Friday, November 7, 2014

Leaders lead

 Elections  have consequences. , and
there are lessons to be learned.

         On issues of great national or local importance, tentative, hesitant and hedge your bets leadership does not cut it with the vast majority of American voters. Certainty, and leadership with a definitive thrust will trump  wishy washy , Mamby pamby,  maybe this,  maybe that,  leadership every time.
    In a crisis, Americans do not want our leaders leading from behind, from the sidelines, or the middle. They are unforgiving about a leader who gives a muddled message about our intentions and the future.
   If you have ever attended a political rally, you understand that equivocation is unacceptable as a motivator. Woe unto a politician who speaks at a rally and urges his or her supporters to go "sideways" or to stand pat. Haranguing the crowd with cries of forward works much better. Even "let's go backward" can be appealing to certain elements, but "let's just cogitate and dawdle" just doesn't cut it.
     This is the secret of NJ Governor Chris Christie's popularity. Love him or hate him, at least you understand what he's saying. Imagine if he had said to his heckler the other day, instead of "sit down and shut up", "please reduce the volume of your heckling and just squat" so others can see and hear me! What? How can you rally to a nuanced and muddled message. At a rally things have to be black or white, never gray. Gray is for the classroom, not the bully pulpit.
    This is a lesson our President, for whatever reason, refuses to learn . It is also why his poll numbers are so low , and why his opponents prevailed in the midterm elections. It didn't have to be that way.
     When Harry Truman was running to be elected President in his own right in 1948, he railed and rallied against the "Do nothing REPUBLICAN Congress". Not just "Congress". President Obama needs to full throatedly throttle his Republican opposition, and show he can stand up to the bullies, and he must do so in a clear and unequivocal way, lest his Presidency tumble further and forever downward toward the dustbin of history.
     Leadership matters . Americans are craving it, and the President's party is suffering not because it does not have issues and beliefs that resound with the people, but because it has a leader with a muddled message and whose bully pulpit microphone  is in need of a new battery. In the immortal words of ET, the President desperately needs to phone home, turn on his heart light, and lead, not follow. The question remains whether the Professor can get out of the President's way to achieve that objective. The next two years will define his destiny.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Let's face it. President Obama has been ukered by his opponents after they hoisted him by his own petard when he accepted, with inappropriate hubris, the renaming of the affordable care act as Obamacare. I believe someone once said, "pride goeth before the fall!" Someone else ( Dutch political philosopher Soren Kierkegaard) also said '" if you label me you can dismiss me".

    Once he accepted the label, his opponents were able to focus the opposition to everything the President stands for by centering on  his signature achievement, health care reform.

     It matters not that the idea of mandating universal purchasing of health insurance plans was a Republican one. Obama actually took a chapter out of Mitt Romney's Massachusetts play book and implemented the idea on a national scale, much to his complete discredit by his unrelenting Republican opposition which decries anything and everything associated with this President . As my father used to say, “When you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas”.

     The Republicans  have adopted as their motivational mantra the need to repeal Obamacare. They claim it is responsible for sluggish job growth, excessive national debt, and almost everything else including tooth decay. This is now in addition to their original cries of "socialized medicine" and "death panels".  The problem is the sheer unending incessance of their anti Obamacare chants have blurred the ability of the average voter to focus on the positive accomplishments of this same President. That is a shame, but it is Barack Obama's shame because of his  own unwillingness and/or reluctance to fight back. In his world,  facts matter,  and rationality prevails. Unfortunately,  in the world outside of  Harvard Law review circles, repetitive ridiculizing is more potent than  professorial probity.

     Let's face it. The last time a US President was as vilified and de -legitimized as Barack Obama was nearly seventy years ago, when Harry Truman couldn't catch a break with the Republicans,  even if he bought them all winning lottery tickets. Then again, governmentally sponsored lotteries didn't exist back then. We actually funded the national government through a system called the Progressive income tax, which forced the well to do to pay their fair share of the bill. Sadly, that system too has fallen on such hard times, and become prey to so many loopholes that people are even crying out for a "fairer" flat tax.

     The only solution to regain his lost footing and to get back into the game is for Barack Obama to sprinkle himself with the fairy dust of a Harry Truman persona, and "Give 'em hell", not hieroglyphic histrionics.

     Former Vice President Dick Cheney recently opined on the Fox News Channel that President Obama in proposing cutbacks in the post cold war military budget was not driven by world circumstances as much as by budget considerations. “He’d much rather spend the money on food stamps than he would on a strong military or support for our troops”, said Cheney.  That type of delusional diatribe must not go unanswered.  Barack Obama , should call a press conference, and call out Cheney directly on his duplicity and demagoguery.  He should demand an apology , and hold Cheney’s record up for examination at the same time.  There comes a time when you just can’t take it lying down anymore, and that time has long since arrived.  Would that Obama would show some sense of indignation, and/or downright anger and antipathy toward his less than civil critics.  They continue to label him and dismiss him, and should no longer do so with impunity.

     He needs a strong defense, as well as  a good offense, politically speaking, both of which seem to be lacking as a result of his ponderous temperament. Long boring factual dissertations simply do not cut it in this facts be damned Fox News saturated world of pious platitudes, pungent sarcasm and pontificating punditry. Obama needs to sharpen his rhetoric and his elbows if he is to get back in the game and make a real difference. The other option is to keep sliding into the dustbin of history and to leave a lackluster legacy in place of the luminescence that might have been. Here's hoping the President will saddle up and ride out the rest of his term with the roughridering bravado of Teddy Roosevelt and the common man,  common sense courage of Harry Truman. It's worth a try.

Friday, February 21, 2014

(  Spoiler warning...some readers will consider this article simply sour grapes. Maybe so, but it is still important to say some things that need to be said.)

     Once upon a time, in a land not too far away, there lived a system for selecting candidates for higher public office which required that a certain amount of dues be paid before candidates could advance through the chairs, like in the Elk's club.

Alas, that system no more. It has apparently gone the way of the horse and buggy. It is an anachronism in a new political world where fame and fortune count more than experience, guts and gusto. It's really all about the money. That is sad.

     It wasn't always this way.. But today, it's about celebrity and cash, not experience and judgement. No wonder our legislative process has become gridlocked. It becomes a clash of colossal egos rather than a contest of principle, balanced by compromise and cooperation.

     As a case in point, take the recent selection process used by the Democrats to fill a seat being surprisingly vacated by three term Congressman Bill Owens. of Plattsburgh.   I believe it was former Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn who said , of the Kennedy crowd's penchant for selecting the "best and the brightest", "It would be nice if even one of them had run for Sheriff once” .    

North Country Democratic chairs, suffering from a thin bench of political candidates ready to move up the line, settled on a film maker and Phish songwriter who runs a health food store in Brooklyn and was not even registered to vote from his upstate " home" until the weekend before his selection as the candidate. He was chosen  in a closed door process that took place in a remote Adirondack Mountain location on a snowy February day. Oh transparency! Where are you when we need you the most?

     These days, the minimum entrance fee for anyone to be considered as a candidate by the Democratic Congressional campaign committee is $200,000 cash on hand. The ability to raise upwards of several million dollars for the race is also a plus.
     If you are unable to be a self funder like 26 year old millionaire Sean Eldridge who is challenging incumbent R Chris Gibson in NY's 19th district, you are required to make calls on a constant basis to surpass that $200,000 threshold level.  It was so daunting a task for Omaha City Council President Dan Festersen, that faced with a choice of making fundraising calls or attending his daughter's spelling bee. He
chose the spelling bee, and dropped his bid for Congress with its onerous dialing for dollars requirement. The days of Mr. Smith goes to Washington are long gone.

     According to the “Vital Statistics on Congress” ( a joint study of the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute), the cost of a winning campaign for congress has increased 344% since 1986, while the cost of a Senate seat has only increased 62% during the same time frame.  Part of this is due to the fact that the congressional districts are so gerrymandered, that there are fewer and fewer swing seats to contest, driving the cost up for each, since it is majority control of the Congress that hangs in the balance.  Out of the 465 seats in Congress, less than 100 can be considered possible swing districts or “toss ups”, which is what the NY 21st district is now considered.  It is all about the money.  That conclusion is inescapable.

     Money is the ticket to "higher office" these days. Not experience. Not seasoned judgment hewn by years of involvement in the local and state governmental process, It's all about money and/or celebrity, and money comes first.

     It doesn't take a genius to figure out why this is a broken system. It is also a process that can be more easily controlled by those who have a vested interest in perpetuating a system which works to their advantage.

     When Hillary Clinton was thinking of running for the Senate in New York, and she asked me as a former party chair what I thought, I told her that , while I meant no disrespect,she was a Chicago native , transplanted to Arkansas, and later Washington, who knew little about Upstate New York. I said to her then,

“Mrs. Clinton, when you can tell me the difference between Oswego, Owego, Otsego and Otego, then you should run". Six months later I saw her at an event in Watertown, and she approached me and said, " Oswego is in Oswego County. Owego is in Tioga County. Otsego is in Otsego County, and Otego is in Otsego County as well !" I replied, " Go for it"! She did, and her whirlwind getting to know you upstate tour was a resounding success. As they say, the rest is history.

Perhaps Aaron Woolf, the newly minted Congressional candidate for Northern New York will take a chapter out of Hillary Clinton's political play book, and learn all about where Croghan bologna comes from, what squeaky cheese curds come from which  hamlet, and the difference between Carthage, Copenhagen and Constableville.   When and if he does, he might make a fine candidate after all, but there is much homework yet to be done , and many more miles for him to go before North Country Democrats can sleep easy about their leaders’ choice to run for Congress. Hope springs eternal in the human breast.

(The author is a former Mayor of Oswego and Co-chair of the State Democratic Party who flirted with the idea of becoming a candidate for the seat himself, before rejecting the possibility. )

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Sullivan will not run in NY 21

     Democratic chairs will gather tomorrow in Long Lake, NY to interview , behind closed doors, potential candidates for Congress, and then make an endorsement. This is what happened in 2009, except , since it was a special election, the decision of the chairs, which was greatly influenced by the DCCC and the White House, was final, as there was no opportunity for a primary. This time around it is different, as there can be a primary, and so selecting a candidate behind closed doors seems to me to be too insular a procedure, without openness and an opportunity for rank and file Democrats and other political activists to either be heard or to participate . Why not an open,  District wide convention? That would spark media interest, and keep the manipulative forces at bay.  There is still time to do that. They should let the sunlight in. It can be a powerful disinfectant.
    A closed door top down selection process  is the wrong way to go about candidate selection, and consequently, I have chosen not to participate in that process.

     Our political and electoral system is broken. It is badly in need of repair. Without significant and fundamental reform, we are left with but an illusion of democracy which our forefathers would hardly recognize.
     For me, the question has been , should I work to fix it? Is it fixable? And if so, how best do I go about it... From the inside out, or outside in? Could I succeed in getting elected to Congress with my integrity intact, or would I  have to so prostitute my principles to achieve success in the electoral process that I would myself become part of the problem I have been seeking a solution for? If you are not The Lord of the manor, you are lorded over by the special interests. It is they who control the political process, and too often, the outcome.That is a sad, but true commentary on our system.
     After three weeks of travel, deliberation  and discussion with friends, family, and supporters,  it is my conclusion that any real effort to reform the system on my part, should be directed from the outside in, and consequently, I will not seek the Democratic nomination for the 21st Congressional District.

    For several years, I have owned the domain name "  I think the time has come to launch that website and work toward promoting that goal, instead of becoming so caught up in the process of raising money myself to seek elective office, that I could lose sight of that very goal.
     So I will continue to write, to speak, to teach, and to advocate governmental reform ,  unencumbered by the burden of being  a candidate for public office myself. I thank those who expressed offers of support and encouragement for my potential candidacy, and I would encourage their continued involvement in supporting a progressive populist to replace outgoing Congressman Bill Owens.
    In so doing,  I would encourage our local Democratic leaders to open up the process instead  of shrouding it in secrecy and closing  the doors to public participation and scrutiny. That would be an important step in the right direction. Barring that,
to quote Yogi Berra. It seems to me that this is "déjà vu all over again" .

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Prequel to the SOTU

     We are stuck. We can't move forward when half of the national legislature is cheering for the failure of the President, and refuses to budge  on virtually anything. In order to move forward, raise the minimum wage, get meaningful immigration reform, and achieve a whole host of other things, we have to clean house, literally. Voters have to vote for a Democratic majority in both the House and the Senate, or else we are doomed to be in the doldrums for the next two years.
   If the Democrats can get a majority in both houses, and move forward with some of the President's agenda, they can be measured by the degree of their success in 2016, and if they haven't succeeded we can throw the bums out, and elect new leadership. But divided government right now isn't working . As one commentator said, " You can't shake hands with someone who has a  closed fist.
     Divided government only works when there is the possibility of compromise, on both sides. When that doesn't work, then it is time to adjust the system, and adopt a more parliamentarian type of government where one party gets to set the agenda., and is then held accountable for it, as in European parliamentary democracies. There is always the No confidence vote if the agenda of the party in control doesn't work.
     But in the US, despite the Dow Jones average doubling from 8.000 to 15,000 from when Obama took office, no one is willing to give him credit for it, and his legislative initiatives are being held hostage by the Koch brothers and their murky alliances and sphere of influence which has poisoned our body politic with tons of money and shadow think tank input which encourages continued gridlock.
     The agenda of the monied oligarchy is to keep their power and ability to dominate the national agenda and maintain a social fabric which is to their liking.
Citizens United lets them do that, by completely corrupting the political process to the point that money is the only
 criteria for congressional eligibility. Bar none. Frankly, that is more than disturbing. It is lamentable beyond comprehension, because all we are left with is the illusion of democracy and a government dominated, owned, lock stock and barrel by the  monied interests that keep a solid grip on the commonweal, and erode the opportunity for the common citizen to advance his economic circumstances.
     The debate over increasing the minimum wage is a case in point. There are those who just philosophically disagree with the concept of a minimum wage. That political fight was fought and decided decades ago. And if we have a minimum wage , and we have  for over 50 years, it should be just that... a minimum (translated living ) wage. It needs to be adjusted from time to time to have relevance. It needs to be fixed, as do so many other things for which government bears a responsibility.  Paralysis in the face of problems is no virtue. Compromise in the face of adversity is no vice. We need to rearrange the political chessboard if we are to succeed at all.