22/2010:

People who play basketball with Barack Obama say he's more dogged than flashy, more determined than skillful, more adaptable than unique. He'll trash talk on a dribble-drive with Reggie Love, but in the old days he was a studious, unselfish passer with classroom colleagues at Harvard Law.

And often, they say, he ended up with more points than you thought he'd have. No one noticed until it was over.
As Mark Shields said a few months ago, "The political class, of whom I guess I'm one, we're -- we're all frustrated sportswriters, and we want it to be third and long. It's the Hail Mary pass." All they really want to talk about is the horse-race stories. And sex.

Politics is in part a game, with competition, rules and, of course, winners and losers. The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset even did a long essay once on the idea that the state originally developed out of sports contests; I don't know how well that would hold up in light of the most recent anthropological evidence on the topic. But the problem today is that the celebrity aspects politics has been elevated by our infotainment-oriented news reporting, especially on TV, to a level that it crowds out most of the substance. And the journalistic/infotainment obsession with point-scoring and the "horse race" produces a chronically short-sided and shallow version of political news.

For our star pundits, most of whom worship at the altar of High Broderism, the fact that Obama is making deals with generous concessions to Republicans and that liberals and labor are pissed off at him over the tax deal are themselves signs of virtue. But the experience of the lame-duck Congress these last few weeks don't bode well for the next two years.

The approval of the New START Treaty was a real victory. And it required getting Republican votes.

Joshua Pollack explains its value in The high stakes of New START Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 12/06/2010: "With approximately 12,000 nuclear warheads ... Russia remains the sole force on Earth that could terminate the existence of the United States on any given day." That is what foreign policy types mean when they talk about existential threats to the US, literally threats to the existence of the country. As he also explains, what has been true for the last 30 years is still true: the Star Wars missile defense program that the Republicans revere with theological fervor is useless, i.e., "would be of no help against Russia's arsenal."

Michael Krepon in Victory Kudos Arms Control Wonk 12/22/2010 takes stock of the Senate vote approving the treaty. In doing so, he reminds us that "bipartisanship" has different meanings:

Vice President Biden led a well-crafted vote-getting process on Capitol Hill, which succeeded, for the first time ever, in garnering a two-thirds super-majority in the Senate against the preferences of the Minority Leader and his Republican Whip. [my emphasis]
But it's a measure of the pathology of US politics right now that START was virtually a non-issue. We spend half the military budget of the entire world. And our main current justification for it is "Al Qa'ida", a terrorist band headed by Osama bin Laden that consists of at most a few hundred zealots hiding in caves and small villages in Pakistan and Afghanistan. If Bin Laden's organization even exists in a meaningful sense any more. Regardless of the status of his group, terrorism is a real problem for the US, both international jihadists and the more threatening far-right domestic terrorism.

So terrorism worries alone should make disposing of old nuclear weapons and the control of nuclear weapons proliferation a major concern of the Congress and the public. It's even more important to stop their proliferation to governments. If our politics could deal with the real problems of national security in an overall rational way, this would be a hot issue year in and year out.

But for most voters and viewers following the news, the approval of what the President calls the most important arms-control agreement in two decades was very close to a non-event. Because for our star pundits, it's just another point in a basketball game.

Still, it does have political significance. The Congressional Republicans, bless their little hearts (and I do mean little hearts), are good at playing the long game. Unlike our Broderian President, they are willing to fight and lose to set the stage for what their authoritarian Party sees as a better result down the road. Michael Krepon notes:

Senator Kyl and the Heritage Foundation also deserve recognition: they turned a modest, moderate, uncontroversial treaty into a cause célèbre. In doing so, they have narrowed the administration's options and solidified opposition to nuclear arms control by Republicans on Capitol Hill and among those running for their Party's presidential nomination in 2012. [my emphasis in bold]
And while the White House takes its well-deserved victory lapses on this one, Democrats who can walk and talk at the same time should remember how the bipartisanship on this vote compares to this one taken during the bitterly anti-Clinton majority Republican Senate. Krepon again:

Thirteen tradition-minded, yet forward-looking Republican Senators who remembered that their Party has championed nuclear-arms reductions and who understood the down-side risks of torpedoing New START. They are a dwindling breed. The last arms control treaty to be ratified by the Senate, the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997, garnered 29 Republican 'Yeas.' [my emphasis]
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