Last month, I wrote about my three-day White House Fellows Conference in regard to Syria, Iran, Egypt and Israeli-Palestinian peace.
This month, I’ll focus on domestic issues, politics, policies and the need for vision. One of the best speakers was renown Congress watcher, Norm Ornstein (who has spoken at University Synagogue twice). His three latest books, all considered among the best political books of the year, say it all:
- “The Permanent Campaign and Its Future” (about the obsessive and obscene need to constantly fundraise and its corrupting influence on politics)
- “The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America” (with polarized partisanship that focuses on repealing instead of governing)
- “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How The American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism” (which describes present day politics, with too much lunatic heat and not enough sensible light).
In the past, according to Dr. Ornstein, adversaries like Senators George McGovern and Bob Dole could work together to fight hunger, with McGovern promoting food stamps and Dole agricultural subsidies, so together they could feed the poor. In the not too distant past, we had a center in politics; now we are losing the public square and becoming a politically sectarian society. Tribalism is rampant in Congress: “If you’re for it, I’m against it, even if I was for it yesterday.”
Sadly, the “Obama” brand is so toxic for some that when Jimmy Kimmel did an interview on the street asking: “Which is better, the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare?”, so many people found Obamacare far worse, even though both are the same thing.
If, in 1947-1948, the 80th Congress was called the “Do Nothing Congress” (and they passed the Marshall Plan!), what should the present Congress be called? The shutdown cost $24 billion and treasury rates moved up because of the debt debate – is that fiscally responsible? The sequester caused 600 NIH projects to be denied or delayed – how many people will die because of the fight over the debt and the deficit? Moreover, American scientists are looking to move their labs to other countries because we have slashed our research budgets. Public service was considered emotionally rewarding, but today, it’s hard to recruit and retain people.
We need the top leadership of our country – from politics, business, the clergy and academia – to say “enough.” First, do no harm, then work through the regular order and point out miscreants. We need open, non-partisan primaries (as in California) to drive the “lunatics” out of power and an end to gerrymandering. We need to enlarge the electorate – perhaps through the Australian system of mandatory voting or be fined. (Actually, Australians don’t have to vote, but they do have to appear at the polls.)
Ornstein credited President George W. Bush for smoothing the transition at the White House for President Obama in a professional and exemplary way, but then it was downhill for the President with the GOP after that.
President Obama is at fault, too. He doesn’t seem to care for the art of politics, schmoozing, or public administration. He’s big on ideas and rhetoric, but not on follow through.
Senator Mark Warner, a centrist Virginia Democrat, called sequestration a “cancer” and spoke, with great passion, about how proponents of the shutdown maligned workers as “non-essential” and demeaned them as “takers.” He described as “crazy talk” the idea that default could help us get our priorities right and he advocated more, not less, revenue to address infrastructure improvements, education, jobs and so much more.
As the creator of Nextel (“please keep your phones on while I speak!”) and a former Virginia governor, Senator Warner has experience in both the private and public sectors and knows that we need greater bipartisanship and political courage. So he’s part of a group in the Senate that brings 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans together for dinner each month, realizing that private fellowship inhibits public demonization. He applauded Republican Senator Saxby Chamblis for standing up against Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge and Democratic Senator Dick Durbin for challenging AARP. Don’t support anyone who signs pledges, Warner said, and he urged voters to support those in other parties who risk primary challenges from extremists. Although a Democrat, he empathized with traditional Republican conservatives who know that money goes to the margins and rewards polarization. He encouraged the President to refer to the ACA, not Obamacare, since the President’s opponents whip up opposition because of hatred in this country, by The Tea Party and others, for all things Obama.
There were panels of CEOs and serial entrepreneurs about how to make America more innovative. China spends $500 million annually on innovation, but we leave most start-up money to the private sector, despite drastic Research and Development cutbacks there, too.
When journalist Tom Friedman said: “In China, Bill Gates is Brittany Spears” or when serial inventor Dean Kamen urged: “In a great society, you get what you celebrate,” the message was clear – our society focuses on superficial celebrities, but neglects promoting the success of intellectual superstars. Many of the speakers said that we need more prizes for future accomplishments, as incentives, such as the $10 million X-Prize, not just Nobel Prizes many years later for past successes. We need to create a culture that encourages failure and risk as learning experiences. While President Obama has been able to advance innovation with challenge.gov and in other ways, we have a long way to go.
We also need to “improve the ordinary.” If we can land a man on the moon, why can’t commuter buses run on time? We have lots of apps and data, so the next goal has to be “change.” And the best place to start would be education. We’re spending 2-3 times/student what we did a generation ago, but outcomes are flat. (Recommended reading: David Bernstein’s “How To Change the World.”)
One of the most visionary speakers was Buzz Aldrin. Sixty-six years after the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. When JFK said: “We will go to the moon, not because it is easy, but because it is hard,” there was political vision and a realization that such a mission would benefit science, business and security. Where is that vision, determination, courage and confidence now – to state a goal, create a timetable and accomplish great things?
Aldrin, age 83, stood and recounted, in detail, in a talk that lasted over an hour, the epic voyage that he took to the moon in a capsule the size of a Volkswagen. Because he had trouble getting into the astronaut program, Aldrin got a Ph.D. from MIT, realizing that it would impress NASA. He told the story about how they decided who would leave the craft first (Armstrong did) for their 5-1/2 hour spacewalk and what it was like to walk and play on the moon with its “talcum powder surface, while looking up at the blackness of the sky and across to the sunlit terrain.” All of us still remember the iconic photos of earth and the momentous journey of these astronauts who were “further from home than anyone in history.”
Aldrin spoke about the importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education at all levels and predicted a Mars colony by 2040. Of course, such a colony would require people who were willing to leave home, never to return, like pilgrims and explorers throughout history. Amazingly, two hundred and fifty people have already applied to pay that almost unimaginable human price.
This is just a small taste of a very inspirational annual conference focused on a variety of domestic and international issues. I always come away from it with cautious optimism, because, while our country and world face immense challenges, we also have the ability, responsibility and resources to meet them and to do the sacred work of Tikkun Olam, making a broken world more whole.
Rabbi Arnold Rachlis