Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sunday Reading

WWRD? — Former Congressman Mickey Edwards, Republican, assesses his party’s state and says that Ronald Reagan would not recognize what’s being done or said in his name.

In my mind’s eye, I can see Ronald Reagan, wearing wings and a Stetson, perched on a cloud and watching all the goings-on down here in his old earthly home. Laughing, rolling his eyes and whacking his forehead over the absurdities he sees, he’s watching his old political party as it twists itself into ever more complex knots, punctuated only by pauses to invoke the Gipper’s name. It’s been said that God would be amazed by what his followers ascribe to him; believe me, Reagan would be similarly amazed by what his most fervent admirers cite in their desire to be seen as true-blue Reaganites.

On the premise that simple is best, many Republicans have reduced their operating philosophy to two essentials: First, government is bad (it’s “the problem”); second, big government is the worst and small government is better (although because government itself is bad, it may be assumed that small government is only marginally preferable). This is all errant nonsense. It is wrong in every conceivable way and violative of the Constitution, American exceptionalism, freedom, conservatism, Reaganism and common sense.

In America, government is … us. What is “exceptional” about America is the depth of its commitment to the principle of self-government; we elect the government, we replace it or its members when they displease us, and by our threats or support, we help steer what government does.

A shocker: The Constitution, which we love for the limits it places on government power, not only constrains government, it empowers it. Limited government is not no government. And limited government is not “small” government. Simply building roads, maintaining a military, operating courts, delivering the mail and doing other things specifically mandated by the Constitution for America’s 300 million people make it impossible to keep government “small.” It is boundaries that protect freedom. Small governments can be oppressive, and large ones can diminish freedoms. It is the boundaries, not the numbers, that matter.

What would Reagan think of this? Wasn’t it he who warned that government is the problem? Well, permit me. I directed the joint House-Senate policy advisory committees for the Reagan presidential campaign. I was part of his congressional steering committee. I sat with him in his hotel room in Manchester, N.H., the night he won that state’s all-important primary. I knew him before he was governor of California and before I was a member of Congress. Let me introduce you to Ronald Reagan.

Reagan, who spent 16 years in government, actually said this:

“In the present crisis,” referring specifically to the high taxes and high levels of federal spending that had marked the Carter administration, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” He then went on to say: “Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it’s not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work.” Government, he said, “must provide opportunity.” He was not rejecting government, he was calling — as Barack Obama did Tuesday — for better management of government, for wiser decisions.

This is the difference between ideological advocacy and holding public office: Having accepted partial responsibility for the nation’s well-being, one assumes an obligation that goes beyond bumper-sticker slogans. Certitude is the enemy of wisdom, and in office, it is wisdom, not certitude, that is required.

How, for example, should conservatives react to stimulus and bailout proposals in the face of an economic meltdown? The wall between government and the private sector is an essential feature of our democracy. At the same time, if there is a dominant identifier of conservatism — political, social, psychological — it is prudence.

If proposals seem unworkable or unwise (if they do not contain provisions for taxpayers to recoup their investment; if they do not allow for taxpayers, as de facto shareholders, to insist on sound management practices; if they would allow government officials to make production and pricing decisions), conservatives have a responsibility to resist. But they also have an obligation to propose alternative solutions. It is government’s job — Reagan again — to provide opportunity and foster productivity. With the nation in financial collapse, nothing is more imprudent — more antithetical to true conservatism — than to do nothing.

The Republican Party that is in such disrepute today is not the party of Reagan. It is the party of Rush Limbaugh, of Ann Coulter, of Newt Gingrich, of George W. Bush, of Karl Rove. It is not a conservative party, it is a party built on the blind and narrow pursuit of power.

No Time for Poetry — Frank Rich on President Obama’s speech and the rough road that lies ahead.

PRESIDENT Obama did not offer his patented poetry in his Inaugural Address. He did not add to his cache of quotations in Bartlett’s. He did not recreate J.F.K.’s inaugural, or Lincoln’s second, or F.D.R.’s first. The great orator was mainly at his best when taking shots at Bush and Cheney, who, in black hat and wheelchair, looked like the misbegotten spawn of the evil Mr. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the Wicked Witch of the West.

Such was the judgment of many Washington drama critics. But there’s a reason that this speech was austere, not pretty. Form followed content. Obama wasn’t just rebuking the outgoing administration. He was delicately but unmistakably calling out the rest of us who went along for the ride as America swerved into the dangerous place we find ourselves now.

Feckless as it was for Bush to ask Americans to go shopping after 9/11, we all too enthusiastically followed his lead, whether we were wealthy, working-class or in between. We spent a decade feasting on easy money, don’t-pay-as-you-go consumerism and a metastasizing celebrity culture. We did so while a supposedly cost-free, off-the-books war, usually out of sight and out of mind, helped break the bank along with our nation’s spirit and reputation.

We can’t keep blaming 43 for everything, especially now that we don’t have him to kick around anymore. On Tuesday the new president pointedly widened his indictment beyond the sins of his predecessor. He spoke of those at the economic pinnacle who embraced greed and irresponsibility as well as the rest of us who collaborated in our “collective failure to make hard choices.” He branded as sub-American those who “prefer leisure over work or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.” And he wasn’t just asking Paris Hilton “to set aside childish things.” As Linda Hirshman astutely pointed out on The New Republic’s Web site, even Obama’s opening salutation — “My fellow citizens,” not “fellow Americans” — invoked the civic responsibilities we’ve misplaced en masse.

These themes are not new for Obama. They were there back on Feb. 10, 2007, when, on another frigid day, he announced his presidential candidacy in Springfield, Ill. Citing “our mounting debts” and “hard choices,” he talked of how “each of us, in our own lives, will have to accept responsibility” and “some measure of sacrifice.” His campaign, he said then, “has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship.” But the press, convinced that Obama was a sideshow to the inevitable Clinton-Giuliani presidential standoff, didn’t parse his words all that carefully, and neither did a public still maxing out on its gluttonous holiday from economic history. However inadvertently, Time magazine had captured the self-indulgent tenor of the times when, weeks earlier, it slapped some reflective Mylar on its cover and declared that the 2006 Person of the Year was “You.”

“Here Lies Our Dreams” — Parents take their complaints about underfunded education to Tallahassee via YouTube.

Mothers from Cutler Bay held a funeral for public education — and posted the video on YouTube.

Two others from Doral went on a weeklong hunger strike.

Outraged by statewide cuts in public-school funding, and fearing the loss of clubs, art classes and electives, parents across South Florida and across the state are starting to stir. They are phoning lawmakers, sending out e-mail blasts, assembling at school board meetings and engaging in protests akin to performance art.

Advocates of school funding, including the PTA and lawmakers sympathetic to their cause, hope to harness that anger as they head into a new battle over still more cuts.

”I keep saying: What it’s going to take to change the state of education in Florida is angry moms,” said Colleen Wood, a mother and grass-roots organizer in Central Florida.

It may take more than that. The battle over school funding will define this legislative session the way the hunt for tax relief did last year’s.

Economists predict that the tax revenue that runs the state, generated by everything from home sales to retail goods, will be down by $3.5 billion more this spring. That money is the lifeblood of the state general fund, nearly half of which is used for education.

Unlike the federal government, the state cannot run a deficit. So, unless lawmakers raise revenue — something the Republican-dominated Legislature is actually considering, with talk of increasing the cigarette tax or eliminating corporate-tax loopholes — they have to scale back spending.

And that almost certainly means school spending.

Members of the state PTA hope to send a strong message when the legislative session starts that education cuts are no longer acceptable, and that new revenue, through taxes and fees, must be found.

”We’re insisting that Florida invest in children and invest in public education,” said Florida PTA President Karin Brown, who is helping to organize a rally March 18.

Florida ranks 47th in the nation in education spending per $1,000 of personal income, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2006 figures, the latest available.

That was before schools across the state absorbed unprecedented budget cuts. In the past two years, state lawmakers slashed $3.87 billion from the education budget — a reduction of nearly 16 percent.

The Miami-Dade County district had to reduce its budget by about $300 million in the past year — a 5.5 percent cut. In Broward County, the cuts totaled $150 million.

It’s enough to have riled scores of South Florida parents, said Mindy Gould, president of the Miami-Dade County Council of PTAs/PTSAs.

”For the first time in a very long time, parents feel that together, they can speak with a united voice and actually make things happen,” Gould said.

Take Stephanie Keime and Lisa Richardson, both of whom have children in the Miami-Dade public-school system.

”When we found out that things were going to get slashed, we thought, ‘Gosh, this could be really bad,’ ” Keime said. ”We couldn’t get to Tallahassee, but we had to do something.”

With their children as actors and a $20 budget, the mothers produced a short film called Florida FundingFuneral. It features a group of somber children placing their soccer balls, musical instruments, sketch books and ballet slippers into a coffin.

The headstone at the grave site reads: ”Here lies our dreams.”

In one week, the video tallied 1,300 hits on YouTube — not exactly viral, but a start.

Doonesbury — with a twist.