Bob Schwartz

Tag: Barack Obama

What if Hillary had to face these contenders for the Democratic nomination in 2016?

This is a thought experiment.

Back in 2008, Hillary Clinton presumed that she would be the front runner for the Democratic nomination and would be the eventual winner. Then along came the phenomenon of Barack Obama, who wrestled the nomination from her because…well, because Hillary is no Obama.

In 2016, it was planned that Hillary Clinton would have little opposition for the Democratic presidential nomination. Maybe a token opponent to make it look competitive and democratic, but little more than that. Somehow, the most un-Obamaish candidate imaginable came along to almost spoil the party for her again. Bernie Sanders didn’t make it, Hillary became the nominee. Being less than the perfect candidate, Hillary was unable to close the deal in the general election, even against the most reprehensible Republican candidate—one who went on to be the most reprehensible president.

What if we retroject all the current Democratic candidates for the nomination back to 2016—including Joe Biden (who didn’t run against her) and Bernie Sanders (who did)? Do you think she would have still won the nomination?

There are reasons to think she might not. One thought is that her unique status as the only woman candidate would be immediately gone; six women are currently running, two of them high in the polls. Another thought is that while Hillary was severely tested by Obama in 2008, she faced less testing in 2016 before she faced Trump as the candidate. Would she have withstood the attacks that are natural from such a huge field? Would the Democratic Party establishment have been able to “protect” her and still seem fair-minded and even-handed?

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Obama: The Superstar of the Troubled Democratic Show Is Leaving

obama-slow-jam-the-news

Did you ever watch a TV show that was only just okay, but you kept watching week after week because you really liked the star—someone so special that he made even the worst episodes watchable and enjoyable?

Then that superstar left the show. Contract differences. Elections. Whatever. And then the show was over. Canceled.

Barack Obama has left the Democratic show. In the month since the election, we have gotten a preview of what it will be like without him. The Democrats thought, as producers do, that they were really the show, and not some guy that they had helped turn into the superstar he became.

Producers quickly learn that you can’t force people to watch your show. You can’t expect people to watch your show just because you tell them how great and important it is, and how terrible the other networks and shows are. While it’s an advantage to have a superstar, it’s better still to write good scripts, employ creative directors, and cast good people in interesting roles. Better to give people what they want and what they need. As viewers or as citizens and voters.

Shepard Fairey: The Art of Political Revolution

Shepard Fairey - Bernie Sanders Concert

Not many people had heard of the artist Shepard Fairey (“Manufacturing Quality Dissent Since 1989”) until he created the Obama “Hope” poster, one of the most famous pieces of art in modern American politics.

Since then, he has been spending his time creating, exhibiting and selling all sorts of provocative and eminently viewable art/propaganda on the beneficial edge of society, politics and culture.

He created the poster above for today’s Bernie Sanders benefit concert in Los Angeles. For those who haven’t looked for a while, or don’t know Shepard’s work, here is a sampling:

End Corruption

Make Art Not War

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Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals

Rules for Radicals

Saul Alinsky, author of Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (1971), is a currently infamous architect of political change, demonized but also mostly unread.

His infamy comes from the revelation that Barack Obama had used Alinsky’s work as a sourcebook for community organizing back in Chicago. That was enough for conservative Obama haters, who took this as just one more sign of Obama’s anti-Americanism. Most of them had never read Alinsky, but were sure he was some sort of scary Commie/enemy of the state type, who in the right kind of America belonged in jail—if he hadn’t already been dead.

Rules for Radicals is none of that. It is instead an articulate and sensible outline for making political change—not by rejecting or blowing up the system or the establishment, but by first accepting the way things and people are and working from there.

As an organizer I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be — it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be. That means working in the system.

Anything else, Alinsky says, alienates people by going outside their experience. Which is why, for example, he was so opposed to the tactic of burning the American flag as a form of protest.

This failure of many of our younger activists to understand the art of communication has been disastrous. Even the most elementary grasp of the fundamental idea that one communicates within the experience of his audience — and gives full respect to the other’s values — would have ruled out attacks on the American flag. The responsible organizer would have known that it is the establishment that has betrayed the flag while the flag, itself, remains the glorious symbol of America’s hopes and aspirations, and he would have conveyed this message to his audience.

Alinsky cites many political thinkers, giving special attention to the virtues and vices of those behind the American Revolution. Sam Adams, for example, made the case for revolution against the British, but once he was part of the established new regime, opposed rebellions within the new American democracy. This, Alinsky says, is a typical pattern.

Writing in 1971, after decades as an organizer, Alinsky hoped to guide a new generation of young radicals who seemed passionate but relatively rudderless. He laid out the practical lessons of his experience, especially the distinction between the rhetorical radical and the pragmatic radical.

This is the promise and the danger of what Alinsky saw at the time, and in a certain light, might still see today:

The “silent majority,” now, are hurt, bitter, suspicious, feeling rejected and at bay. This sick condition in many ways is as explosive as the current race crisis. Their fears and frustrations at their helplessness are mounting to a point of a political paranoia which can demonize people to turn to the law of survival in the narrowest sense. These emotions can go either to the far right of totalitarianism or forward to Act II of the American Revolution.

Bernie Sanders as John the Baptist

John the Baptist

The Democratic Party is in trouble. Politically, philosophically, spiritually, demographically. Bernie Sanders won’t save the party or win the presidency. But he is setting the scene for the party’s reform and renewal.

John the Baptist was a terrible candidate to lead a religious revolution. He was a wild-eyed radical who seemed to be crazy. His people skills needed work. But his cause found a much better spokesman and leader, who took it to the next level. And then some.

When you think carefully about the party and its recent Presidents and leaders, you look hard for real radical inspiration. Bill Clinton was affable and politically adept, but his was the politics of radical compromise, to the point of digging a rut in the middle of the road that invited neo-conservative disaster and greed. Barack Obama was genuinely inspirational, and has helped the cause of humane Americanism as much as politics would allow. But circumstances and inclination led him to solid pragmatism.

One problem with pragmatism is that it makes a terrible anthem and cause. Another is that it allows all sorts of accommodations that look to the would-be believer like nothing but surrender.

That’s where Bernie Sanders and John the Baptist come together. When the stakes are high, and the troubles are deep, that’s when you have to invoke big visions. That’s what gets people who have fallen into both practical and spiritual malaise to answer the call and start working for real change.

There are few in the Democratic Party willing or able to do this. Whether or not Hillary Clinton wins the nomination or the election, it is not her. If she wins the nomination but loses the election, the party will do some typical superficial soul searching. If she wins both, she may consolidate her power, and the power of the establishment, but the Congress will be even less effective than it is now.

Either way, it is possible that Bernie Sanders is unleashing something bigger than the Clintons or any tepid self-inquiry the party may pretend to engage in. He may not be heir to the spirit of Bobby Kennedy, but he might as well be saying this:

“There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

When Bernie Sanders is done with this election, another Democratic reformer and revolutionary will come along, and another. At that point, if we are lucky, millions of previously unengaged and disappointed people may come to the party dreaming and asking “why not?” And Bernie, like John the Baptist, will have prevailed.

The Eulogy

Obama Charleston Eulogy

Almost always, the great speech is also the right speech.

President Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the eight other victims in Charleston was great and right.

We are accustomed these days to speeches from leaders and wannabe leaders that are mediocre and content-free, and if there is content it is calculated, self-serving, and passion-free. Welcome to this or mostly any other presidential contest.

Of course, Barack Obama is the exception to the run of the political mill. In fact his sometimes supernatural rhetoric ended up being a burden, as some wondered whether he was all talk and no action. Without getting into the measure of his still unfinished presidency, which this week looks pretty good, remember that under the right circumstances talk is also action, when action means talking about the thing that needs doing.

One remarkable aspect of the eulogy was the President’s use of pronouns. We and our, he repeated, and he did not mean we Americans. He meant we black Americans. In a situation that called for the highest leader and a black man, it so happens that the highest leader is a black man.

I’ve written before about my beloved Barbara Jordan, maybe the greatest American orator of the late 20th century, with multiple entries on the list of all time speeches. Before the eulogy, it may not have been clear where and if Obama belonged in that pantheon. If it wasn’t before, that has now been settled.

The eulogy was everything it could and should have been. It was a painting of a significant scene by a skilled and inspired artist. Like a great painting, it is more than even the greatest photograph can show us. Look here, he said, think about this, remember this, all the while appealing to the heart and soul of his audience and of the nation. We have watched hours of news coverage of the events in Charleston, reviewed and analyzed and opined upon. But the magic of a speech or a painting is that by adding words and pictures, the obstacles to our really seeing are removed, the scales fall away, and we look as if for the first time. And with that vision, maybe move on to act wisely and appropriately.

Cuba: No Democracy, No Embassy, So Recall the Ambassador to China

U.S. Embassy in Beijing

If you listen to those opposing normal diplomatic relations with Cuba, you learn that we should not do so until Cuba moves toward democracy.

With that rationale, we should be ending diplomatic relations with many countries, because no matter what our ideals and aspirations, the world still includes some fairly undemocratic nations.

Such as China. We have had full diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China since 1979, a period that includes both Republican and Democratic Presidents and Congresses. There is no way to characterize China as a democratic, democratic-leaning, democratic-seeking nation. So we should immediately recall our latest ambassador, former Sen. Max Baucus, and immediately close our embassy in Beijing.

Of course, that doesn’t make sense. As nothing has made sense in our relations with Cuba, even before Fidel Castro overthrew the Batista regime in 1959. The U.S. supported Batista and opposed Communism in the hemisphere. Commercial interests, legal and illegal, made money. Once Castro was in power, and refugees of substantial and modest means resettled in the U.S., it was thought that isolating Cuba would make it come around to right thinking and lucrative democracy. That didn’t work, and neither did the one attempt at forcing the issue, the debacle of the Bay of Pigs invasion.

If we had given Cuba the benefit of the doubt that we have given other non-democracies, not to mention the money we have invested in those nations, some good might have come of it, with little downside. But as with many issues, politics in the form of financial support, or the threat of withholding it, distorts what may be for the best.

Which is why, with Obama moving to normalize Cuban relations, you won’t hear anybody calling for the closing of the Beijing embassy, but lots of grandstanding and bluster about how a Cuban ambassador will mean the end of the world.

Torture Report: Who Is We and Who We Are

Senate Intelligence Committee Report

In the wake of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture, so much hand wringing, finger pointing, and finger wagging. So much righteousness and defensiveness. So many opportunities to forget for a few days our current troubles and focus, justifiably but still obsessively, on the past.

“This is not who we are.” You have heard this and it will continue to be earnestly said. But within that are two questions that need asking and answering—even if the answers are difficult.

Who Is We

Harry Truman famously kept a sign on his presidential desk that said, “The Buck Stops Here.” As a leader that is a responsible position to take. But it is not the whole story. In a democracy, it is complicated. Whether we voted for a particular official or not, or whether we voted or not, the buck—the responsibility—stops with us. We can make noises disclaiming a President, a Vice President, the CIA, and any policy we find objectionable or abhorrent. But if along the way—that is in real time—we didn’t take it on ourselves to do something/anything to counter what we knew or should have known, our fingerprints may be on this. It’s not about getting a license to criticize and moralize because you didn’t vote for that guy or you thought it was wrongheaded. It is about the reality of where the buck actually stops, no matter how perfidious and mendacious these perps are. They are we. Them is us.

Who We Are

This phrase is meant to point to our moral high ground. But in practice, many of us are involved in bits of moral relativism, or at least moral confusion. The problem isn’t whether moral absolutes exist; the problem is that we don’t much want to consider and discuss them when it comes to our personal, social, or political lives. The discussion is hard, and if you establish those absolutes, keeping to them is, as a practical matter, even harder. This isn’t about good or bad, or good or evil. This is about being human and building and operating human institutions. If, for example, everything in the report happened but the demonstrable outcome was prevention of some dark catastrophe (which it didn’t), many would relent in their critique because the good done outweighed the evil perpetrated.

And maybe that is a morally supportable perspective. And maybe not. But until we actually have that debate—about who is the “we” and who we are, it seems that we are shouting something either noble or scurrilous, but maybe, as Shakespeare wrote, “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

The President’s Speech: Prosecutorial Discretion in Immigration Enforcement

CRS - Prosecutorial Discretion in Immigration

The following will not necessarily make you smarter than the hundreds—thousands?—of talking heads you will hear opining and pontificating about the President’s speech tonight on immigration. But it just might.

For those who haven’t followed this political drama, the President has long awaited Congressional action on immigration reform, and in the absence of that, has decided to take executive action. Reports are that this will include deferring legal proceedings against a large number of undocumented immigrants. Charges are already flying from political opponents, claiming that the President is exceeding his authority, with impeachment even being discussed.

It appears that the basis for this executive action may be prosecutorial discretion. As you may know (and as recent events in Ferguson, Missouri have highlighted), prosecutors have broad, virtually unlimited and unreviewable discretion to decide who to prosecute and not prosecute. There are principles and theories about how this discretion might be less than absolute, but as a matter of practice, it is quite broad.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) is the very valuable but little-known non-partisan government service that answers questions that Congress has about any issue that Congress is interested in. You name the topic or issue, CRS has probably studied it.

Last December, CRS answered a question that is at the heart of the President’s approach to the immigration crisis: What, if any, are the limits on prosecutorial discretion in immigration?

The report, Prosecutorial Discretion in Immigration Enforcement: Legal Issues is a must-read. It is true that legal opinions on many issues differ (see the Supreme Court), but CRS is supposedly the starting point for any questions that Congress has. Congress members may have disagreements with the reports, but few question the impartiality or skill of CRS researchers.

CRS concludes:

Regardless of whether it is characterized as “prosecutorial discretion” or “enforcement discretion,” immigration officers are generally seen as having wide latitude in determining when, how, and even whether to pursue apparent violations of the INA [Immigration and Nationality Act]. This latitude is similar to that possessed by prosecutors in the criminal law enforcement context and enforcement officials in other federal agencies. Whether and how to constrain this discretion has been a recurring issue for some Members of Congress, particularly in light of the June 2011 DHS [Department of Homeland Security] memorandum on prosecutorial discretion and the more recent DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] initiative. While some Members have expressed support for the DACA initiative, or called for expanded use of prosecutorial discretion by immigration authorities in other contexts, others have sought to prohibit DHS from granting deferred action or extended voluntary departure to removable aliens except in narrow circumstances, or to “nullify” particular policies regarding prosecutorial discretion that have been articulated by the Obama Administration….

In addition, the degree of intrusion into executive enforcement decisions may also impact a court’s review of any congressional response. For example, legal precedent suggests that Congress probably cannot directly limit the President’s exercise of discretion by requiring that the executive branch initiate enforcement actions against particular individuals. On the other hand, Congress would appear to have considerable latitude in establishing statutory guidelines for immigration officials to follow in the exercise of their enforcement powers, including by “indicat[ing] with precision the measures available to enforce the” INA, or by prohibiting DHS from considering certain factors in setting enforcement priorities.

However, the existing judicial presumption that “an agency’s decision not to take enforcement action [is] immune from judicial review,” and the deference potentially accorded to an agency’s interpretation of its governing statute, suggests that such statutory guidelines would likely need to be clear, express, and specific. The use of “shall” in a provision of the INA may not, in itself, suffice for a statute to be construed as having provided enforceable guidelines for immigration officials to follow in exercising prosecutorial discretion. Absent a substantive legislative response, Congress may still be able to influence the implementation of DACA or other discretion-based policies by the immigration authorities, including by engaging in stringent oversight over the DHS program or by exercising its “power of the purse” to prohibit DHS and its components from implementing particular policies related to the exercise of prosecutorial discretion that Congress does not support.

Translation: Congress cannot force the executive branch to enforce particular immigration provisions, which means that an executive policy to defer enforcement is not subject to Congressional control. (This is as good a point as any to mention that President Obama has already overseen a record number of immigrant deportations and he is not “soft” on undocumented immigration). However, in the view of CRS, Congress has “considerable latitude in establishing statutory guidelines for immigration officials to follow in the exercise of their enforcement powers.” That is, Congress could exercise its will by simply passing laws on this significant issue. Or on any significant issue that it claims to be vexed about. But it won’t. So can you blame the elected leader of the American people for being frustrated, and choosing to do what he can to step in where the brave and bold members of Congress are—how to say this politely—too fainthearted to go?

Warriors Day

Battle of the Somme - 1916

Today is Warriors Day. We call it Veterans Day, which intentionally or inadvertently distances it from a harsher reality. It began in 1919 to commemorate the Armistice that ended World War I, the War to End All Wars.

Who is a warrior?

In broad terms, all of us are warriors of some sort, battling for causes and ideals ranging from the personal to the cosmic, and everything in between. We fight for ourselves, our families, our nation, our ideologies, our traditions.

But the warriors of Warriors Day are something very specific. These are the people we delegate to fight for us, for causes that we deem significant enough to sacrifice their safety, their bodies, their lives. Under threat, current or prospective, real or perceived, we sacrifice them and peace so that we might ultimately have peace.

What should we do?

After the fact of war, we should keep whatever promises we make to warriors—without adjustment, equivocation, or renegotiation. World War I provided one of the most egregious instances of this. World War I veterans were not to receive full payment of their service bonus until 1945. But the Depression left many of them destitute. Thousands of them marched on Washington in 1932, seeking an advance of this payment. The letter of the law dictated waiting; the spirit of their sacrifice and hardship demanded payment. The Bonus Marchers were violently dispersed, though in 1936 Congress met the demands—over FDR’s veto.

Before the fact of war, we should consider everything involved. Really consider, not just blow hard self-righteously and politically. This is easier for those who have actually been warriors, though that number is decreasing as a proportion of our population, especially among our politicians and policy makers. Those veterans may or may not be able to sort through and articulate all the issues of our most complex geopolitics ever, but they can do something home front folks can’t—relive the experience of being a warrior.

Demand truth. Truth is said to be the first casualty of war, including pre-war and post-war. Right now, for example, Obama’s talk about “advisers only” in Iraq is making some veterans, particularly those of Vietnam, shake their heads. Col. Jack Jacobs, an NBC commentator, observed this morning that his experience as an “adviser” in Vietnam inevitably involved combat.

What about peace?

Peace, the absence of conflict at all levels, may not be a possibility. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be our default position, the one from which all other circumstances are an aberration. For whatever reasons, conflict seems to be the default position for some, including those in positions of power and influence. There are things worth fighting for, but before moving forward, we need to be much surer of what those things are, how we are going about the fight, and how honest we can be. Most of all, if it is someone else doing the fighting at our command, we must realize that we are totally answerable for the consequences, as uncomfortable and costly as that might turn out to be.