Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sunday Reading

Vision Quest — Peter Baker looks at President Obama’s approach to governing and leading.

In the days leading up to a last-minute deal Friday night averting a government shutdown, the president’s immediate tactical goal seemed to be holding himself out as the one reasonable man in an unreasonable town. While the rest of Washington squabbled, he presented himself as the grown-up above a messy fray that would alienate voters scratching their heads over how the government almost could not get its act together to pay the bills and keep the lights on.

The effect, though, was to obscure his own philosophy and to raise the question of what he wants a second term for. “He needs to be very careful to avoid leaving voters with the impression that his sphinx-like aloofness is all that liberalism has to offer,” said Yuval Levin, a scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington and a former domestic policy aide to President George W. Bush.

The challenge may in some ways resemble that facing President Bill Clinton during the last government shutdown in 1995-96, but one important difference is that Mr. Clinton had long identified himself as a centrist while there is less consensus in pinning down Mr. Obama ideologically. He has enacted some of the most expansive social and spending programs of any president since Lyndon B. Johnson, touching off the Tea Party rebellion against big government, even as his base on the left complains about his buildup in Afghanistan and his deal with Republicans to extend tax cuts for the wealthy.

Mr. Obama has always cast himself as a pragmatist and he seems to be feeling his way in the post-midterm election environment. In some areas, he has retreated. The decision announced last week to try the accused Sept. 11 plotters in a military commission at the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, represented a 180-degree reversal under pressure from congressional Republicans and some Democrats. His embrace of a free-trade pact with Colombia continued a new emphasis on trade for a Democrat who once vowed to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, or Nafta.

The war in Libya represents one of the most complicated issues for Mr. Obama as he sets out his own form of modern liberalism. The hero of the anti-war movement in 2008 effectively is adopting Mr. Clinton’s humanitarian interventions in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s as a model, while trying to distinguish his actions from Mr. Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

More below the fold.

Neither Brave Nor Serious — James Fallows deconstructs the Ryan proposal.

1) A plan to deal with budget problems that says virtually nothing about military spending is neither brave nor serious. That would be enough to disqualify it from the “serious” bracket, but there’s more.

2) A plan that proposes to eliminate tax loopholes and deductions, but doesn’t say what any of those are, is neither brave nor serious. It is, instead canny — or cynical, take your pick. The reality is that many of these deductions, notably for home-mortgage interest payments, are popular and therefore risky to talk about eliminating.

3) A plan that exempts from future Medicare cuts anyone born before 1957 — about a quarter of the population, which includes me — is neither brave nor serious. See “canny or cynical: take your pick” above.

4) A plan to reconcile revenue and spending, which rules out axiomatically any conceivable increase in tax rates, is neither brave nor serious. Rather, it is exactly as brave and serious as some opposite-extreme proposal that ruled out axiomatically any conceivable cut in entitlement spending or discretionary accounts.

5) A plan to reduce the federal deficit by granting big tax reductions to the highest-income Americans, at a time when their tax rates are very low by historic standards and and their share of the national income is extremely high, and when middle-class job creation is our main economic challenge, is neither brave nor serious. See “cynical,” above.

6) A plan that identifies rising health-care costs as the main problem in public spending, but avoids altogether the question of how to contain those costs, is neither brave nor serious. This is a longer and more complicated discussion (see below*); but I submit that the more closely anyone looks at the Ryan plan, the less “serious” it will seem on this extremely important front.

7) A plan that reduces, among other things, research on future energy sources and technologies by about 85% may be “brave,” but it’s also crazy and short-sighted.

Ryan’s budget plan is no worse than some other partisan proposals, and it has the virtue of being more detailed than most. Let me hasten to say that it is more comprehensive and convincing than one I could draw up myself. But it’s also no big intellectual or conceptual improvement on other partisan proposals. The wonder is that Ryan has managed to convince some people that it is.

Old Times There Have Been Forgotten — Leonard Pitts, Jr. on the collective amnesia in the South.

On Tuesday morning, it will be 150 years since the Civil War began.

The bloodiest war in U.S. history commenced with the bombardment of a fort in Charleston Harbor. President Abraham Lincoln was careful to define it as a war to restore 11 rebellious southern states to the Union — and only that.

For those 11 states, it was a war for property rights — property being defined as 4 million human beings. They feared the federal government would not allow the business of trading in human beings to expand to the new territories in the West.

By the time the war ended, four years almost to the day later, Lincoln’s view had changed. He had come to see himself and the war he had prosecuted through 48 bitter months of turmoil and tears, as tools of the Almighty’s judgment upon the nation for having allowed the evil of slavery.

The South would change its view as well. It would begin to spin grand, romantic fables of a “Lost Cause” that had been fought for “state’s rights” or constitutional principle, or any other reason it could invent, so long as it was not slavery. Jefferson Davis, who before the war had flatly declared “the labor of African slaves” the cause of the rebellion, would write after the war that slavery had nothing to do with it.

Thus, the South entered a conspiracy of amnesia that, for many, continues to this day. As in Virginia naming April Confederate History Month last year in a proclamation that did not mention slavery. And recent attempts in Mississippi to honor Confederate hero Nathan Bedford Forrest, who led a massacre of unarmed black people and helped found the Ku Klux Klan. And the ‘‘Secession Ball’’ South Carolina hosted in December to, as one man put it, “honor our ancestors for their bravery and tenacity protecting their homes from invasion.”

So this seems an apt moment to speak in memory’s defense. As Confederate battle flags flap from truck grills and monuments, as tourists gather around pigeon-stained statues of dead rebels baking under the Dixie sun, as Southern

apologists seek glory in acts of treason, and as all of the above studiously avoid coming too close to the heart of the matter, to its cause, it is worth remembering that their forebears were not as circumspect.

To the contrary, they said clearly and without shame that they fought for slavery.

If that makes someone uncomfortable, good. It should.

But you do not deal with that discomfort by telling lies of omission about yesterday. You do not deal with it by pretending treason is glory. No, you deal with it by listening to the hard things the past has to say — and learning from them.

This nation took so much from the men and women it kidnapped. It took dignity, it took labor, it took family, it took home, it took names. In the end, the last thing any of us has is the memory of ourselves we bequeath the future, the reminder that we were here.

And to their everlasting dishonor, some of us want to take that, too.

Doonesbury — the ransom of Red Rascal.