Thursday, January 08, 2015

Political Drama 2016: Act I, Scene 1

Republican Kabuki
If it were a TV show, the 2016 election would begin with a spasm of violence (something like what occurred in Paris yesterday--see below), then cut to a commercial.  That is the principle of the hook.

Make no mistake, the story of the 2016 elections has now begun, but it begins with drama that is, at best, fake--it's more like mundane events setting the scene.  There is nothing wrong with that; Shakespeare's plays often began in like manner; the big events, if there are to be such, will come later.  This week, we get the Kabuki play of John Boehner's (tearful, of course) election as Speaker, despite a handful of self-promoting fools who mistakenly believe their Congressional service will be enhanced by rebelling against their party caucus' decisions.   At least their actions will identify themselves as people not to be counted on for key votes by the party's Majority Whip, Steven Scalise.

Speaking of Scalise, he had his own fake drama this week.  An enterprising reporter dug up the gem that Scalise had spoken to a white supremacist group in his state of Louisiana headed by the famous racist politician David Duke--twelve years ago.   It was not scandalous behavior then, because Scalise was a no-name state legislator looking for support wherever he could find it.  It may be scandalous now, but it hardly qualifies as news:  Scalise was fairly open at the time that his politics were like Duke's "without the baggage"; now he has the baggage and it is Duke.   Beyond being "pro-white", Duke is also big on the global Jewish conspiracy topic--that is the one that Scalise will have to throw over convincingly, if he wants to remain in the party's House leadership.  Not to please his party's caucus, which lost its only Jewish member when his predecessor, Eric Cantor, lost his seat last summer in a primary against an obscure tea-bagger, but to keep from alienating Sheldon Adelson, one of the party's super-rich backers--and a major backer of Israel and Netanyahu--who must be placated.

The most dramatic move to date in the budding 2016 electoral story has been made by Jeb Bush, who opted for the early headline move in positioning himself to run.  The early move has worked in the past---notably, for Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama--but is no guarantee of success (just look at Rick Perry, who preceded Jeb this time around but seems to be making no traction at all, in spite of trying to adopt a more intellectual persona).  Jeb's move has worked well, though, putting the pressure on other potential party Establishment figures to either get in or give up:  in particular, Chris Christie is on the spot, Mitt Romney's camera-shy wife now has a good reason to tell her husband the country does not, after all, need him to run again, and Marco Rubio is in a tough bind.  I think all three will end up being pre-empted by Bush's move; though they may still decide to run, they will find it a tough row to hoe.  In particular, if Bush has put to rest the thoughts of another Romney candidacy, he has achieved a major tactical success:  the Republicans, especially the Establishment ones, like hierarchy and an orderly succession, and Romney's willingness to take on the incumbent President is endearing to them (though not to the right wing, which insists on the strange argument that he and John McCain only lost because they weren't "conservative" enough).

I don't think Bush's move prompted Mike Huckabee's withdrawal as a Fox News paid commentator; instead, he has listened to his advisers and stepped forward early, in order to try to build a structured campaign--something he failed to do in 2008, preventing him from capitalizing on his unexpected victory in the Iowa caucuses.  He may be able to pull that Iowa trick off again, as he has a solid core of support that could emerge from a crowded field of right-wingers. But will he have his lines prepared for Act I, Scenes 2 and 3?   If he can survive New Hampshire and make a good showing in the always-critical South Carolina Republican primary, he, rather than Ted Cruz, could be the survivor on the right-wing to make the final group of serious contenders for the nomination (as I said before, I think the other two will be Bush and Rand Paul).  I have underestimated Huck before; I will try not to do it this time.

Je Suis Triste Pour Charlie
I am a big fan of political satire.  For me, it is the highest form of literary art, and I hope that someday I may have the time and ability to write a decent satirical work.  Dealing with the powers that be in a less than respectful manner, it is also an art which takes great risk.

We are accustomed to think that the forms of attack on press freedom come from the government: trying to get journalists to reveal their sources, pressing them when they disclose secrets, targeting them in civil wars (as has happened in Syria).  Government also provides the press a safe harbor in some respects, in the form of special protection against slander and libel suits.  The notion that private individuals can cripple press freedom and effectiveness of political satire through acts of violence is, in this day, a new and scary proposition.

I hope you will not think it churlish, and it may relate to my weakness with the French language, but what I have to say about the satire I have seen from the satirical periodical Charlie Hebdo that was attacked yesterday in brutal, terroristic fashion is that it doesn't seem very funny to me.  Brave, defiant, irreverent, yes, but not so humorous. I have always insisted that sense of humor is subjective:  I hate it when people try to get me to agree with them, contrary to what my senses and emotion tell me, that "That's funny" or "That's not funny"--so I will limit my comment to that subjective observation, but that is the reason that I am not quite in the "Je suis Charlie" camp.

I am sad for those involved (especially the policemen who had the difficult and dangerous task of trying to defend the newspaper from the attack); I am angry at those who did it (and those who may have put them up to it); I will raise my pen (or my mouse), if that form of protest makes some kind of difference.   Finally, I will express my full solidarity with the French people:  we Americans may find them hard to deal with (that cursed independence! I joke), but they are, in fact, our oldest and most reliable allies in the world.  We have never fought a war against them (as Americans), and our alliance goes back even farther than our nationhood.

One piece on the subject that I found especially interesting was written by Daniel Burke, CNN's Religion Editor.  Burke discusses the history and practice of this prohibition on the publishing of images of Mohammed.  First, I found it interesting that this is never mentioned in the Quran; second, that the practice is not consistent across all of Islam (he observes that images of Mohammed--with faces--are found in the cultures of Turkey and Iran, but not often in Sunni mosques, and very rarely if ever in the Arabian peninsula).  Finally, he comments on the irony that this fetish about not having the image produced comes from a directive to avoid creating idols, that Mohammed wanted Islam to treat him as an ordinary man, not a god to be worshipped.  In today's society, it is a fact that the depiction of real-life heroes tends to make them more human; therefore, it would make sense for the practice of Islam to relax this prohibition, to make the religion more approachable.  Certainly it should be shouted from all the minarets that the depiction of Mohammed is not a capital offense.

Is there a tie-in from this episode in Paris to the 2016 election?  Not really--only this:  as we saw also in the terror attack at the Boston Marathon (case finally going to trial), the threat in today's Western countries takes the form of small cells of committed fanatics with unlikely targets far removed from the centers of power and commerce.  It was my fervent desire that GWOT (Global War on Terror) would end in these post-Bushite years (we may not even be post-Bushite yet--we shall see), but I recognize that the threat of terror is not completely gone, and the challenge of suppressing it is more global than ever.   We are in a new phase, in which our counterterrorism must have multiple strategies, multiple tactics, flexibility, but also consistent resolve.  It will be interesting to see if any of our Presidential candidates can grasp this subtlety in the electoral marathon to come.

Mario Cuomo
The three-term governor of New York died last week.  In his prime (early to mid 1980's), I was a big fan of Cuomo, and I hoped he would run for President.  He never did, and after he pulled back from the campaign in 1991-92 (I will never know why, maybe), his star faded and he fell, somewhat shockingly, to Republican George Pataki in 1994.

Cuomo is the man who is credited with the quote that "campaigning is poetry; governing is prose".  I have to say that his administration of New York was very prosaic. He always argued for the causes of the poor and downtrodden, but during his terms New York enforced the draconian sentencing and harsh drug laws previously enacted, causing prison populations to grow enormously.  He did hold out courageously against the law'n'order types who wanted to burn more criminals (which may have caused his ultimate political defeat in '94), and he maintained his principles, his willingness for political combat, and his pride throughout; however, I felt somewhat disappointed at the time that he did not succeed in doing more.  In that sense, I think he helped me learn a lesson about how hard it is to accomplish progressive change in this country, even in the states where progress is possible.  This has allowed me to moderate my expectations for the current national Presidential administration, which has kept me from joining the ranks of those who (from a progressive viewpoint) only criticize Obama and fail to recognize his successes.

With regard to the political career of his son Andrew, I am an agnostic:  I don't see the same eloquence, though I do see a similar political combativeness.  I have not lived in New York during his administration, so my view is from the outside only. I think his time to step onto the national stage is likely to come in 2020, and I will try to keep my mind open about him until then.

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