Sunday, November 23, 2008

What Should Obama's First Priorities Be?

Obama has opportunities to make progress in many, many arenas. Healthcare, jobs, the environment, just to name a few. However, for me, as a Jew, there is one issue that stands out above all others, that I really hope will be his top priority when he takes office. That issue is civil liberties. For 8 years, the Bush administration has been putting the US Constitution through a shredder in the name of maintaining security. Suspending habeas corpus, illegal warrantless wiretaps, torture, a general attitude that the president is above the law, and can ignore congress as he sees fit. And those are just the things we know about. Many of these things remind me of Germany in the 1930s before World War II, as they started to take similar rights away from the Jews, and consolidate the power in the hands of the executive. Now, I am not trying to suggest that George Bush is anywhere near as bad as Adolf Hitler. I know some of my friends have chided me that Bush is just using these tools to fight terror, and as long as I'm not a terrorist, or associated with terrorists, I have nothing to worry about. However, once the precedent is set that the government need not respect these kinds of rights for its citizens, there is no way to predict who they will use it against in 20 or 50 years. As a student of Jewish history, I feel I have good reason to believe they will ultimately turn against the Jews. Every society has, especially those where Jews once felt most welcomed.

Even though Obama spoke of restoring civil liberties during the campaign, once in office he will be under tremendous pressure not to. Once a person or institution has a certain power, they do not give it up easily. The intelligence community has grown accustomed to a certain modus operandi during the Bush administration, and will not look kindly upon having their hands tied by the Obama administration. I have no doubt they will do everything they can to convince president Obama that there is no way to effectively fight terror without retaining these tools. Of course, we can fight terror in a way that is smart and effective, and also legal. But that would require new thinking on the part of our intelligence. The easy choice is to keep doing things they way they are now. Were Obama to give in, he would likely get away with it. The conservatives never believed in civil liberties anyway, and if he placates the liberals with an ambitious healthcare plan and strong new environmental regulations, they'll ignore this one misstep.

We really are at a precipice of history on this issue. If Obama restores constitutional rights, then the Bush years will be an aberration, and we have no immediate cause for concern. If he doesn't, then the changes will become precedent, more or less set in stone, and it is extremely unlikely that any future leader would change them back. If this happens, I fear for my people.

I joined the ACLU because of George Bush, but lest we become complacent now that he is leaving office, it is doubly important we continue to support the ACLU now that Obama is becoming president. If he does not act to restore civil liberties, the opportunity is probably gone forever. If he really wants to show he is taking a different direction from Bush, this ought to be his top priority. He promised it during the campaign, and more than anything else he promised, this is the one we need to hold his feet to the fire to get him to keep. I don't normally make appeals on this page, but please, now more than ever, support the ACLU. They really are the last, best, hope for America.

Thank you, George Bush

I know it's a little late to first be writing my post-election reflections, but, as usual, I've been busy, so here goes:

I wanted to start with an unpublished piece I wrote the day after the election 4 years ago:

On the night of November 2, some of us stood outside in the cold, and sometimes rain, for 8 hours, waiting for John Kerry to come out and speak to us. He never did. Some of us are still waiting. Some of us will always be waiting. No, John Kerry was not a perfect candidate, but he offered hope. Hope for an America that not only fights for freedom abroad, but protects freedom at home. Hope for an America where no one who works a full time job should have to live in poverty. Hope for an America where economic success is measured by how committed we are to protecting the weakest members of our society. Hope for an America where health care and quality education are rights of all people, not a privilege of the wealthy. Hope for an America where no one forces one worldview on anyone else but where we all take responsibility for each other’s physical well-being. Hope for an America where protecting our air and water for the next generation is never a controversial issue, and where politics is never put before science. For all this we must continue to wait. True, this is not our first loss, and true there will be more opportunities. But this time represented something special. Those of us who have been involved in politics for a while, certainly remember what it was like when Al Gore lost. This time, though, is so much more depressing. When Al Gore lost, we were still in high school, still living with our parents, still not able to vote, and not able to have that much impact on the election. It was sad, but we knew there would be another time. This time, we are in college. We put everything we could into it, and we lost again. Sure, there will be another time. But who knows where we will be in 4 years. We will no longer be college students. We will have jobs, and maybe families. We may no longer have the time, energy, and optimism of youth. This was our big chance to make a difference in the world, and our hopes were crushed. We must pass the scepter onto the next generation of college students, but we must not give up the fight. We must not lose hope entirely. No matter where life takes us, we must find time to fight for what is important to us, and we must not stop caring the way we do today. When Teddy Kennedy conceded the 1980 nomination to Jimmy Carter, he spoke words that are as relevant and meaningful today as they were then. “For me, this campaign came to an end. For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

When I reread this, I relive all the emotions of 4 years ago. I can't help but think just how different the last 4 years could have been if John Kerry had won that election. This election had an anticlimactic quality for me. Four years ago, I spent election night at a national campaign headquarters. This year I was at home, watching the results on TV by myself. I never really got involved with the Obama campaign the way I got involved with the Kerry campaign. I'm out of college and past my prime as a political activist. All I do these days is cheer from the sidelines. Obama may have been an objectively more inspiring candidate, but John Kerry was the candidate I put my heart into.

And yet, I think a tremendous opportunity may have been presented by John Kerry's loss. He would likely have had to govern with an opposite party congress, and a Democratic Party still deeply divided among itself as to how best to handle the Iraq war. I have no doubt he would have been better than Bush, but he would have improved things in small incremental changes, still basically playing on a Republican-defined field, in much the same way Bill Clinton did. His loss created the opportunity for the thorough collapse of the Bush administration. The continued failings in Iraq enabled the Democrats to take control of congress. The recent economic crisis has discredited conservatism as an ideology, breaking the the 50-50 gridlock that has defined American politics for the last decade. Barack Obama has the opportunity to usher in a sweeping new era of liberalism, in much the same way the Great Depression created that opportunity for Franklin Roosevelt. For this opportunity, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to George Bush (hence the name of this post).

Of course, just because the public has rejected conservatism, does not mean they have embraced liberalism yet. If he plays his cards right, he can build a generation-long liberal majority like Roosevelt did. If he screws up, we may revert right back to conservatism in 4 years. He may have opportunities that even Hillary Clinton would not have had, as people see him as a complete break from the past, and expect big things from him, not just the moderately liberal record of the Clinton years. If he wants to be successful, he needs to go big, and he needs to go visible. It can't just be the right idea, it has to be sold right politically as well. There needs to be something tangible that every ordinary person can see and say, "This is what president Obama and the Democratic Party are doing for me."

Another major factor in determining his success will be his ability to keep the Democratic caucus united. Will they stay together or will they splinter up like they did in 1993? Though nothing is set in stone, I think we have reason to be optimistic. First of all, the last vestiges of the truly conservative Democrats, who were still around at the beginning of Clinton's term, have long since retired or become Republicans. Of course, we still have our moderates and our progressives, but I think they are far more united than they were 16 years ago. Some might say they were only temporarily united in opposition to Bush, but I think it really does go deeper than that. Progressives have learned that you can help the poor and middle class without being so antagonistic to business. The recent crisis has taught the moderates that more regulation isn't necessarily bad for business. Even the moderates now see the need for a major overhaul of the healthcare system (even the American Medical Association and the health insurance lobby itself have come on board to varying degrees). Single-payer advocates are now willing to accept pragmatic compromise rather than fight tooth-and-nail and risk getting nothing. Even the hawks of the party have come to see Iraq as a mistake (of course this division may still be a problem at the next war being considered). I really think this time around, the different wings of the party may be able to converge on a single agenda in a way that hasn't been possible for the Democratic Party in over a generation. Plus, and thanks again, George Bush, for this one, it'll be really hard for anyone on the right to scream socialism at our expansions of government, after they just nationalized the banks.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Last Thoughts Before the Election

There really isn't much left anyone can say about this election that hasn't already be said. Signs look very positive for an Obama victory, and we just need to pray they hold up. I'll leave you with an unpublished piece I wrote several years ago, ranting about the unholy alliance between religion and the Right. Let's hope this is the year that alliance breaks down:

There seems to be a lot of talk in the news lately of a culture war. There is increased polarization in America between religious conservatives and secularist liberals. The Democratic Party, it is said, is out of touch with the values of middle America, and that is why it has trouble winning in the south and Midwest. They say the Democratic Party is made up of godless, amoral, liberal elitists from the northeast, who cannot connect with the simple churchgoer of Kansas or Alabama. As someone whose religious views constitute fundamentalism by most definitions you will find, but who is also a political liberal, I don’t think there needs be such a divide. Religion does not necessarily imply conservatism, and fundamentalism and moderation do not have to be inimical to each other.

I must confess, whenever I hear the expression, “good southern values,” the same few images always come to my mind. The first is of southern slave-owning plantation owners of the 1850’s, who I am certain attended church regularly, and feel themselves the bearers of these good southern values. The second is George Wallace on the steps of the Alabama statehouse, preaching his good southern values, like “segregation forever.” The last image that comes to my mind is Jesse Helms talking about representing good Christian values as he fought against civil rights in the 1960’s. These images, while they may not represent precisely what conservatives today mean by values, do a good deal to discount the importance of the term, seeing the kinds of things it has been used for in the past.

Furthermore, far from being “godless” and “amoral,” the causes championed by liberals throughout the years have often been deeply moral and very religiously significant. What could be a more moral cause that civil rights? As a religious individual, what could be more important than fighting for the basic equality of all human beings? After all, are we not all created in the image of G-d, and all equal in His eyes. Religious leaders championed this cause. Martin Luther King Jr. was a protestant minister, and standing just to his right in the great civil rights march in Alabama, was Jewish leader Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. What could be a more moral or religious cause than fighting poverty and hunger, making sure all of G-d’s children are protected from harm? What could be a more moral or religious cause than protecting the environment, so that this earth should remain the way G-d intended it to be? Adam, the Bible tells us, was put in the Garden in Eden in order to protect it (Genesis 2:15). Conservatives, when they forsake the poor and neglect the earth in order to give big tax breaks to the rich, are the ones who deserve the title of “godless and amoral.” The Left really is where religious people belong politically, not the Right.

The Religious Right, in its great fervor to force its individual religious worldviews on those who do not agree with them, is all too quick to forget about the more universal aspect of religion; the causes, like those I have already discussed, that religious people ought to be championing, which are beneficial to everybody. I do not mean to say the individual aspect of religion is unimportant. Quite the contrary, I have many very strong convictions in this arena, and wouldn’t give them up for the world. However, it is important to recognize that the federal government is not my own personal religious outreach organization. I would be happy to argue with people and try to convince them that my particular religious views are the correct ones, but I would never think that my particular religious views ought to be legislated as federal policy in a secular government, and forced on people who disagree with me.

I personally find abortion to be an abhorrent practice, and in most cases immoral (though not murder), yet I was willing to attend a massive pro-choice rally in Washington two years ago for the purpose of keeping abortion legal. I did this because it is the principle of the separation of church and state that has made America such a great country and given so many people here opportunities that would not be available to them elsewhere. As a member of a minority religion, particularly as an observant member of a minority religion, this is something that must not be forgotten. It is because of liberals that Jews have such freedom to practice their religion in America today, not because of Christian conservatives. And let us be clear about one thing. There are no such things as Judeo-Christian values. There are Jewish values, and there are Christian Values. Now and then they overlap, but once the precedent is set of allowing Christian values to be legislated, they will eventually be legislated in ways where it is not in line with Jewish values. Having Christian values as the law of the land has been tried previously in history. It was known as the Spanish Inquisition. If we want to remain free to practice our religion as we see fit, we need to fight for the rights of other people to practice their religions as they see fit, even if it might sometimes involve doing things we find abhorrent and disgusting.

It may well be true that the Democratic Party is out of touch with the values of mainstream America, but that is only because they are so far ahead. It really gets me that southern traitors, many of whom still proudly display the sign of their treason, the confederate flag, think they can tell northern liberals who fought and died to keep America together, that their views today mean they hate America. And yes, call it elitist, patronizing, or condescending, but I do think the people in the north are generally more moral than that the people in the south. (By this I mean even northern conservatives, who due to lack of exposure often forget just how liberal they really are when compared with the south.) Middle America will catch up eventually. The so-called culture war will end. Eventually, religious folk will realize the common ground they have with liberalism. They always do, just as they did with slavery, and then with civil rights. For now, though, what people consider to be “mainstream American values,” are not values good people of religion ought to have.

Almost all of what I wrote, I still feel is true. My only caveat is that, judging by some of the polling numbers, Obama just may be that transformational figure who's able to make enough religious folk realize they have more in common with the Left that the Right. We won't know for sure until tomorrow, when we see if he can win in any of the traditional Republican strongholds, but the culture war may be ending and Middle America may be moving on just as I predicted they eventually would.