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H. Ross Perot, RIP

H. Ross Perot died on Tuesday at age 89, and although one is always well advised not to speak ill of the dead we think he had a largely negative effect on the country’s history.
There was plenty to be said for the colorful character, and it should be acknowledged. Although he was the son of a prominent and politically-connected cotton trader in his beloved home state of Texas he became a multi-billionaire by his own considerable smarts and inexhaustible energy. After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy he found himself bored with peacetime service, and left the Navy as soon as his Annapolis obligations had been met. He took a job as a salesman for the International Business Machines Corporation that then dominated the nascent computer industry, and was by all accounts extraordinarily successful at it, once meeting his yearly quota in three weeks. Perot stuck around IBM long enough to learn everything he needed to know about the computer biz, and in 1962 he left to start his own business.
Texas-based Electronic Data Systems proved a very profitable company, mostly from a number of sizable contracts with the federal government. He used much of his share of the profits to become an early and significant investor in what became Apple Computers, which proved even more profitable, and in 1988 he created Perot Systems Corporation, which further increased his multi-billion dollar wealth. He increased his already considerable fame after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 when he claimed to have raised a mercenary army to rescue to EDS employees who had been there working on a contract with overthrown Iranian government. The story was apocryphal, but was rivetingly told in the best-selling book “Wings of Angels” and then on a highly rated made-for-television movie.
Like so many other self-made men Perot eventually came to worship his creator, however, and by 1992 had decided that he was the best possible person to be President of the United States. He ran as an independent, with a small but enthusiastic following doing the legwork to get him enough signatures to be on the ballot in every state, and he was included on the televised debates with major party nominees, and he wound up winning 19 percent of the popular, the biggest share for a third-party candidate since former President Theodore Roosevelt and his Bull Moose party’s 27 percent in 1912.
Just as Roosevelt’s run wound costing the eminently conservative Republican William Howard Taff re-election and handed the White House over to prototypical progressive President Woodrow Wilson, Perot took enough votes from quintessentially establishment Republican President George H.W. Bush to give cleaned-up hippie Democratic President Bill Clinton the office with a mere plurality.
Perot’s platform called for higher taxes but huge cuts in social programs and promised balanced budgets and the full payment of the federal debt, which was at that time an obsession for most Republicans. He also ran on the argument that he was untainted by any previous political experience, and that the billions he had in the bank were proof he was smart enough to run anything, which then as now is somehow persuasive to a lot of Republicans. His foreign policy positions were more vague, and he’d been critical of the first Gulf War, although it was quickly won and established a Pax Americana in the Middle East that would last several years, but Reagan and Bush had won the Cold War and no one seemed to care much about foreign policy.
The first President Bush was known for his cautious if clumsy language and patrician bearing and impeccable public service credentials and stay-the-course leadership, but an increasingly rural and blue collar and anti-establishment Republican party was growing weary of all that, and with his cheap haircuts and jug ears and folksy language and authentic Texas twang Perot provided a stark contrast. He might have peeled off a few votes from Clinton, but we believed at the time and still do that most of his 19 percent would have won the Republicans a rare fourth presidential election victory.
Perot then transformed his ad hoc political organization into the Reform Party, which mostly attracted the sorts of Republicans who thought that the Republican party had become effete. The Grand Old Party had recently won the Cold War and created a large and long-lasting economic expansions, but then as now many Republicans felt it wasn’t protecting them from the oftentimes disruptive economic transformations that resulted from free trade and new technologies, and felt a sense that those establishment know-it-alls with the impeccable credentials didn’t identify with them, and they were looking to disrupt even the most venerable of America’s institutions.
Perot ran as the Reform Party nominee in ’96, but a truce between Clinton and the newly-installed House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his fellow firebrand Republicans installed in the mid-term elections resulted in a balanced budget, which deprived Perot of one of his signature issues. The second time around he finished with 8.4 percent of the vote, and although that probably didn’t cost Republican nominee Sen. Bob Dole the election it might have peeled off enough Democratic votes that Clinton had to settle for another plurality.
The Reform Party stuck around for a short while after Perot’s departure from public life, but long enough to do further damage. Former boa-clad professional wrestler and bona fide nutcase conspiracy theorist Jesse Ventura became governor of Minnesota for tumultuous turn  on the Reform Party ticket, and paleo-conservative Pat Buchanan used the party’s presidential nomination to spread his paranoid populism and his admittedly fascist-friendly “America First” foreign policy. Outright racists such as former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and a large number of erstwhile Republicans with class and race resentments of an establishment they just knew was out to get them found a home there, and a brash self-proclaimed billionaire named Donald Trump made his first foray into politics when he sought the party’s nomination.
Perot was quite right to warn about the federal debt, and deserves credit for suggesting that an unpopular tax hike and painful spending cuts might be required to pay it off, but it doesn’t seem to have had any lasting influence on either party. We thought his xenophobic protectionism was wrong then and still think it’s wrong as President Donald Trump pursues it, and we retain the same opinion about both Perot’s and Trump’s isolationist foreign policy instincts.
We wish a Perot an eternally happy afterlife, and freely acknowledge he was one of those rare individuals who left his mark on history, but he always appreciated blunt talk, so we feel free to say he had a mostly corrosive influence. He not only got Clinton elected and helped him get reelected, but he fostered a paranoid and conspiracy-theorizing suspicion of well-credentialed public servants and venerable political and economic institutions that persists in the Republican party to this day. The Democrats have their own paranoid and conspiracy-theorizing elements with crazy protectionist and isolation ideas, on the other hand, so as we wish Perot a fond farewell we’ll be hoping the center still holds.

— Bud Norman

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In Quite a State

The state of the union, according to the president’s latest annual oration on the topic, is stronger. Presidents always say this sort thing in State of the Union addresses, regardless of the circumstances, so perhaps President Barack Obama can be forgiven for merely following form.
There isabundant evidence that the state of the union is not nearly so strong as it was when Obama gave his first address, however, and his arguments to the contrary were not convincing. He touted an end to a “decade of war” despite the growing dangers of the world, and boasted of a Fed-inflated stock market bubble. He argued that his massive new bureaucracies mean “consumers, patients, and homeowners enjoy stronger protections than ever,” presumably from those nasty corporations, but seemed unconcerned about what will protect them from the bureaucrats. He further claimed that “we have cleared away the rubble of crisis,” but left unmentioned that we have also piled up an additional $6 trillion or so of debt in the process.
Nothing else in the speech offered much hope that thing the country will soon be strengthened in any noticeable way. Obama threw in some boilerplate language about encouraging free enterprise and rewarding individual initiative, but he seemed to rush through it on his way to calls for higher taxes, more government spending in areas of the economy that have traditionally been left to private enterprise, and an unmistakably collectivist ethic. All of this was couched in the language of “revenues,” “investments,” and “helping folks,” of course, but the point was still clear. He also argued that the government should become “smarter,” a worthy goal, but still seemed smitten with the alternative energy “investments” that have thus far been an expensive diversion from the potential traditional energy boom. Obama’s opponent in the past election was provably smart about investing, though, and Obama managed to convince a majority of voters of that the poor overly-rich fellow should be reviled for it.
The speech also stressed the need to “forge reasonable compromise” to make “some basic decisions about our budget” to avoid the so-called “sequestration” cuts, lamenting the government’s tendency to “drift from one manufactured crisis to the next” without mentioning that the sequestration cuts were his idea. Nor did he mention that the government hasn’t had a budget at all during his time office due to his party’s control of the Senate. He was slightly bi-partisan in noting that “both parties have worked together to reduce the deficit by more than $2.5 trillion, meaning that they agreed to not go yet another $2.5 trillion in debt, but it was still understood as a warning to the Republicans they should cave early in the upcoming budget negotiations.
More talk of reasonable compromises followed, with Obama generously agreeing to “modest reforms” of the entitlement system so long as they are accompanied by yet another round of “revenue increases.” The multi-trillion dollar shortfalls in the entitlement programs require only slight tweaking, apparently, and so long as those darned rich people pay more Obama seems willing to go along.
Obama added some talk of illegal immigrants and guns, threw in a subtle allusion to homosexuality, and finished with the usual tear-jerking shtick about the little people out there. We were to stunned to follow it after the part about Obamacare driving down health care costs, though, and we assume it was much the same as in past speeches. This was the fifth Obama State of the Union address and there only three to go, unless he decides that those pesky term limits are of more consequences than the rest of the Constitution, so we do feel slightly strengthened by that.

— Bud Norman

Unlucky Number

One year always leads to another, and we shudder to think where a year such as 2012 might lead.
Journalistic tradition dictates that an end-of-the year column either look back at the past 12 months or prognosticate about the upcoming dozen, and at this particular point in history neither task is appealing. The past year saw the United States go yet another trillion dollars and more into debt, with slow economic growth and fewer gainfully employed workers to show for it, the citizenry’s increased dependence on a government that is increasingly bossy about every aspect of life, various scandals from the cover-up of a botched gun-running operation to the “sloppy” foreign policy that resulted in the death of an ambassador and three other brave Americans in Libya and a body blow to free speech rights here, the ascendance of a belligerent and supremacist Islamism in key countries of the Middle East with American support, and an ever stupider popular culture. By far the biggest story of the year was an electoral majority of the country’s decision to vote for more of the same — lest those evil Republicans kill off Big Bird, continue their dastardly if entirely fictional war on women’s private parts, and generally harsh everyone’s buzz — so it’s hard to envision a reversal of this bad fortune.
All indications are that America will begin the new year by barreling over the “fiscal cliff,” that dire-sounding name given the across-the-board tax hikes and arbitrary spending cuts that almost everyone agrees will lead to a recession. Some sort of patchwork agreement remains a possibility, but although it will surely be hailed as further proof of Obama’s transcendent genius it will still involve job-killing taxes that won’t raise sufficient revenue to make a dent in the deficits. Indeed, the deficits are likely to swell when more workers sign up for the never-ending unemployment benefits and a slew of new entitlement programs are deemed necessary to deal with economic downturn. This might even be the year that America’s looming debt crisis finally arrives, and even if the country’s economy continues to crawl along the prospects for the rest of the world remain unpromising. The prospect of a Secretary of State John Kerry and a Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel certainly do not bode well.
None of this is any reason, of course, not to celebrate heartily tonight as the clock turns over to a brand new year. Nor is it any reason not to make the most of the next 365 days, whatever they might bring, and perhaps even prosper and be happy. Keep clinging bitterly to God and your guns, at least for so long as both are still legal, and give this whole 2013 idea a good shot.

— Bud Norman

Boehner’s Blues

Maybe it’s just a lingering touch of the holiday spirit, but we believe that a few kind words should be spoken on behalf on John Boehner.
The Speaker of the House has been quite beleaguered of late, with sharp criticism coming from every direction. To the president and his liberal supporters Boehner is an ideologue obstructing a reasonable agreement to avert the “fiscal cliff” for typically plutocratic Republican reasons. As far as the conservatives are concerned, Boehner is all too willing to compromise bedrock principles for mere political expedience. The mainstream press has predictably taken the president’s side, while the conservative radio shows are all demanding that Boehner be banished from the party, and with no one left in the middle these days Boehner has wound up with worse poll numbers than Nancy Pelosi has ever suffered.

This is a sorry state, indeed, given that Pelosi is perhaps the most horrible woman in the history of the republic. Although the Republican party might well require a change of management, as losing ball clubs often do, Boehner certainly does not deserve this ignominy.
We are sympathetic to the conservatives’ complaints, being unrepentant right-wingers ourselves, but it seems to us that Boehner’s critics are not taking into account the difficult situation in which we finds himself. A tax hike on anybody will indeed be harmful to an already unhealthy economy, thorough entitlement reforms truly are urgently required to stave off federal insolvency, and the Republicans are also correct in arguing that they won their House majority running on such sound ideas, but somehow it is also true that Obama was re-elected on a platform of soaking the rich and continuing to throw vast amounts of imaginary money into the governmental sinkhole. Obama is better positioned to keep his promises, having no fear of a “fiscal cliff” that will provide him tax hikes and defense cuts that he much desires and would not otherwise be able to achieve, and Boehner has few options.
Conservative purists continue to insist on the possible policy, which is to keep all the Bush tax rates and start swinging the budget axe in some direction other than the Department of Defense, but Obama’s threatened veto power means that isn’t a possibility at all. The only choices that political realities make available to Boehner are tax hikes on the rich or tax hikes on everybody, and while the former will enrage that base of his party the latter will enrage the entire country. Given the resentful mood of the country and the still-potent power of the press, along with the plentiful blame being ascribed by even the most conservative media, it is an easily foreseeable certainty that the Republican party will wind up being blamed for the inevitable recession by an electoral majority of the country.
Some conservatives, including the usually astute Charles Krauthammer, contend that Obama can be forced into a reasonable agreement because he doesn’t want to be saddled with an economic downturn lasting through his second term. The president didn’t suffer much from the lull that lasted through his first term, though, and there’s no reason to believe that he won’t be able to use another recession for as much government expansion as the earlier one allowed. Other conservatives argue that the public can be persuaded it was Obama’s intransigence that led the country over the fiscal cliff, but they should consult the most recent election returns before judging the public’s willingness to be persuaded by even the most obvious truths. Still other conservatives are taking the old Roman line of “fiat justitia, pereat mundus,” or “let justice be done, even if the world perish,” but this seems to lack the pragmatism that has traditionally characterized the conservative movement.
Those who would damn Boehner as a spineless political animal for conceding to any “revenue enhancements” should at least credit him with the savvy to correctly assess the political landscape. It is possible that a shrewder negotiator could have won a more favorable deal than what Boehner will eventually get his caucus to agree on, and it is certain that a more telegenic and personable politician would have stood a better chance in the public relations battles, but it is not clear who that remarkable leader might be. One shudders to think of Pelosi returning to the speakership, and even Boehner’s harshest critics on the right will miss him if that comes to pass.

— Bud Norman

That Confounding Obamanomics

Perhaps it’s because Barack Obama’s genius is so far beyond the comprehension of mere mortals, but even after four years of pondering we’re still having the hardest time understanding his economic theories,
We’ve never quite grasped, for instance, the part about how the economy crashed in 2008 and has never fully recovered because the income tax rates for the top 2 percent of earners were set a few points too low way back in the dark days of the Bush administration. So far as we can tell the president has never attempted to explain this counter-intuitive contention, and instead seems content with the knowing nods that it always gets from his avid admirers, but we’d love to hear him walk us through it some day. We thought the recession had something to with the government’s insistence that the banks make hundreds of billions of dollars in home mortgage loans to people who were never going to be able to pay the money back, but the president has never made any mention of that so there must not be anything to it.

Some people have explained on the president’s behalf that the too-low tax rates for the hated rich caused the deficit to rise, which somehow caused all those people to default on their mortgages, and they seem to truly believe this. When we note that federal revenues actually increased in the years after the tax rates were lowered, and continued to rise until all those bad loans brought the banks down, they always respond with an exasperated sigh that sounds quite convincing. We also note that the deficits have doubled since Obama took office, but apparently this is also Bush’s fault, and we’re assured that deficits are necessary to stimulate the economy.

It makes some tenuous sense, we suppose, that if the too-low tax rates caused the recession then upping them a few points would restore the nation’s economic health, but that leaves us wondering why the president is also insisting on another round of multi-billion dollar stimulus spending. According to one story the spending is needed to offset the economic drag of a tax hike, but if so it would seem much simpler to just skip the tax hike. Adding to the confusion, the proposed spending would add to the deficit that is said to have caused the economy to tank and remain tanked, but maybe it will only add to the good kind of bigger deficit that stimulates the economy.

All those trillions of dollars of deficit spending over the past four years don’t seem to have done much stimulating, not at first glance at the statistics measuring economic growth and job creation, yet the president’s many fans insist that without it everyone in the country would now be rubbing sticks together in caves and shooting each other over the last bushel of grain. There’s no way of proving this, economics being such a dismal science, but neither is there any way of disproving it so we’ll just do the fashionable thing and take the president’s word for it.
We’re also assured that no matter how many trillions of dollars of debt accrue there will none of the negative consequences that have followed in Greece, Spain, Argentina, or any of the other countries that have taken such a profligate path. Why this is so we’re not sure. Something to do with American exceptionalism, probably, although the president only believes in that to the same extent that the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.
Oh well, there’s another four years to figure it all out. We’re sure that happy days will be here again by then, and the genius of it all will be clear.

— Bud Norman