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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Republican Circular Firing Squad

Joshua Green's article "The Tragedy of Sarah Palin" in the June 2011 issue of The Atlantic (see #1) asks a seemingly simple question: What happened to Sara Palin? Green's article does a great job providing many details in Palin's political evolution that make the question more interesting but his answer to the question falls short by failing to explain what "Palinism" truly is.

As background, Green not only delves back into Palin's leap from mayor to governor but provides a useful summary of Alaska's economic and political history. Palin's rise really cannot be understood without understanding the political culture in Alaska that produced the circumstances she leveraged in making her leap to prominence. In a nutshell, Green boils the background down to a few essential facts:

* virtually everything political in Alaska is a function of economics in the state
* the Federal government controls 60 percent of the land in the entire state
* the state itself controls another 28 percent of all land
* the 12 percent of the land left has to serve the entire state economy
* virtually everything left is dominated by oil and natural gas development

In short, the state economy has virtually zero diversity and government budgets are almost entirely dependent upon taxes upon the oil and natural gas industries. As a result, virtually all political battles within Alaska stem from one of the following issues:

1) who (either the federal government or the State Of Alaska) controls energy development plans and leases, and
2) what the tax and lease rates paid by oil and gas producers should be for state resources

The state had gone back and forth on these issues since the scope of its oil reserves first made news in 1969. By 2002, Palin had finished her stint as mayor and gained statewide recognition losing a competitive race for lieutenant governor. She then campaigned for Frank Murkowski, helping him win the governor's race and putting her name on the short list to complete the remainder of his term in the Senate. She failed to get that slot but was given a position on the state's oil and gas commission, identified some ethical lapses on the part of a fellow commissioner in a private letter to the new governor who finally canned the official. Only one problem. That other commissioner was also the head of the state Republican Party. That problem quickly eliminated itself because the governor in the mean time had been renegotiating a new deal for pipeline rights that amounted to a MASSIVE give-away to energy interests at the expense of Alaskan taxpayers.

In Green's narrative of the Sarah Palin biography, this is where all the stars and moons aligned for Palin. She rode the tidal wave of public anger against the governor and his pipeline deal to launch a campaign against him in 2006, easily beat him in the Republican primary then defeat the Democratic nominee in the general election. And this is where it gets interesting for those whose Palin exposure started at the Republican Convention in September 2008.

Palin actually accomplished a great deal in her initial months as Governor of Alaska.

Palin eliminated the cronies who cooked the prior pipeline deal, took back control over construction and licensing of a new gas pipeline and led the charge to enact legislation imposing a new tax regimen on energy profits. She did this by leveraging her prior reputation as a reformer in battling the oil and gas commission, leveraging her popularity with voters after the election to combat existing Republican cronies still bent on preserving the old deals and even worked with Democrats when Republicans wouldn't go along.

How much of a win did Palin provide for Alaska? The new tax regimen on energy profits has produced budget surpluses for the state over a period where virtually every other state is operating in the red. Green cites state officials who estimate the tax bill she helped enact has kept the state budget $12 billion in the black.

And that is the point where Palin entered the national political landscape. John McCain had won the Republican nod for President in 2008 and, like Palin, was in a position outside the mainstream of his party. Few of his first choices for VP would have been palatable to Republican leaders and few of their first choices would have been palatable to him. McCain's selection of Palin as his running mate on August 29, 2008 was quickly pegged for what it was -- an attempt by McCain to "shake things up" by choosing someone with a track record as a "reformer" (albeit a very short track) without picking someone seen as a Republican insider.

In Green's analysis, Palin dutifully assumed the traditional role of VP pit bull by doling out the "red meat" attacks in her speech to the party base. However, her downfall has been her failure to realize that role is just that -- a role, not the defining function of a would-be VP or any political leader. Green goes on to pose the question "what if?" What if Palin maintained a focus on corruption instead of extreme conservative issues and petty personal politics? How might the Republican Party be different? How might the COUNTRY be different?

This is the point where Green seems to miss the key conclusion. Green defines "Palinism" in the same political branding terms that Sarah Palin herself would prefer --- a brand for a "maverick" politician in the best sense of the word -- someone associated with a few clearly articulated principals and long term goals for the public good who is quick on their political feet and capable of leveraging a variety of tactics and cross-political alliances in service to those higher principals.

Palin's true problem is that her dominant brand is something vastly different. Perhaps a more appropriate description of that brand would be three simple words:

Sarah Milhouse Palin

If one had to characterize how Sarah Palin would likely perform for any period of time in any position of power, one only has to picture Richard Milhouse Nixon. Palin has exhibited the exact same combination of pettiness and paranoia as Nixon. Green's story even provides an example of the behaviors and fixations that more accurately reflect that brand.

We already know what happens when someone with those personality traits is subjected to the dueling forces of extreme power and extreme focus and criticism. Even if no criminal activity is involved, there is no way a person with that combination can be productive on the national stage. If you can't live with at least fifty percent of people believing you're wrong or tolerate five or ten percent of your opponents trying to attack you without devoting gobs of mental energy each day to getting even, you simply do not have the temperament to play in the big leagues.

=================================

Perhaps the question Green should have addressed involves the dynamics within the Republican party that are producing such a stunted field of Presidential candidates for 2012. Mike Huckabee decided he preferred a gig in the Fox News commentariat paying him $500,000 yearly for a weekend gig. Nice work if you can get it and Huckabee got it. Donald Trump.... ...well, let's just say we all dodged a disaster there. Michelle Bachman? Right.

So let's look at the remaining contenders.

Ron Paul has sealed his fate by attempting to convince religious conservatives that his support of individual rights in the areas of prostitution and the purchase of heroin is completely one and the same with his support of individual rights providing freedom of religion. Ron, you can try pitching those Libertarian pipe dreams till the cows come home but politically, exactly what voting demographic are you after? The crack-smoking evangelical preacher who likes the ladies? Must we EXPLAIN this to you?

Mitt Romney is having trouble formulating an explanation for his prior legislative work on healthcare in Massachusetts that a) tows the current Republican line on how bad "Obamacare" is for the country, b) doesn't bad mouth his own achievement and cripple his political resume with centrist voters and c) somehow explains ANY difference whatsoever between "Romney-care" and "Obamacare". The best he's been able to do so far is words to the effect of "If a state does X, it's good because it's the right of a state to do the smart thing but if the federal government requires exactly the same X, then it's bad." Uh huh.

Mitch Daniels has yet to formally declare his candidacy and his popularity with the Republican base so far appears to be based upon the fact he's not carrying Romney's health care baggage and he knows many of the Republican power brokers of the Bush II era from his time serving as Bush II's head of the Office of Management and Budget. Given what transpired during the Bush II administration regarding management of the country's affairs and the budget deficits produced, it's hard to see the selling point of that resume. You apparently really have to want to see it.

Newt Gingrich has declared his candidacy for the Presidency and has already managed to alienate critical constituents of the Republican base by speaking his mind. Of course, Newt's entire political brand is based upon being an outside-the-box "idea guy" so it's absolutely no surprise he's already trotted into the doghouse. His offense? He appeared on Meet the Press on May 15, 2011 and labeled current Republican budget proposals as "right-wing social engineering" that have no more place in critical budget negotiations than Democratic attempts at left-wing social engineering.

That leaves Sarah Milhouse Palin. A national name brand making at least a couple hundred thousand dollars a year for occasionally appearing on Fox News while snagging $100,000 per speech who still has enough time to nurse grudges over what some local yocal might have written about her in the Wasilla Examiner or the Anchorage Gazette. Combine that behavior with her continued inability to name a book or magazine she's read in the past two years and she brings the term "small minded" to an entirely new plane.

And that really is the crux of the Republican dilemma. Small mindedness. The Republican faithful demand such rigid compliance with their ideological litmus tests that no potential candidate who has ever reached across the aisle or attempted to balance two or more competing thoughts on critical issues has a chance of escaping the Republican Party's circular firing squad. It's not only their default political battle formation, it seems to be their only formation.

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#1) http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1969/12/the-tragedy-of-sarah-palin/8492/

Monday, May 02, 2011

3519 Days for One Psycho?

The news that United States Special Forces have killed Osama bin Laden and captured his body should provide some sense of justice served to those who lost family or loved ones in the attacks sponsored by al Queda througout the world ranging from the the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania on August 7, 1998 to the USS Cole on October 12, 2000 to the attacks on September 11, 2001 and beyond.

It should also provide a huge sense of satisfaction and the beginning of a sense of "mission accomplished" for the hundreds of thousands who have actively served in our military in the silent and not-so-silent war on terror.

For the rest of us in America less directly affected by the attacks or the wars launched in response, what are we to make of the news?

It's certainly a relief to know one really bad actor in the movie has reached an ending you'd wish on the evil villian in a Hollywood western. But the specifics of his demise point out a few issues that will continue posing problems for the world and the United States in particular.

The news reports now indicate OBL was killed in the city of Abbottabad, located 150km north of Islamabad and 200km east of Peshawer. Here's the description of the town from Wikipedia:

The city is well-known throughout Pakistan for its pleasant weather, high standard educational institutions and military establishments. It remains a major hub for tourism of regions in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir in the summer.

A major hub for tourism? I suspect many Americans thought OBL was supposed to be camped out in a cave, cooking ten year old cans of beans on a can of Sterno wondering when the next dialysis machine treatment would arrive by camel or goat.

Instead, it sounds like OBL was hidden in relative plain sight within a relatively well known city within Pakistan, supposedly a US ally. He obviously moved around over the past 3519 days but he likely spent much of that time in similar settings. Since the Special Operations team presumably killed everyone at the compound housing OBL, we can be certain they will scour every square inch of the facility for cell phones, laptops, tape recorders and correspondence to help reverse engineer the network of contacts that allowed OBL to operate for so long.

President Obama's official announcement regarding OBL's death took pains to state that this effort to capture / kill OBL actually began last August when intelligence provided with cooperation from Pakistani sources was first provided to US intelligence to trigger months of clandestine vetting. Teamwork with our ally, that's nice. Yet other stories are reporting US Special Operations forces alone carried out the attack that killed OBL. Apparently, once vetted, we could not trust our Pakistani peers with details of the operation for fear of a tip-off.

While eliminating one really bad guy, information about the location of the operation and chain of people involved with the original intelligence and those found in proximity to the location where he was hidden is likely to shine a light on many other problems within the Pakistani government and the military's Directorate for Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI). This information is NOT likely to help stabilize and moderate Pakistan in the short term. Far from it.

The most important question posed by the elimination of OBL for the United States is simply "what now?".

OBL is gone but the echos of his madness are not silent, nor are the reverberations from America's responses to his madness. America launched two wars in response to fear of additional terrorism and both continue to exact a horrific toll of loss for American service men and women and an unsustainable economic burden to our economy. Since 2001, America has created a vast new hidden national security apparatus that is off-budget and unaccountable to most in Congress and unknown to most American citizens that is costing tens of billions yearly. Yet those billions spent didn't yield the intelligence that led to the elimination of OBL and they didn't yield leads that stopped the would-be underwear bomber headed for Detroit.

America was supposed to have learned many lessons about the communication needs of our first responders throughout the country but we squandered many of the funds allocated for those improvements to local and state pork projects or "studies" and now many states are so broke they're resorting to laying off first responders rather than equipping them properly as we swore we'd do after 9/11/2001.

3519 days for one psycho?

I certainly hope the families of the victims of al Queda's attacks in America and around the world can gain a sense of relief, justice and closure from the news. I certainly hope those serving in our military and their families can enjoy some sense of satisfaction and a little hope that their jobs might be able to wind down a bit.

For the rest of us? We still have some thinking and reflection to do. It shouldn't have taken 3519 days to nab the most notorious psychopath currently on the planet. The fact that it did indicates our efforts were not directed over much of these past 3519 days in the most effective directions and probably still are not directed where they should be.