The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman, Kristof and Bruni

Well, it would appear that The Pasty Little Putz has finally gone off the deep end.  The poor soul has obviously lost his mind.  In “Boehner, American Hero” he babbles that in a dysfunctional Washington, this is what success looks like.  Really.  He’s calling the orange weeper a hero.  Someone needs to do some sort of intervention with the Putz…  MoDo looks at “The Surreal World: Capitol Hill” and has a question:  Is C-Span’s V.P. more entertaining than HBO’s Veep?  Of course, she works in her standard hissing at the president for being detached and aloof…  The Moustache of Wisdom suggests we need “More Risk-Taking, Less Poll-Taking.”  He says we’ve had lots of deal-making in Washington lately, but hardly any displays of courage from anyone.  (Apparently The Putz hasn’t yet ‘splained to The Moustache that Weeping John is a hero.)  Mr. Kristof is still in Beijing.  In “Looking for a Jump-Start in China” he says China’s next top leader has the potential to be a game changer, and to nourish China’s rise with sweeping economic and political reforms.  Mr. Bruni addresses “How to Choose a College” and says when picking a school, you can focus on ranking, reputation, ivy. Or you can ask yourself where you’ll really be forced to grow.  Here’s the Putz:

Here are a few things that happened to John Boehner, ostensibly one of the most powerful men in Washington, during the past two weeks.

First his own backbenchers blew up his attempt at a fiscal cliff negotiating maneuver. Then he had to step back and let Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell hammer out the details of the fiscal cliff deal, which he then had to shepherd through his own legislative body with more Democratic than Republican votes. The next day he was dressed down on national television by a grandstanding Chris Christie. The day after that, he survived an utterly incompetent revolt against his re-election as speaker of the House.

These tribulations have earned Boehner press coverage that’s sympathetic without being particularly respectful. It’s increasingly taken for granted that he’s an ineffective speaker who holds his position mostly because nobody else wants the job — an anti-Sam Rayburn, a survivor who’s liked but not feared. The only compliments he ever seems to earn are backhanded, rueful, there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I.

Yet at the same time, Boehner has done his country a more important service over the last two years than almost any other politician in Washington.

That service hasn’t been the achievement of a grand bargain with the White House, which he has at times assiduously sought. Nor has it been the sweeping triumph over liberalism that certain right-wing activists expect him to somehow gain. Rather, it’s been a kind of disaster management — a sequence of bomb-defusal operations that have prevented our dysfunctional government from tipping into outright crisis.

Three realities have made these constant defusing operations necessary. First, there’s the grim economic and budgetary situation — a mix of slow growth and huge peacetime deficits that constrains policy makers in unprecedented ways. (It’s far, far easier to be a successful legislator when you’re negotiating over an expanding pie.) Second, there’s the combination of gridlocked government and ideological polarization, which simultaneously requires compromise while reducing the common ground available to would-be deal makers.

Such obstacles might be enough to frustrate even the legislative giants of the past. Pundits talk blithely about the good old days of bipartisanship, but there’s no real precedent in modern American history for a bipartisan bargain in which two bitterly divided sides both accept so many painful sacrifices.

The Republicans’ current position makes things harder still, because Boehner’s party has much more power in Washington than it has support in the nation as a whole. Republicans are a minority party nationally, but thanks to redistricting they control the House despite Democrats’ 2012 successes. This mismatch leaves the base spoiling for fights that can’t actually be won: House Republicans have just enough real power to raise conservative expectations but not nearly enough to bend a liberal president and a Democratic Senate to their will.

Boehner’s job, then, requires constantly pushing hard enough to persuade his caucus that he’s maximizing Republican leverage, while simultaneously looking for ways to make small, can-kicking deals at the last possible moment. Which he’s always found, by hook or by crook: there was no government shutdown in the spring of 2011, no debt default that summer, and the fiscal cliff was averted (at least temporarily) last week.

The fact that all these crises have been resolved at the 11th hour, amid persistent brinkmanship and repeated near-death moments for his speakership, isn’t a sign that he’s a failure. Instead, given the correlation of forces he’s dealing with, this is what success looks like. (For a glimpse of the alternative, just imagine rerunning the last two years with Newt Gingrich in the speaker’s chair.)

You might say that this is no way to run a government. I’d agree. But the nation’s polarization and his party’s dysfunction are beyond a speaker’s ability to undo. As Democrats learned across the 1970s and ’80s, the House is a poor base from which to rebuild a national party. Nobody blames Tip O’Neill or Jim Wright for failing to do what Bill Clinton and Barack Obama ultimately achieved. And anyone who thinks that Boehner would transform the Republican Party for the better by, say, resigning his leadership position and excoriating his colleagues should watch fewer Aaron Sorkin shows.

No, the way out of our predicament is through the ballot box, not the speaker’s office. Either Democrats need to consolidate their advantages and win back the House or Republicans need to find a way to start winning national elections again, at which point the current impasse will be broken and policy will tilt more clearly toward the left or right.

Until then, we’re stuck with the cycle of brinkmanship — another debt-ceiling debate, another shutdown possibility, the spending portion of the fiscal cliff.

It would probably be better to call the whole thing off and accept that the fiscal picture won’t change much in two years. But if we’re going to go through it again, I’m glad that the speaker who prevented dysfunction from producing disaster last time is around to try again.

He really should have his medications adjusted…  Here’s MoDo:

It was hard not to feel sorry for John Boehner, wounded, weepy, mercilessly flogged by Chris Christie. The miserable-looking Boehner was even scaring small children.

After squeaking out re-election as House speaker when crazed conservatives rebelled on Thursday, Boehner summoned gruff bonhomie as he presided at a ceremonial swearing-in for House members.

But some of the kids posing for pictures seemed a little alarmed at Boehner’s awkward pats, brusque small talk and barked orders when someone posed the wrong way.

The speaker opened his arms to help out Sean Duffy, a Republican congressman from Wisconsin who was juggling five small children and two stuffed animals. Duffy, who met his wife, Rachel, through MTV after they were on different seasons of “The Real World,” tried to hand over his young daughter, who recoiled.

“No?” the rejected speaker asked her, muttering sardonically, “You could be a member of our caucus.” He followed the girl as she rolled away on the floor, trying to tickle her and making Donald Duck quacking noises. That kind of thing may work on Michele Bachmann, but Miss Duffy was having none of it.

It was a day for old-pol shtick. And if Boehner was the nicotine-stained prince of darkness in the House, Joe Biden was the garrulous white knight over in the Senate. Fresh from his deal-making triumph with Mitch McConnell — no Tickle Monster, he — Biden presided over the Senate ceremonial swearing-in and lived up to his reputation for “bringing sexy back to the Medicare-eligible set,” as Politico once put it.

Every time Biden spied a member’s mom, he called out with utter delight, “Mom!” as though she were his own, enfolding the glowing woman in a tender embrace.

“Mom, I’ll see you in a little bit,” he flirted with the mother of Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. “I hope I’ll sneak over and see you.” To the mother of Senator Deb Fischer, a new Republican from Nebraska, he cooed, “You’ve got beautiful eyes, Mom.”

The bouncy, irrepressible Biden also had better karma with kids, persuading one little boy to raise his hand to take the oath with his father, the new Connecticut senator, Chris Murphy. It turned into a YouTube moment so adorable it even melted the hearts of jaded journalists who usually prefer videos of Ukrainian pols fistfighting.

The prolix vice president had his off-kilter moments, of course. He made a risqué frisking joke to the husband of Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and he gushed over a brunette accompanying Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey: “You are so pretty. God love you, holy mackerel.”

But it was hard not to fall for his daffy charm — a rare 86 minutes of feeling good about a Congress that has now officially entered Ionesco territory as the most absurd place on earth.

When the young daughter of Senator Ted Cruz, the new Tea Party hotshot from Texas, began crying, the vice president reassured her, noting that he was a Democrat but that “it’s O.K.”

When Tim Scott, the first black senator from South Carolina, came up with his muscular brother, a former football player, to pose, the 70-year-old Biden deadpanned, “Need any help with your pecs, let me know.”

The vice president has come in for his share of mockery by late-night comics. But fox-trotting in to save the day on the fiscal cliff as the “dancing partner” of McConnell, Biden seemed more like an indispensable partner to the detached president who loathes dealing with Congress — a capable, genial Captain Kirk balancing out Obama’s brilliant but rigid Spock.

As the presidential historian Michael Beschloss said on Twitter, “Biden did for the president on Capitol Hill what J.F.K. was always too wary to let the experienced L.B.J. do for him.”

A petition even popped up on the White House Web site suggesting that the Obama administration create a reality show around the vice president. C-Span ratings would go through the Capitol dome, giving Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s “Veep” a run for its money.

It was sweet justice for a man who was the victim of friendly fire from White House aides after he blurted out his support for gay marriage during the campaign while the president was still dithering, spurring Obama to do the right thing. From the beginning of their alliance in 2008, Biden felt passionately that he needed to interpret the dispassionate Obama for regular folk. It was an attitude that probably annoyed Obama, who does not like to feel dependent or beholden, having fought his way up in the world mostly under his own steam.

But when Obama let Biden take over the cliff talks, and when he noted with asperity that he would not debate Congress again over paying its bills, he dug into his revulsion at playing the game, his reluctance to even fake the flattering, schmoozing and ring-kissing needed to coax Congress into doing what he wants.

Even members of his own party have lost faith in his ability to use the White House as a social lubricant to get his agenda passed, or to use that big brain of his to become a more clever negotiator, rather than a scolding lecturer.

“His inability to engage the politicians here has been a real liability,” one Democratic lawmaker complained. It’s odd, given that he was renowned for making a group of egotists feel that they were being heeded at The Harvard Law Review.

The vice president was in the Senate for 36 years while the president merely breezed through. Obama radiates contempt at Congress for not being a bunch of high-minded, effective people, and for expecting him to clean up its mess. He thinks reasonable people should see things his way in a reasonable amount of time, and gets impatient when ideology, ego, identity politics and pork-project whining hold up progress.

Biden is a realist. He understands lawmakers’ limitations, motivations and needs. He leans right in and speaks — and speaks and speaks — their language. That’s who he is. And he believes, as creaky and unwieldy as the system is, that it still has integrity. More Rocky than Spocky, Biden can spread everything out on the table and negotiate his way through all of his former colleagues’ shortcomings, weaknesses, fears and frailties.

It’s actually fun for him, while Obama seems so often to be pulling back, aggrieved by the need to engage. The president and his staff seem clueless about what Republicans on the Hill are thinking. And Obama ignores those who urge him to be less insular and — like Jefferson, Lincoln, L.B.J. and Reagan — socialize more with political players, combining fairy dust, elbow grease, intimidation and seduction to get his way.

Joe Biden has a valuable skill: He knows how to stoop to conquer.

MoDo, you’re wrong in your first statement.  I would find it extremely difficult to feel sorry for Weeping John.  Next up is The Moustache of Wisdom:

The U.S. military trains its fighter pilots on a principle called the “OODA Loop.” It stands for observe, orient, decide, act. The idea is that if your OODA Loop is faster and more accurate than the other pilot’s, you’ll shoot his plane out of the sky. If the other pilot’s OODA Loop is better, he’ll shoot you down. Right now, our national OODA Loop is broken. We’re are doing something crazy — taking the country back and forth to the financial brink to produce suboptimal, midnight compromises without any overall plan for how this will lead to growth in the world in which we’re living. We’re doing the worst thing a country can do — cutting taxes and spending without a plan. Maybe you can grow without a plan. But if you want to ensure that every scarce dollar gets the biggest bang, you can’t cut without a plan. It’s deciding and acting without observing and orienting. It’s how fighter pilots get shot down.

President Obama, by his own admission, focused his campaign almost exclusively on the need to raise taxes on the wealthy, and the Republicans focused theirs on lowering them. But neither one offered the country what we need most: a description of what world we’re living in, what is new, and how we maximize our ability to compete and grow in this world — and then offering up a comprehensive, detailed plan of appropriate phased-in spending cuts, tax reforms and investments in research, infrastructure and early childhood education to create more good jobs and the workers to fill them.

What world are we living in? It’s a world in which we face three major challenges: responding to the merger of globalization and the information technology revolution, which is changing every job and workplace; dealing with our mounting debt and entitlement burdens, driven by steadily rising health care costs and unsustainable defined benefits; and, finally, developing energy sources that can grow the world economy without tipping it into disruptive climate change. (At one point last week, the Senate approved a $60.4 billion aid package to help New York and New Jersey recover from Hurricane Sandy. If fully implemented, that would mean we’d spend on one storm all the new tax revenue for next year that the House and Senate just agreed to in the fiscal-cliff negotiations.)

What each party should be saying is, “Given this world, here are the specific tax reforms, spending cuts, investments and policy innovations we need to grow our middle class, sustain our retirees and shrink inequality.” Instead, we have no leaders ready to trust the public with the truth, so both parties are shooting themselves in the foot and our future in the head. As Matt Miller, author of “The Tyranny of Dead Ideas” noted in The Washington Post, “Republicans haven’t identified anything remotely equal to the savings we need. And because many liberals haven’t thought through the long-term budget implications, or wrongly assume that taxes can rise indefinitely or that the Pentagon can be shrunk to something less than a triangle, they resist sensible steps to slow the growth of Social Security and Medicare, not realizing that this course will assure before long that there isn’t any new money to spend on, say, poor children.”

I expect nothing from the G.O.P. It’s lost and leaderless. I expect a lot from Obama, who knows what needs to be done and has said so in the past. I expect him to stop acting as a party leader and start acting like the president of the whole country. When I heard Obama say, after the election, that this time he was going to take his plan to the country, and not make the mistake again of just negotiating with Congress, I thought, “Great, I can’t wait to hear what he says.” But all he took to the country was a plan for increasing taxes on “millionaires and billionaires.” There was nothing comprehensive, nothing bold, no great journey for America and no risks for him. Really disappointing.

Maybe Obama has a strategy: First raise taxes on the wealthy, which gives him the credibility with his base to then make big spending cuts in the next round of negotiations. Could be. But raising taxes on the wealthy is easy. Now we’re at the hard part: comprehensive tax reform, entitlement cuts, radical cost-saving approaches to health care and new investments in our growth engines. This will require taking things away from people — to both save and invest. A lot of lobbies will fight it. The president will need to rally the center of the country and the business community to overcome them. He’ll have to change the polls, not just read the polls. He will have to take on his own base and the G.O.P.’s.

Obama has spent a lot of time lately bashing the rich to pay their “fair share.” You know what? There are definitely some Wall Street bankers and C.E.O.’s who deserve that bashing. But there are many successful Americans who got their wealth the old-fashioned way — by risk-taking, going into debt to start a business or pursue a dream. It’s time for the president to do some risk-taking — to stop just hammering the wealthy, which is so easy, and to start selling the country on a strategy to multiply them. We need to tax more millionaires, but we also need more millionaires and middle classes to tax. The president was elected to grow our national pie, not just re-divide it.

One of the commenters on this thing put in a link to The Thomas Friedman Op/Ed Generator.  Honest to God, you can’t tell the difference between what’s generated and a real column…  Next we have Mr. Kristof:

Here is my prediction about China: The new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, will spearhead a resurgence of economic reform, and probably some political easing as well. Mao’s body will be hauled out of Tiananmen Square on his watch, and Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning writer, will be released from prison.

These won’t happen immediately — Xi won’t even be named president until March — and I may be wrong entirely. But my hunch on this return to China, my old home, is that change is coming.

Here’s my case for Xi as a reformer.

First, it’s in his genes. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was a pioneer of economic restructuring and publicly denounced the massacre of pro-democracy protesters in 1989. Xi’s mother chooses to live in Shenzhen, the most capitalist enclave in the country.

Xi is also one of the first Chinese leaders to send a child to the United States as an undergraduate. His daughter is a junior at Harvard, reflecting her parents’ emphasis on learning English and their admiration for American education.

It helps that the bar is low for Xi: he follows President Hu Jintao, who is widely regarded in China as a failure. Even government ministers complain that he squandered his 10 years as leader. Today there is pent-up demand for change.

President Hu, who always reads speeches from texts, is a robot who surrounds himself with robots. One such robot aide is Ling Jihua, whose 23-year-old son was driving a Ferrari one night last March with two half-naked women as passengers. The car crashed on a Beijing road, killing the young man and badly injuring the women, one of whom later died.

Ling feared a scandal and reportedly began a cover-up. He went to the morgue, according to the account I got from one Chinese official, and looked at the body — and then coldly denied that it was his son. He continued to work in the following weeks as if nothing had happened. The cover-up failed, and the episode underscored all that was wrong with the old leadership: the flaunting of dubious wealth, the abuse of power and the lack of any heart.

Xi is trying to send a message that he is different. His first act upon becoming Communist Party general secretary in November was to replicate a famous “southern tour” by Deng Xiaoping in 1992 that revived economic reforms. Xi and his team have also startled officials by telling them to stop reading empty speeches at meetings.

Another good sign: I hear that Wang Yang, a reformist who has been the party chief in Guangdong Province and is perhaps the single most capable leader in China today, will be named a vice premier in March.

The new leaders would probably prefer to accelerate economic change while minimizing political relaxation, but that is increasingly difficult as China develops an educated, worldly and self-confident middle class. Over the years, most of China’s neighbors — from Taiwan to Mongolia, South Korea to Thailand — have become more democratic, and now even Myanmar is joining the parade. How can mighty China be more backward than Myanmar?

For 25 years, I’ve regularly been visiting my wife’s ancestral village in the Taishan area of southern China. At first, the villagers were semiliterate and isolated, but now their world has been transformed. On this visit, we dropped by a farmhouse where a former peasant was using the Internet to trade stocks on his laptop. His daughter is in college, and he watches Hong Kong television on a big screen.

People like him are ever harder to control or manipulate, and they’re steamed at China’s worsening corruption. A couple of decades ago, a friend who is a son of a Politburo member was paid several hundred thousand dollars a year to lend his name to a Chinese company so that it could get cheap land from local governments. These days, the family members of leaders can rake in billions of dollars over time.

The 70 richest delegates to China’s National People’s Congress have a collective net worth of almost $90 billion, Bloomberg News reported. That’s more than 10 times the collective net worth of the entire American Congress.

Granted, there is evidence to counter my optimistic take. Most troubling, the authorities are cracking down on the Internet. That’s a great leap backward, but I am skeptical that it will be sustained. Right now a fascinating test case is unfolding: a senior propaganda official censored a New Year’s message in a major Guangdong newspaper, and now journalists are publicly demanding that he be fired. Stay tuned.

Xi is also more nationalistic than President Hu, and I worry that a confrontation with Japan over disputed islands could escalate out of control — in which case all bets are off.

Still, the pre-eminent story of our time is the rise of China. For the last decade it has been hobbled by the failed leadership of President Hu. I’m betting that in the coming 10 years of Xi’s reign, China will come alive again.

And last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:

My niece Leslie is still more than nine months away from sending in a college application and more than 18 from stepping into her first college class, but already she’s swimming in numbers: the average SAT scores for one university’s student body; the percentage of applicants another school admits; how much money, on average, the graduates of yet another school tend to make once they’ve been in the work force awhile. This is the kind of information spotlighted in the articles and books that are supposed to guide her and her peers. These are the types of factoids that the adults around them often focus on.

Which school will bequeath the best network? Which diploma has the most cachet? Various relatives pitch Leslie on the virtues of their alma maters, and as surely as my niece swims in numbers, she drowns in advice. But much of it strikes me as shortsighted and incomplete, and I worry that she’ll be coaxed to make her choice in a way that disregards the inimitable opportunity that college presents, the full bounty and splendor of those potentially transformative years. I have the same worry about other secondary-school students who, like her, possess the economic and intellectual good fortune — and the hard-won transcripts — to entertain a wealth of alternatives, because I think we let them get too distracted by rankings, ratings, brands. We don’t point them toward assessments and dynamics that are arguably more meaningful.

Last week was the deadline to apply to many colleges and universities, though the admissions dance — the dreaming, scheming, waiting and worrying — has really become a year-round, nonstop phenomenon, starting well before the final stretch of high school. Leslie’s a junior and has already visited half a dozen campuses, to see how they feel.

And if she’s like most of my peers when I was her age, she’ll wind up picking one that gives her a sense of comfort, of safety. That’s what too many kids do. They perpetuate what they’re familiar with, gravitating to the same schools that their friends are or duplicating their parents’ paths. And there’s so much lost in that reflex, so much surrendered by that timidity.

If you’re among the lucky who can factor more than cost and proximity into where you decide to go, college is a ticket to an adventure beyond the parameters of what you’ve experienced so far. It’s a passport to the far side of what you already know. It’s a chance to be challenged, not coddled. To be provoked, not pacified.

Does brand matter? To a point. There are indeed future employers who see certain diplomas as seals of approval, as pre-screening of a sort, and there are many successful people who got that way by milking contacts made at storied universities. But there are just as many who prospered without the imprimatur of one of the hyper-exclusive schools near the top of the annual U.S. News & World Report list. And even if you’re confining yourself to those schools, you can and should ask questions about them that prospective freshmen frequently don’t.

How many of a college’s or university’s students are coming from other countries? Favor schools with higher percentages of foreigners, because as much of your education will happen outside as inside any lecture hall, and globalism is here and real. The dexterity with which you can navigate other cultures — your awareness of, and openness to, them — could be more valuable and happy-making than any knowledge gleaned from a book.

When it comes to the internationalism of a school, don’t assume the loftiest ones win the race. In one measure of this, Carnegie Mellon, Boston University and Brandeis came out ahead of Harvard, Stanford, Williams or Duke.

You might also take into account what percentage of a school’s students travel in the opposite direction and do some study abroad. That could be an indication of your future classmates’ daring or curiosity, and those classmates will presumably bring the fruits of their experiences back to campus. According to U.S. News & World Report, of the 41 schools that claim to have sent more than 50 percent of their students to a study-abroad program, only one, Dartmouth, is in the Ivy League.

I use the word “claim” deliberately and urge skepticism with rankings. They depend on honest reporting from schools, and in recent years both Claremont McKenna College and Emory University were forced to admit inflation in what they’d trumpeted about the test scores or other achievements of their students. Also, what does “study abroad” mean? A semester or a week, and in Mumbai or just Montreal? As it happens, more than half of the American college students who take an academic detour from the United States still head to Europe, and the most popular destination is Britain, according to the Institute of International Education. They’re not exactly honing new language skills there.

SO dig as deeply as you can into what the statistics that colleges showcase do and don’t assure. And treat your undergraduate education as a rare license, before you’re confined by the burdens of full-fledged adulthood and before the costs of experimentation rise, to be tugged outside your comfort zone. To be yanked, preferably. If you’ve spent little time in the thick of a busy city, contemplate a school in precisely such a place. If you know only the North, think about the South. Seek diversity, not just in terms of nationality, ethnicity and race, but also in terms of financial background, especially if your bearings have been resolutely and narrowly upper middle class. You’ll most likely encounter a different economic cross-section of classmates at one of the top state universities than you will at a small private college. Doesn’t that have merit, and shouldn’t that be weighed?

And if your interests and circumstances don’t demand an immediate concentration on one field of study, go somewhere that’ll force you to stretch in multiple directions. (A core curriculum isn’t a bad thing at all.) The world is in constant flux, life is a sequence of surprises, and I can think of no better talents to pick up in college than fearlessness, nimbleness and the ability to roll with change, adapt to newness and improvise.

I have 11 nieces and nephews in all. There are 10 younger than Leslie. I hope all of them have the options that she seems to, and I hope they ask themselves not which school is the surest route to riches but which will give them the richest experiences to draw from, which will broaden their frames of reference. College can shrink your universe, or college can expand it. I vote for the latter.

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