Monday, February 27, 2012

Say What?

I thought the problem with Romney was that he does not do well without a script. That is not the case. By his latest famous quote about being “severely conservative,” he demonstrated that he does not do well when he ad libs. If you watch you will see that his body language is out of sync with his words. When the question is whether or not we want a President who can deliver lines with conviction, the name Ronald Reagan has got to come to mind. The Gipper was one of the best either on or off script and was the last great rhetorician to occupy the White House. It helps to have great writers, which is something Mitt Romney does not have and desperately needs.

Here is a little trivia about the Presidents’ age (birth year) and their writers. Reagan (1911), a trained actor, had Peggy Noonan. Richard Nixon (1913) worked hard at delivering lines and even used 3 X 5 index cards to practice small talk. William Safire scripted Nixon. A towering and passionate rhetorician, Lyndon Johnson (1908) relied on Richard Goodwin, who named LBJ’s political agenda “The Great Society”. Jack Kennedy (1917), the first television president relied on Arthur Schlesinger and Theodore Sorenson to craft his speeches.

Here is the point of the trivia. When Reagan, Nixon, Johnson, and Kennedy were young men, radio was the dominant medium of mass communication, masterfully utilized by President Franklin Roosevelt with his famous fire-side chats. World War II intensified the importance of radio. The spoken word, the rhetoric used in public speaking, and the crucial importants of written words characterizes the manner in which those men formulated their thoughts. It also influenced their choices of writers who they regarded as critical to their political success. That became more important as the dominant medium became television by 1960.

Mitt Romney (1947) is a baby-boomer for whom the dominant medium became television with the assassination of President Kennedy. Words formulating Romney’s thoughts are sound-bites, not the paragraphs of the radio era. It is bumper-sticker rhetoric, ideal for Twitter. To complicate Romney’s predicament further, he is a spreadsheet man. His speeches could well be written in Excel for a PowerPoint presentation. It would also appear that Romney does some of his own editing.

That is proving to be a mistake. In our media environment, words are like toothpaste. Once they are out, it’s tough to get them back in the tube. Do you think someone really wrote the lines “corporations are people,” “not concerned about the very poor,” or “severely conservative?” Could it be a cynical plot to discredit Romney in the eyes of various constituent groups? Can such thoughtless remarks be purposeful?

The only thing inevitable about Mitt Romney is that he will respond to the pressure of this campaign by trying to outdo his opponents and saying things he will have to redact. If he is wins its nomination, the Republican Party had better hire some great writers to load his lips. He could also use an acting coach to synchronize his body language with his lines. Since no one in the GOP seems to like him, Romney should study Nixon. The party did not like him either, but Nixon won. Otherwise, Romney is in over his head in a rhetorical duel with President Obama.


Article first published as Say What? on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Not-So Great Society

Mitt Romney revealed a lot about himself when he told CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, “I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety-net there.” Weeks before he had asserted that those safety-net programs have “massive overhead” and that because of the cost of such bureaucracy “very little of the money that’s actually needed by those that really need help, those that can’t care for themselves, actually reaches them.” His claim is false. The fact is that more than 90% of the money allocated to safety-net programs reaches its beneficiaries. Romney’s statements demonstrate that he is oblivious to such socio-economic realities, but at least he brought up poverty and made it an issue. That is something that has not happened up since 1964.

Romney touts his business background and pontificates that he knows how to create jobs. That may sound good to the Republican base, but Presidents of the United States have nothing to do with job creation. It is not in their Constitutional authority. Presidents do not legislate. They sign legislation into law or veto it. Furthermore, the United States is not a corporation. The last U.S. President who came to office from business was Herbert Hoover, whose administration ushered in the Great Depression, incredible job loss, and excruciating poverty.

Presidents do propose legislation to the Congress, as LBJ did with the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. That Act established the Office of Economic Opportunity to administer the local application of federal funds targeted against poverty. Modified over the years, the Act’s remaining programs include Head Start and the Job Corps. Johnson proposed that legislation in January of 1964, coerced and cajoled members of Congress to pass it, and signed it into law on August 20, 1964. It created jobs.

In declaring the War on Poverty, President Johnson sought “to help that one-fifth of all American families with incomes too small to even meet their basic needs.” LBJ called for “better schools, and better health, and better homes, and better training, and better job opportunities to help more Americans, especially young Americans, escape from squalor and misery and unemployment rolls where other citizens help to carry them.”

The poverty rate is the percentage of Americans whose income is lower than the federally determined poverty line. It was 17.3% in 1965.

As LBJ put it to Congress, “Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.” The safety-net programs that Mr. Romney does not comprehend came from President Johnson’s Great Society initiative.

Romney, the other GOP candidates, and the Republican Congress gripe about and seek to change one of President Johnson’s greatest legislative achievements, Medicare. It helped to lower poverty rates for the elderly. So did President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Social Security program, which LBJ enhanced by advocating, pushing for, and signing legislation in 1965 and 1967. But the GOP seeks to repeal LBJ’s Great Society by claiming that its programs are bankrupting the country.

Romney ineloquently brought up poverty with his “very poor” statement, for which he drew massive criticism. He said he misspoke. That may be true, but it reveals an ignorance of the fact that more than 20 million Americans live in a household with income of less than half the federal poverty rate. According to census data for 2010, those “very poor” had an annual income below $11,057 for a family of four. That portion of the US population in the very poor category has almost doubled since 1975 and is the highest it has been in 35 years. Business people rely on data. At the least Romney could have read Business Week and appeared less clueless.

In addition to those one in five Americans that Romney does not care about, the ones who had trouble putting food on the table last year, the unpleasant reality is that nearly half of all U.S. households are struggling to cover basic expenses like electricity and medical care. Children are the least fortunate victims. As in LBJ’s time in the late ‘20s when he was a Texas school teacher, childhood poverty can have a lifelong effect on a person's earning potential. The Brookings Institute and First Focus found that by the time children who fell into poverty during a recession grow up to be financially independent adults, their median income is about 30 percent less than that of adults who never experienced poverty as children. That is certainly bad for business.

The poverty issue is not who gets blamed. The issue is what choices do policy makers make to help expand economic activity. Romney and his cohorts are all about austerity, like defunding the safety-net programs for the very poor, the disabled, and seniors. The problem is that austerity in a recession makes things worse, not better. In Europe, which the GOP does not understand, harsh austerity policies have made unemployment soar. Cuts in government spending have failed to reduce budget deficits because tax receipts fell. Economic activity and employment levels collapsed. Poverty increased as spending decreased.

President John F. Kennedy said, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” As one of those few, Romney demonstrates a profound paucity of the economic and social understanding that is requisite of Presidents. Despite the Republican pabulum to the contrary, this is still a country of great abundance that is slowly emerging from the Great Recession. However, the nation suffers from a rise of poverty that the nation can ill afford. All of the talk about the middle class ignores the plight of the “many who are poor.”

Poverty is bad for business and Romney should know it. His comments deserve derision because they are false, not because they are gaffes. He raised the poverty issue but has articulated no plan for addressing it, without which the country becomes the Not-So Great Society.

 Originally published as The Not-So Great Society on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Asking Not

Fifty-one years ago President John F. Kennedy delivered his inaugural address containing the thought provoking line, “And so, my fellow Americans - ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” That short speech contains several other rhetorical gems such as, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” Kennedy declared, “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.” Today, the few who are rich seek to benefit from fear and a lack of negotiation as they seek what their country can do for them.

Foremost among those rich few is the Republican nominee apparent Mitt Romney. In his speech after the marginal New Hampshire primary, Romney castigated President Obama. “He wants to turn America into a European-style entitlement society,” the candidate said.  The GOP echo chamber reverberates with variations on the "European-style socialism" theme from television to Twitter. But just because Republicans repeat it does not make it so. The veracity of such rhetoric suffers the problematic flaws of ignorance and inaccuracy.

The ignorance is that most Americans do not know much about Europe other than its economic situation is in far worse shape than our own. "Associating Obama with Europe links him to the current malaise in Europe, and Americans know it's a basket case," according to Rosemary Hollis of London's City University. "It plays to the stereotypical notion that the USA has about Europe, that they [Europeans] are freeloaders, with no defense capability, and live on welfare [state] benefits." She also said that Romney is "relying on a history of socialism being viewed as the enemy." Socialism is the new Communism.

The inaccuracy is that Europe has increased its privatization which has led to a decline of the welfare state, a post WWII idea crafted by the British economist and social reformer William Beveridge. He saw poverty, disease, ignorance, squalor, and idleness as the five "giants on the road to reconstruction." Beveridge proposed setting up a welfare state with social security, a National Health Service, free education, public housing projects, and full employment as its objectives. The welfare state adopted the ideas of economist John Maynard Keynes, specifically that a government could keep its economy vigorous by increasing public spending. The British Labour government used its U.S. Marshall Plan aid money to get industry going. Then it nationalized the trucking, railways and coal industries in 1947 and the steel industry in 1951.

The accusation that President Barack Obama is leading the country into any kind of socialist state is as erroneous as making the same accusation about his predecessor, President George W. Bush. Republicans conveniently ignore the fact that under Bush and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson the government nationalized major banks. The TARP bailout also contained what can be called socialist elements. If Obama deserves a hit, it should be for hiring Republican appointees Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner, whose deregulatory policies of the ‘90s helped create the crisis that required such a government rescue.

Romney has been wrong before. He opposed the automobile industry bailout. “IF (sic) General Motors, Ford and Chrysler get the bailout that their chief executives asked for yesterday, you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye. It won’t go overnight, but its demise will be virtually guaranteed,” he wrote in a 2008 New York Times opinion article. “Without that bailout, Detroit will need to drastically restructure itself. With it, the automakers will stay the course — the suicidal course of declining market shares, insurmountable labor and retiree burdens, technology atrophy, product inferiority and never-ending job losses.” That is not what happened.

The President is not leading the country into a European-style entitlement society, as Mitt Romney pontificates. If anything, President Obama is presiding over an inherited American-style entitlement society that has its origins in FDR’s New Deal, with the Social Security Act, extending through the JFK’s New Frontier and LBJ’s Great Society, with the Civil Rights Act, Medicare and Medicaid. The Republican elites who opposed Democratic Presidents Roosevelt, Kennedy and Johnson decried them as socialists too.

Anti-European, anti-socialism, anti-Obama rhetoric aside, let’s think about what JFK said, as his niece did last year in the Atlantic. “I almost never hear anything like that call to sacrifice for the good of our country from our leaders today,” Kathleen Kennedy Townsend wrote. “When President Kennedy asked what we could do for our country, he didn't pretend it would be easy, or painless, or even fair.” John F. Kennedy’s death for his country affirms that.

“So let us begin anew,” said the 35th President, “remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof.” So far, that too is being lost on the wealthy Republican candidates seeking the Presidency. As they sink more deeply into incivility, their sincerity leaves much to be proved.

 Originally published as Asking Not on Blogcritics.