Conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh set off a firestorm of controversy earlier this month when he said that he "hopes Obama fails" because a successful Obama presidency and a conservative agenda cannot coexist. This comment received a lot of attention in the blogosphere which is now having renewed debates about patriotism and partisanship (see here, here, and here).
In response, President Obama caught the world of conservative talk radio by surprise when he warned that "you can't just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done." Not wanting to let this charge go unanswered, Limbaugh fired back by saying Obama was "frightened" of him. He also chastised the congressional Republican leadership for not being tough enough on the new president.
A conventional interpretation of Obama's remarks is that Obama believes that while Limbaugh's combativeness and unwillingness to compromise may be sweet music to hardcore conservatives, his approach to politics is ultimately problematic because it turns so many voters off and results in political stalemates and animosity. However, the interpretation of Obama's words is far less important than the reason why he even bothered to get involved in this discussion in the first place.
At first glance, it appears that Obama made a mistake by criticizing Limbaugh. An old saying on the campaign trail is that if you're going to shoot, you never aim down. Obama is the President of the United States. As the new leader of the free world, he has more power, more importance, more influence, and more respect than anyone else in the country. Rush Limbaugh may have an audience of 20 million listeners, but Barack Obama received almost 70 million votes. Therefore, one could argue that Obama is diminishing his stature by engaging Limbaugh. Elevated by Obama, Limbaugh could then argue to his listeners that he has gotten under Obama's skin. This translates into better ratings for Limbaugh and greater approval from his listeners who love the red meat.
However, after running a successful two-year long presidential campaign characterized by strict message discipline, it is possible that Obama was thinking beyond Limbaugh.
There are three main segments of Republican voters:
1. Moderate Republicans. These Republicans tend to be conservative on fiscal issues, but more moderate on social issues. They often live in the suburbs and are well off financially. These kinds of Republicans kept Midwestern and Northeastern states like Michigan, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania competitive. Of all Republicans, these types were probably the most likely to vote for Barack Obama last November or may tepidly identify themselves as Blue Dog Democrats now. Icons of this wing of the party include Colin Powell, Lincoln Chafee, Mitt Romney, Olympia Snowe, and Bob Ehrlich.
2. Small government conservatives. These Republicans simply want to be left alone. They don't want the government to do anything with their land, their guns, or their money. They are conservative on social issues as well, but think these issues are best resolved at the state level. These Republicans were probably pulling their hair out when they were in the majority during the first 6 years of Bush's presidency because they saw the rest of their party running off the rails in terms of government spending and government growth. Many of them live in the libertarian West. Icons of this wing of the GOP include Mike Pence, John Shadegg, John McCain, Lisa Murkowski, Eric Cantor, and John Barrasso.
3. Conservative populists. Also known as the Republican base, these Republicans are conservative on fiscal issues and conservative on social issues, but they seek government intervention when it comes to implementing their social policies (such as a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage). Concentrated in the South and rural Midwest, this wing of the party was probably more likely to subscribe to the rumors about Obama's religion and his ties to "terrorists." These hard right Republicans did not like John McCain, but they absolutely loved Sarah Palin. In addition to Palin, other icons of this wing of the party include Saxby Chambliss, Tom Tancredo, Tony Perkins, James Inhofe, and Sean Hannity.
This third wing of the GOP constitutes Rush Limbaugh's core audience. But it is also this wing of the party that is hurting the Republican Party's ability to keep the first wing of the party in line and bring independents and conservative Democrats into its ranks. There is a complete leadership vacuum in the GOP right now. John McCain lost the election and is now just another senator. The RNC is still looking for a chairman. Most voters don't know who Mitch McConnell and John Boehner are (they are the majority leaders of the Senate and House, respectively). And Sarah Palin clearly split the party. So perhaps Rush Limbaugh is filling this leadership void. Even though he holds no office, he does wield tremendous influence and is intensely popular with the base.
By elevating Limbaugh, Obama is also shining a spotlight on the wing of the party Limbaugh represents. This puts the cool and bipartisan Obama against the fiery and antagonistic Limbaugh. Because voters responded well to Obama's message of "change" and bipartisanship, they will probably think that Obama looks much more mature and much more politically appealing than Limbaugh. Of course, Limbaugh is not running for office.
However, this presents a dilemma for Republican politicians. Do they distance themselves from Limbaugh because his rhetoric is over the top? Or do they embrace Limbaugh and risk limiting their appeal beyond the conservative populist base? Congressman Phil Gingrey of Georgia initially came out against Limbaugh, but later called Limbaugh during his show and apologized for "putting his foot in his mouth." He also said he greatly respected "conservative icons" like Limbaugh who were helping to strengthen the base.
A point to remember is that in the current House of Representatives, most Republicans who survived the 2006 and 2008 elections represent solidly conservative districts. They don't have to worry about pleasing Democrats, liberals, and moderates. Perhaps Congressman Gingrey forgot that he represents a conservative district in Georgia. But what about other Republicans, especially those in the first two groups I mentioned above? How will they respond if they are called upon to denounce Limbaugh's remarks?
Obama is far more popular among far more people than Limbaugh is, and it appears that Obama may have put the Republican Party in a bit of a box by giving the least attractive wing of the party (politically speaking) a larger stage. For Republicans seeking to grow the party by appealing to a broader swath of the electorate, having Rush Limbaugh wish out loud that the new president fails and hearing him claim that "we have to bend over and grab our ankles because his father was Black" most certainly does not play well beyond his politically weakened audience.
For Republicans harboring broader political ambitions, Rush Limbaugh may help them in the primaries, but send them to their doom in a general election. President Obama may have outfoxed Republicans by stoking the fire and letting Limbaugh win the battle at the expense of losing the larger war.
Conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh set off a firestorm of controversy earlier this month when he said that he "hopes Obama fails" because a successful Obama presidency and a conservative agenda cannot coexist. This comment received a lot of attention in the blogosphere which is now having renewed debates about patriotism and partisanship (see here, here, and here).
President Obama is meeting with congressional Republicans to get them on board with his economic stimulus plan, as their resistance is holding up progress on this bill. Obama's meetings with Republicans might be surprising to Democrats who clearly have enough votes in both chambers to pass this bill without much Republican support. The new president's tone so far has even rankled some Democrats, such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who warned that he does not work for President Obama, but rather with him.
However, Democrats might be overreacting to Obama's efforts to reach out to Republicans. Even though Democrats might not think they need Republicans' votes, it is definitely in their collective interest to have them. President Obama may realize this, and he might be cleverly using the cloak of bipartisanship to strengthen the Democrats' political standing.
First of all, part of the genius of Obama is that he never explicitly defined "change" during the campaign. This allows him to attach any meaning he wants to it, while allowing voters to do the same. Seeing Obama consciously try to gain Republican support for his plan even though the Democrats have hefty majorities in both chambers makes for good politics. The House in particular is known for ramming bills through with the majority of votes coming from the majority party while the minority is shut out. Obama is showing that he does not want the minority to be irrelevant even though they launched every charge under the sun at him during the campaign. This magnanimity buys him political capital with moderates and persuadable Republicans and could certainly be construed as "change" compared to the Bush administration that tended not to seek compromise. It allows Obama to prove that he really does want to lower the partisanship in Washington and end the era of perpetual "political payback," another "change."
This magnanimity has another advantage in that it spreads the burden of political ownership across both parties. When you are in the minority, you cannot be held accountable for anything because you have no power--at least in the House. If popular legislation gets passed, a congressman's no-vote will often be overshadowed by the good press the legislation generates. And if the legislation turns out to be a dud, that gives the no-voting congressman a political issue to run on in the next campaign.
However, President Obama wants to ensure that as many politicians as possible have ownership of this bill. This way, everyone can take credit for its success or share the blame for its failure. President Obama can easily get this bill passed without the support of any Republicans, but he does not want this bill to be the "Democratic bailout giveaway" that Republicans run against in 2010. Forcing a significant number of Republicans to get on board will inoculate both Obama and congressional Democrats from criticism if this bill proves ineffective at reviving the economy.
If the bill succeeds, voters will be happy and will not "throw the bums out" in 2010. Everyone will have an easier time winning reelection. Of course, if the status quo is maintained, that means the Democrats will retain their majorities and Obama will maintain his political capital. And if the bill proves ineffective, Republicans will have a harder case pinning this on the Democrats because many members of their party will have voted for it too. Thus, this potential campaign issue will have been neutralized.
So what happens if Republicans continue to resist Obama's plan? They will be seen as obstructionists who are unable to compromise. Voters are not going to tell Obama to stop being bipartisan and just get the bill passed. Instead, they will be more likely to tell Republicans to work with the new president and compromise. Obama is in the honeymoon period, so voters will be more patient with him than they are with Congress. Even if no bill gets passed quickly, the fact that Obama is making sure he is being seen meeting with Republicans 1) shows that Obama is hard at work, 2) shows that Obama is sincerely trying to have an inclusive government, and 3) puts pressure on Republicans to support his bill. President Obama is much more popular than Congress is, so the pressure will be on Republicans to support Obama's proposals, rather than on Obama to support Republican proposals. If Republicans continue to protest his plan, he can remind them that he won the election, as he did a few days ago, thus reminding them of how their ideas were rejected at the ballot box and that they should be more willing to moderate their views.
While one can never know a politician's true motives, Obama is clearly politically shrewd. Through his calm demeanor and bipartisan overtures, he is laying a trap for Republicans that would minimize their political gain even if the bill succeeds. Congressional Democrats should stop worrying about how many votes they have or how much they despise the Republican opposition because Obama stands to do far more to marginalize Republicans through his "service with a smile" bipartisanship than Nancy Pelosi could ever do by simply sending the bill to the Senate without any Republican votes at all.
After a campaign that lasted almost two years, Barack Obama was officially sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. An estimated 1.5 million people crowded into the National Mall in Washington to see the transfer of power with untold millions of others watching from around the world.
In a world in which changes of power are so commonly characterized by assassinations, kidnappings, and riots, the peaceful and orderly American model gives me great pride. But while this day is certainly one of the most monumental in my 32-year lifetime, unfortunately, I will remember this historic day for other less savory reasons that I was hoping were put to rest after last November's elections.
Many people in the crowd gathered in Washington, presumably mostly Democrats, booed the outgoing President George Bush when he was introduced through the loudspeakers. Some people in the crowd even went so far as to taunt him by singing "Kiss 'Em Goodbye," a song that is commonly heard at sporting events. This was a very undignified and unfortunate display of immaturity that soiled the tone of this historic day and contradicted everything that now-President Obama had advocated during the campaign.
President Bush was certainly both unpopular and controversial. But there should be a certain level of respect and decorum that is maintained on such a stage. The President is our national leader. And while our Constitution certainly guarantees us the freedom to ridicule him, it is bad form to do so on a day such as this. It is to nobody's benefit to gin up partisan attitudes and erode the goodwill that Obama has worked so hard to generate among people outside of his ideological tent. It was wrong when Republicans slammed the door in Democrats' faces during the Bush presidency, and it would be just as wrong for Democrats to do the same during Obama's presidency. Just because one's preferred candidate won doesn't make it right to express your disapproval this way on this stage. This is not a sport. This is history. This is the political system to which we wish for other governments to aspire. Keeping one's partisan instincts in check for one day shouldn't be too much to ask.
But it's not just liberals who have stained what should be a joyous day for this country. Now conservative websites are abuzz about the botched presidential oath. According to First Read, both President Obama and Chief Justice John Roberts made mistakes when reciting this seemingly simple oath. Obama jumped in too fast at the beginning, and Roberts got the order of the words wrong later on. Conservative critics are mocking Obama for his lack of eloquence without a teleprompter. Others are worrying that he will mess up the country the same way he "messed up" the oath.
How unbelievably petty.
It's a shame that of all the things to talk about today, the mangling of the oath is generating so much attention. Not Iraq. Not the economy. Not the stock market, which took another 300-point hit today. But the crispness of the presidential oath. This kind of political sniping reeks of smallness. It seems old. It seems tired. It seems pointless. And given the number and severity of the challenges facing this nation right now, one would think that more people would have a more serious sense of perspective. Of course, people are not obligated to support the new president. Obama has to earn this support. And some people's support can never be earned. But to take these kinds of potshots on this particular day is just as unattractive and stupid as the liberals who were booing the outgoing president before an international audience this morning.
This kind of bankrupt criticism is particularly dangerous for Republicans because the only way they can regain their political competitiveness is by offering constructive solutions to our nation's challenges. President Obama is the face of America and the Democratic Party, not the knuckleheads who were booing Bush at the inaugural ceremony. But the Republicans have no clear leader right now. Republican politicians would be wise not to travel down the same path that these hardcore nonpersuadables seem to be taking because it offers absolutely nothing.
"Change" won the election, and Obama has an 83% approval rating. Obama was careful to mention that "change" did not apply solely to government policies and politicians--it applied to voters as well. It would be a shame if partisan Democrats and hardcore Republicans ignored this message by continuing the same sad story by focusing on the same stupid stuff in the same stupid way.
Former Virginia congressman Tom Davis recently penned an excellent essay detailing Republicans' problems and how the party can get back on track. Coming from a Republican, his essay is well worth reading. But I think the Republican Party's problems can be summarized more succinctly by how three politicians embody them: Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, and Sarah Palin. Perhaps there are other politicians who capture the essence of Republicans' problems, but these three are the most obvious.
Ronald Reagan. The much revered Reagan is arguably the most successful, most influential, and most popular president over the last 50 years. He single-handedly ushered in a new political movement that redefined conservatism and laid the groundwork for today's Republican Party. He won both of his elections in landslides and left office with high approval ratings.
So why is Reagan a problem?
Because he left office 20 years ago. When Reagan handed over the White House to George H.W. Bush in 1989, voters born after about 1970 were college freshmen, teenagers, children, babies, embryos, or not yet conceived. In 2009, their connection to Ronald Reagan is either weak or nonexistent. They were too young to remember him or they simply weren't alive. To young voters, the face of the Republican Party is George W. Bush or his father, not Reagan. So talking about returning to Reagan's principles makes the GOP seem like it has no new ideas. Of course, Democrats had the same problem with their romanticizing of John F. Kennedy. However, Barack Obama was able to keep this nostalgia in check and make his presidential campaign about the future. If Republicans are unable to do the same, they will be locked out of power for a very long time. It is no coincidence that presidential exit polls revealed that Obama beat McCain by a 2 to 1 margin among 18-29 year olds.
Barack Obama. Aside from being the Democrat who vanquished their party's presidential nominee in 2008, Obama presents several other problems for Republicans. Shortly after Obama's victory, many people began parsing the exit polls and found that Blacks supported Obama by about 20 to 1. It did not take long before many Republicans complained that Blacks only voted for him because he was "Black." Even before the election, powerful conservative icons were criticizing the endorsements Obama received from other Blacks, such as Rush Limbaugh's criticism of Colin Powell.
However, these Republicans are missing the point. Al Gore won about 90% of the Black vote in 2000, and John Kerry won about as much in 2004. Instead of complaining that Blacks only supported Obama because he was Black, they should be studying the exit polls and wondering why only 1 out of 20 Blacks, 1 out of 3 Latinos, and 1 out of 3 people of other races voted Republican. What an indictment against the Republican Party! Worse yet for Republicans, this nonwhite portion of the electorate is growing. The point is not that so many people of color are voting for other people of color. The point is that so few people of color are voting for Republicans.
A second reason why Obama represents a problem for Republicans is because of his own political skills. In the post-election transition period, Obama has been able to neutralize several of his political rivals by co-opting their ideas or including them in his cabinet. For example, Obama's selection of Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural invocation has angered the left while pleasing the right. Keeping Robert Gates on board as the Secretary of Defense probably did not please liberals either. Who was supposed to be the "maverick" last year? Certainly not Obama. But he took McCain's message and neutralized it by making it his own. He did the same thing with asking Hillary Clinton to be his Secretary of State. Does anybody even know what PUMAs stand for anymore?
Of course, Obama has not assumed office yet. However, he has certainly built up a lot of goodwill. So how can Republicans attack him or position themselves? So far, Obama can credibly claim that he has been a "change" agent, a "maverick," and a genuine bipartisan. He now has a stranglehold on the left and the center and is even making inroads with the persuadable right. What's left? There just aren't enough votes on the far right to topple him. As long as Obama governs competently and effectively, he could easily dismiss Republicans' attacks as the politics of yesterday, and a lot of moderate and independent voters will probably agree. Making meaningful and significant overtures to voters early on who might not have been inclined to support him at first may pay great dividends later on.
Sarah Palin. The once obscure Alaska governor is now one of the most recognizable and most popular faces of the Republican Party. But is that a good thing? While she may be good for fundraising and keeping the party base happy, she may also be the best thing that has happened to Democrats.
In the weeks and months after the election, Palin has continued to make headlines, as she is still fighting the battles of yesterday. She is still complaining about her handlers during the campaign even though the campaign is over and most people have moved on. She is still attacking Katie Couric even though she's the one who couldn't give coherent answers to Couric's questions. She is still badmouthing the media even though she was a journalism major in college who should presumably understand how the media operate. She is complaining that she was the victim of sexism and classism as she compared media coverage of herself with that of Caroline Kennedy of New York even though a vice president requires a much more advanced skill set than a senator does.
It seems that every time Palin speaks, it's about her and not the voters. If Republicans continue to rally behind such a candidate, they will send a very clear message to people outside the GOP that she espouses what they value. Palin represents a certain level of ignorance that is both alarming and repulsive to her detractors. (Consider Palin protege Joe the War Correspondent, formerly known as Joe the Plumber, who says journalists should be "abolished" from reporting on war.) Conservative David Frum picked up on this and sounded a warning that should concern Palin and her supporters. Political analyst Charlie Cook has found that Democrats' fortunes improve as more and more people get bachelor's degrees. The anti-intellectualism that Palin seems to convey seems to be at odds with this change in demographics. Minority outreach problems aside, can Republicans really afford to be on the wrong side of this demographic change too?
In Sarah Palin's world, there are many mistakes. But the only person who should not take responsibility for these mistakes is Sarah Palin herself. How do Republicans square this with their mantra of "personal accountability?"
In short, I agree with Congressman Davis that Republicans need new ideas, new outreach efforts, and a renewed appreciation for knowledge. But in addition to this, they need new icons. Ronald Reagan alone will no longer suffice, and Sarah Palin is a terrible substitute.
(Note: This post is a reassessment of the arguments I posed in The Future of Cable News last spring.)
The holidays are over and a new political season is beginning after several weeks of downtime. This new political season offers many unique challenges and opportunities not just for Barack Obama and the Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill. The three major cable news networks also now have to deal with a post-election landscape that is fraught with several pitfalls that did not exist three months ago. Failure to successfully adapt to this changing media environment could shake up the cable news race because the cable news audience has changed.
MSNBC has two unique problems. The first problem concerns its programming. The primetime lineup that brought the network from obscurity to competitiveness with CNN now threatens to leave the network flailing. President Bush will be out of the White House in less than two weeks. Then what? Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow have two of the network's three highest rated programs. These programs are often based on Bush-bashing or exposing transgressions or scandals emanating from the White House. But now that the next president will be Barack Obama, whom both fiercely supported, what will they talk about on their shows?
Perhaps Olbermann and Maddow are hoping that they could serve as liberal watchdogs to keep Obama in check. After all, just because Obama is a liberal Democrat doesn't necessarily mean he will govern like one. And just because Washington will be completely controlled by Democrats doesn't necessarily mean the Democrats won't mess things up or that the Republicans won't create controversies of their own. But Olbermann and Maddow clearly came to prominence because of Bush. After all the Bush-bashing the two of them did, they may find that they actually miss him if their ratings begin to slide. Are their viewers pro-liberal or anti-Bush?
MSNBC's second problem is its positioning. CNN is the network people turn to when news matters. Fox News is the network people turn to for conservative political programming. MSNBC, in addition to being a haven for liberals, is "the place for politics." But is there really an appetite for a network that focuses on politics first and news second? This may have been a good formula before the election because all the political junkies needed their "hit." But can the intensity of this interest in politics be sustained in this post-election climate?
On a related note, being a political network first and a news network second could bring disastrous results in the event that breaking news is the issue of the day. MSNBC's coverage of the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai was widely criticized. CNN, on the other hand, had correspondents broadcasting live at the scene of the rampage and was able to interview survivors, escapees, and eyewitnesses. MSNBC cannot sacrifice news reporting for political reporting if it wants to be taken seriously.
As for CNN, it is certainly not the flashiest network when it comes to political programming. Its primetime programming took a beating last fall, as MSNBC actually beat CNN in the ratings last October. However, its international resources and reliable reporting clearly define this network. If there is a major news story or historical event taking place, CNN shines. In terms of politics, however, the low decibel debates that its pundits engage in might not be as engaging as the shoutfests that typify Fox News or MSNBC. But CNN may be banking on viewers to get tired of the ranting and have a renewed appreciation for civil political discourse. But hasn't CNN been banking on that for years now?
The challenge for CNN is to not let its political reporting become marginalized by its news reporting. (In other words, it has the opposite problem of MSNBC.) There is clearly an appetite for political programming. But if CNN's lead story at 8:00 is about bad weather while its marquee interview at 9:00 is about a missing person case, the network will continue to be seen as the "Crisis News Network" that thrives when the subject is Katrina, 9-11, Mumbai, or Election Night, but is totally forgotten when those stories go away. CNN earned a lot of respect from political viewers as a result of its "Magic Wall" and impressive political roundtables (particularly David Gergen and Gloria Borger). Now it has to find a way to keep them interested. Channeling their inner Weather Channel or Nancy Grace won't do it.
The challenge for Fox News is to avoid becoming what MSNBC was under Bush. Barack Obama's approval rating is about three times higher than President Bush's, and he clearly expanded the map by turning reliably red states purple. Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, and other pundits and personalities at the network spent a lot of time attacking Obama for issues that ultimately did not matter to most of the electorate or positions that most of the electorate actually shared. Obama's victory essentially repudiated these pundits' analyses and undercut their proclamations that their views were in sync with "mainstream America."
Fox News benefits from its catchy slogan "We report. You decide." But the voters' decision last November clearly went against what Fox was reporting (e.g., William Ayers, Michelle Obama not being "proud" of her country, etc.). So if Fox News does little more than take potshots at Obama right from the onset of his administration, the top-rated cable news channel may find itself reaching a smaller and smaller audience.
In short, MSNBC can survive as a political news network, but it can't survive if the "news" part of the equation falls by the wayside. It may also need to reassess whether it can survive as a liberal alternative to Fox.
CNN can survive as a straight news network, but it can revitalize itself if it takes a few chances by placing a little more emphasis on politics or at least doing a more effective job of showing how the news of the day impacts the political world.
Fox News can survive as an alternative to the much maligned "mainstream liberal media," but not if it is blinded by its own ideology. This is not to say that conservatism is wrong. But it would be wise to consider broadening its appeal because, as last fall's election indicated, the segment of the electorate its programming caters to is shrinking.
Much to the horror of Illinois politicians and Democrats everywhere, the Rod Blagojevich scandal continues to thrive. While President-elect Barack Obama seems to have largely escaped being embroiled in the investigation surrounding the embattled governor, the governor's political antics have national Democrats pulling their hair out.
Blagojevich's choice to fill Obama's old senate seat, former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris continued to make news today by showing up at the Senate to be sworn in only to be denied entry. Now all parties involved seem to be at a stalemate.
Burris makes a valid argument by saying that his appointment is legal and that the taint of the appointer should not cause one to punish the appointee. He is also correct that even though Blagojevich is under investigation, until he is impeached, he is still the governor and has the authority to fill any vacant senate seat in his state.
Of course, Senate Democrats have a vested interest in keeping Burris out of the Senate because they do not want to be seen politically as allowing politicians out on bail to make appointments to their chamber. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's "culture of corruption" argument that she used against congressional Republicans in 2006 would immediately be turned against the Democrats. This would also fly in the face of President-elect Obama's message of "change," even though Obama himself expressed his disapproval of Burris's appointment. So if the Democrats block Burris, they could brag that they are willing to stand up to members of their own party and seize the good government mantle.
Blagojevich, Burris, and some of their political allies, such as Illinois Congressman Bobby Rush, have raised the stakes by injecting race into the discussion. Rush recently warned Democratic senators not to "hang or lynch" Burris and said they should allow Burris to be sworn in because he would be the only "Black senator."
Democrats would be wise to ignore Rush's racially-charged threats because most people, including Blacks, are not thinking about this controversy in terms of race. They are probably more likely to think about it in terms of ethics. Shamelessly playing the race card only undermines Burris's own appointment and taints Black politicians of his (and Bobby Rush's) ilk. That could work to Barack Obama's advantage because the current cheapening of the issue of race stands in stark contrast to the effort Obama put into moving the nation beyond it during his presidential campaign.
Having said all that, despite Blagojevich's questionable ethics, he is a very shrewd politician who succeeded in placing Democrats in a box. There are no good options.
Burris is clearly not giving up his fight to become Illinois' junior senator, and Blagojevich's antics obviously show that he is going to do whatever he wants. So inactivity on behalf of Senate Democrats will only keep this story in the news, thus distracting Democrats from Obama's inauguration and his agenda.
Inactivity on behalf of the Democrats in Washington could also allow Burris to reframe the controversy (he's on television every day) and make the Democrats seem like the bad guys here (rather than just Blagojevich). Burris appears to have the law on his side, so the Democrats will have to find a good reason not to let him in. This could inject race into a controversy where it wasn't an issue to begin with. If Black voters begin to perceive this story as White senators keeping a Black senator out of their exclusive club, that could be a terrible public relations problem for the Democrats.
There has been some talk of a compromise in which Burris would be sworn in on the condition that he not run for reelection in 2010. But there is no way to enforce this, and Burris's electability is suspect.
The last thing Democrats want is a special election because that would put what should be a safe Democratic seat at risk. It is true that the Republican bench in Illinois is weak and disorganized (remember, Obama's 2004 opponent was the carpetbagging Alan Keyes). But Blagojevich is less popular than President Bush is, so voters may take their frustrations out on him by voting Republican.
Thus, it seems like the smartest thing Democrats could do politically is just accept Burris without conditions and put this story behind them. Democrats and Obama are already on record as being against Burris's appointment, and voters outside of Illinois will forget about Burris after Obama is sworn in. The Burris fiasco is not Obama's fault, and it's not Washington Democrats' fault. But if this story lingers, they risk being permanently associated.
If Democrats were to drop their resistance and seat Burris, they would be in for a few rough news cycles, but being able to get this story out of the headlines would allow them to focus on more important things. With the inauguration coming up and missiles raining down on Israel and Gaza, this story can easily be buried. There's also the possibility that Burris could turn out to be an effective senator. And if he's not, he could always be defeated by a stronger Democrat in the 2010 Illinois senate primary.
The political points have already been made and the public record is open for everyone to see. It's time for everyone to move on. Right now, though, it's the Senate Democrats who are preventing themselves from doing so.
It is no secret that the economy is hurting many people right now. Falling stocks, plummeting home prices, escalating credit card interest rates, disappearing banks, and investment scams have all contributed to a shrinking economy, declining asset values, and a decrease in spending.
One criticism that I commonly hear in the media, particularly among fiscal conservatives like Suze Orman, is that people should have been more frugal or fiscally responsible. Their past greed and lack of pragmatism are responsible for putting their finances in such a dire situation now. People bought too many electronics. They bought cars that were above their income bracket. They were living in houses that had too many bedrooms. They were living on credit cards. They were not living within their means. And of course, they were not putting aside some of their money in savings. Obviously, this is fiscally irresponsible, as I argued almost a year ago. These people, I and other fiscal conservatives would argue, should now be forced to live with the consequences of their actions.
However, it appears that this consumer irresponsibility may have introduced a new problem in light of current sluggish retail sales. These same conservatives who were once telling people they should have saved their money are now telling people they should put this money back into the economy by shopping. Ben Stein, an unabashed fiscal conservative, recently told CNN's Anderson Cooper that consumers should spend money to save the economy. He specifically singled out wealthy consumers and told them to "spend as much as they can without endangering their financial future." He also noted that the top 20% of income earners are responsible for a disproportionate amount of consumer spending and that increased spending on their behalf would be a better boost for the economy than public works projects, which President-elect Obama proposes.
And therein lies the paradox. If consumers are supposed to practice frugality, rein in spending, and put more money into savings, then how can they be advised to go shopping?
Not spending as much money in shopping malls and car showrooms or using your money to pay down existing debt seems fiscally responsible. So many families don't have several months' worth of living expenses saved in the bank to serve as an emergency reserve fund. But in these tough economic times, it seems that this prudence which was once a virtue is now also a vice.
So are consumers supposed to listen to Suze Orman or Ben Stein?
Wealthy people become wealthy by making good investment decisions and by not making unnecessary purchases. If they were hesitant to go shopping in good economic times, it would seem that they'd be even more hesitant to go shopping in troubled economic times. It would also seem that they'd be more likely to protect their money by placing it in money market accounts, CDs, and commodities.
Secondly, conservatives commonly say that it is the wealthy who create jobs. This is the trickle down Reaganomics theory of economic vitality. A rich person buys a yacht. That yacht purchase keeps the shipbuilders, lumberjacks, distributors, textile workers, and marina staff in business. Also, conservatives argue, the wealthy are able to use their financial resources to hire new workers or pay their current workers better salaries. (Hence the mantra of tax cuts.) But if these wealthy consumers go out and spend their money, will they have any money left to hire anyone if they have any businesses of their own? What if the businesses that receive this money from increased spending use it to pay down debt or provide bonuses to top executives instead of hiring new workers?
There is no rule that says wealthy people, consumers, or businesses have to use their money in a specific way. After all, it is common for conservatives to complain that they don't want the government telling people what to do. But why should they listen to Ben Stein? Consumers and businesses should be free to spend and save as they see fit. However, we are currently witnessing the consequences of this hands-off approach to the economy, and a lot of innocent and responsible people are getting soaked because of it.
President-elect Barack Obama is advocating a public works program that invests heavily in improving the nation's transportation infrastructure and making buildings more energy efficient. This plan has come under criticism from Republicans who are suddenly interested in curbing spending and reducing the influence of government. Of course, the federal deficit and the size of the federal government ballooned under their watch and the lack of government intervention was a key factor leading to the current economic crisis.
Despite these criticisms, perhaps Obama's public works program should be given a chance. In addition to creating construction and manufacturing jobs, the public as a whole would be able to see tangible benefits from these investments. Everybody uses roads, bridges, and tunnels. Everybody can see solar panels being installed on top of buildings. Construction and manufacturing jobs would be created, people's quality of life would improve, money could be saved through energy efficiency, and seeing people working could have a positive psychological impact on people who believe their communities are dying and that jobs are nowhere to be found.
The public as a whole could also benefit from increased consumer spending (as Ben Stein advocates), but the difference between Obama's idea and Stein's idea is that the former is a mandate while the latter leaves it up to private individuals to decide what's best.
Of course, this combination of laissez faire capitalism and unrestricted individualism led to the failures of AIG, Citibank, Lehman Brothers, and the Big 3 automakers. Even after passing a $700 billion economic bailout bill last fall, some of these companies either can't say or won't say how this money was spent. AIG executives have been spending bailout money at lavish resorts. So much for letting individuals decide what's best.
In light of this, perhaps by virtue of the Democrats' victories in 2006 and 2008, voters are looking for more government-based solutions to our nation's problems. This doesn't mean that the government has all the answers, but it does signify a greater openness to having a more active and more interventionist government than what has existed over the past few years.
As for the importance of spending vs. the importance of saving, this illustrates the conflict that exists between the individual and the community. Even though the United States has an individualistic society, economic events over the past few months or so show that we are all in this together and that we should find ways to collectively address our economic problems.