Until Romney releases these tax returns, it is not possible to know what the most damaging thing in them will be; and to some extent it doesn't matter if there is any one specific thing that is very damaging. It is, however, a certainty that Romney's tax returns will continue to tell the story of Romney as an extraordinarily wealthy man whose financial life is very different from those of ordinary Americans, and who has engaged in the kinds of wealthy-person financial shenanigans which, while not illegal, will raise more questions about Romney and his wealth.
Much of what Democrats and progressives hate most about the Republican Party, including the class warfare that has shifted enormous amounts of wealth to the rich while economic conditions have gotten worse for most Americans, radical social conservatism and enormous defense budgets that both create massive debt problems and ensure an aggressive and often disastrous US foreign policy, have their origins in the Reagan years. However, Democrats understand that Reagan's enduring popularity means that Reagan can never be criticized and that the rather obvious point that the roots of many of today's problems lie in the Reagan presidency cannot be mentioned, without incurring significant political consequences.
Richard Holbrooke’s death this week at the age of 69 brings to a close one of the most extraordinary diplomatic careers in American history. Holbrooke’s career began in 1962 and continued until his death. During these years, not only did Holbrooke work for every Democratic president from Kennedy to Obama, but he was involved in one way or another with many of the most important foreign policy issues facing the U.S. including the war in Vietnam, the reunification of Germany, the dissolution of Yugoslavia, and the war in Afghanistan, during a career of nearly fifty years.
For many years the notion that partisan politics ended at America’s shores contained a smattering of accuracy with a healthy overlay of propaganda. There have been too many exceptions over history for that phrase to contain more than a kernel of truth. Partisan disputes about entrance into World War II, Cold War strategy and the Vietnam War were just some of the times that the American political leadership was divided on key foreign policy questions during the time when this framework was allegedly at its strongest. Since the Vietnam War era, disputes over foreign policy from Central America to the Middle East have been a constant presence in our political life.
During the Vietnam War era one of the slogans of the anti-war movement was “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” Among the more popular riffs on that slogan, usually used to bemoan low voter turnout is “What if they gave an election and nobody came?” The election in Afghanistan last week raises a different question “What if they gave an election and it really wasn’t that important?” It is becoming evident that if and when Afghanistan makes meaningful steps towards democracy, elections will play a key role, but until that happens, elections may not be very central to Afghanistan’s development.
Afghanistan is a confoundingly difficult dilemma for the president. Continuing the course in Afghanistan means getting deeper and deeper into a war in which the end is only very remotely in sight as casualties and costs inevitably increase. Moreover, while the issues at stake in Afghanistan have direct bearing on our national security, it is far from apparent that the war as it stands now is doing anything to make us safer. Withdrawing from Afghanistan will also be difficult as it will not only raise a new set of security issues and require retooling a range of national security strategies, but will also make Obama vulnerable to charges of weakness, timidity and probably anti-Americanism from the far right.
Although Clinton’s comments undoubtedly have pleased many in the U.S. and abroad who are concerned with human rights, it remains true that for many years, statements like Clinton’s on Vietnam have provoked charges of hypocrisy from some quarters aimed at the U.S. During the Cold War, most notably, the U.S. styled itself as the defender of liberty and freedom around the world while supporting right wing dictatorships in many corners of the world which were far from free or democratic. Today, this description remains at least somewhat accurate. The U.S. continues to present itself as the global advocate for freedom and democracy while looking away from human rights violations that occur in countries on whose assistance we depend for fighting terrorism or the war in Afghanistan.
When Donovan sang the song “And The War Drags On” more than four decades ago, he was referring to Vietnam, but one could be forgiven for thinking the song was written yesterday about Afghanistan. It has now been about five months since President Obama announced his strategy of increasing troops in Afghanistan and a vague commitment to withdrawing most U.S. troops beginning in mid-2011. The administration began back pedaling from that pledge almost immediately after Obama made it. With the deadline for withdrawing troops only slightly more than a year away, that goal seems more remote today than it did a year ago.
Rendell's decision to make these comments now, at a time when the sitting Democratic president is attacked almost daily as a socialist, might seem strange, but it is not. President Obama, like every Democratic president, has veered to the center and upset the party's progressive base, so in that regard Rendell's comments are not entirely apropos of nothing. Rendell, however, is something of a strange messenger for this sentiment. As a governor and former chair of the DNC, Rendell is, as much as anybody, a Democratic Party insider, not a firebrand outsider trying to shake up the party. If Rendell really believed that the party was losing its soul, he might have said or done something about it at some point in the last several years.
Comparisons between the wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam have grown stronger in recent weeks. While this concern has been raised, often with the buzzword quagmire, about every conflict since the end of the U.S. effort in Vietnam, it is not without reason that this is mentioned with regards to Afghanistan. It is hard to ignore the similarities between the two conflicts. In both cases, the U.S. got involved in a war far away for which there was no easily foreseeable resolution. Obama, like another Democratic president more than four decades ago, was convinced, to some extent by his own generals, that more troops would make the difference and drew the U.S. further into the conflict. The Vietnam War destroyed Johnson’s presidency and overshadowed some of his impressive accomplishments on domestic issues. Critics of the war in Afghanistan, many of whom are supporters of the current president, do not want to see the same thing happen to Obama.
And yet Obama has already shown in his presidency that his views on Afghanistan are more than just a campaign tactic. The easy thing for Obama would have been to lump Afghanistan in with Iraq as failed Bush policies and instead begin a slow–some might say too slow–pullback of troops in Afghanistan, similar to that in Iraq. And yet it seems that Obama’s assessment of national security concerns made this option less appealing. Obama’s reward for this approach is that Afghanistan may do for Obama what Iraq did for Bush, what Vietnam did for Johnson, what Afghanistan itself did for the Soviet Union, or whatever other analogy you like.
Political slogans are usually vague and devoid of any real meaning. Neither Obama's nor McCain's slogan are any real exception to this. However, there is something particularly disturbing about the slogan "putting country first." When I first saw it I winced, but attributed that to the slogan being so embarrassingly childish, although in fairness I don't think any of the students in my son's 4th grade class would come up with something quite so meaningless. It also struck me as a bad riff on Bill Clinton's 1992 slogan "putting people first."