Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Herman Cain is more lyrical than sensible

By DeWayne Wickham

What is the magnetism of Herman Cain?

How has this former pizza company executive with no prior political experience, relatively little campaign funds and a small staff of political neophytes been able to surge into the front ranks of the candidates vying for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination?

Nothing signals the GOP’s disarray more than the rise of Cain, a man whose confounding views apparently mean less to Republicans than his simple answers to complex questions. And nothing should worry the managers of President Obama’s re-election campaign more than the growing appeal of a would-be opponent whose solutions to this nation’s perplexing problems are more lyrical than sensible.

Cain is an anti-politician — a White House candidate whose greatest appeals seems be his pizza parlor view of the world. While such a description might appeal to those who think nothing short of a revolutionary change will make the nation’s capital more responsive to the needs of the American people, the possibility of Cain ending up in the Oval Office has to alarm thoughtful people on both sides of this country’s political divide.

Like any good salesman, Cain pushes what sells. To a nation frustrated by Congress’ inability to reform the federal tax laws, he’s offered his “9-9-9” tax plan, which would replace the current federal tax codes with a 9% tax on income, sales and businesses. That seems like a good idea to a lot of people frustrated by the federal government’s complicated tax laws.

Cain’s proposal to build an electrified fence along the U.S.-Mexican border — which he has mentioned several times — had a similar kind of appeal. As far back as May, that pitch was a good applause line for Cain, who once said he’d put an alligator filled moat next to that barrier.

Cain, however, stumbled a bit following Israel’s decision to release more than 1,000 Palestinians for a single Israeli soldier held by Hamas. During a CNN interview, Cain said he would consider exchanging a large number of prisoners in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp to gain the freedom for an American soldier.

“I could see myself authorizing that kind of transfer,” he said. But when Cain came under attack from fellow Republicans for this view, he said he misspoke. He would not negotiate with terrorists, Cain said later during a GOP presidential debate. Then in an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, Cain — who once said some people think he just has pepperoni between his ears — backtracked again. His talk about building an electrified fence to keep illegal immigrants from crossing into the U.S. from Mexico, he said, was a long-running joke.

Even so, none of Cain’s backtracking has knocked him out of the front ranks of GOP presidential hopefuls. This may be because his retreat on the Mexican fence issue sounded more like waffling than surrender; more media-driven than heartfelt. His pullback on the prisoner exchange question — and from an answer he gave to a question about abortion in which he seemed to suggest it is OK for a rape victim to end a pregnancy — was an embrace of right-wing dogma.

For many members of the conservative rank-and-file, Cain is one of them. He’s a frank-talking, grass-roots guy whose best credential is that he isn’t a career politician. Of course, the nation could use a big infusion of people in elected office who aren’t career politicians.

But the lack of political experience can be a double-edged sword – one that makes a person appealing, yet unsuitable for the presidency.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Thanks to Obama, America is safer than it was four years ago

By DeWayne Wickham

Given the state of this nation's troubled economy — which has spawned a grass-roots movement against economic inequities and corporate greed — it's no surprise President Obama's economic policies have gotten more attention than his war on terrorism.

While a traditional reading of the political tea leaves suggests America's financial health will weigh more heavily on voters in next year's presidential election than the hunt for Osama bin Laden's linear successors, the president deserves a lot more credit than he's been given for the war he's waging.

No, Obama hasn't undone the economic mess he inherited from his predecessor, but he has decimated the ranks of the terrorist leaders who commanded the 9/11 attacks. In doing so, Obama has made America a lot safer than it was four years ago — which should also weigh heavily on voters' minds in 2012.

The pinnacle of the Obama-led war on terrorism (though the president pointedly avoids this term) has been the killing of bin Laden by a team of Navy SEALs who attacked his compound in Pakistan. Over the past decade, the near-mythical al-Qaeda mastermind taunted this country with video and tape-recorded messages that threatened more attacks.

And let us not forget that bin Laden was free to do so for a decade after the managers of George W. Bush's war on terrorism let him escape from Afghanistan in the battle of Tora Bora. Though the threats proved to be more talk than action, they elevated the fear level in this country.

In authorizing that attack on bin Laden, Obama made good on his presidential campaign pledge to strike our terrorist enemies wherever he found them — even in Pakistan, a conflicted U.S. ally.

In fact, since Obama took office, the body count of senior al-Qaeda leaders has grown dramatically, often from the president's weapon of choice, pilotless drones. This smart use of air power also puts fewer U.S. troops at risk.

While Obama has continued Bush's ill-conceived nation-building campaign in Afghanistan, he has not made that mistake in places like North Waziristan, Yemen, Somalia and other parts of Africa. Instead, he has wisely chosen to use drones and small units of highly skilled military advisers to combat terrorists that threaten America or its allies.

At the very least, Obama's relentless pursuit of these zealots has disrupted their ability to calmly plan the next hit. Understandably, the president might not get the full credit he deserves from voters more concerned about the nation's high unemployment rate. The stubbornly bad jobs market and their declining wealth are a far greater threat than the terrorist leadership Obama has turned into an endangered species.

Many Americans, I suspect, will take for granted the relative peace this country now enjoys. In a strange way that may be the only reward Obama gets from voters. Anything less parochial might have to await history's judgment.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Why one woman overcame fear and anxiety to join Occupy Wall Street

By DeWayne Wickham

Stacey Patton knows better than most people who've joined the Occupy Wall Street protest about the perils of such a decision.

Eleven years before, she joined demonstrators in New York City's Foley Square to protest against corporate greed and wealth disparities, Patton was arrested while taking part in a march following the not-guilty verdict for the four New York policemen who killed Amadou Diallo.

The African immigrant was shot 19 times in the vestibule of his apartment after the cops mistook his wallet for a gun. That protest ended for Patton when she was arrested and jailed overnight after a clash with police that left her with a severely injured leg — and nightmares.

Back then, Patton was an idealistic 22-year-old undergraduate at New York University. Now 33, she recently earned a doctorate from Rutgers University and was reluctant to join the loosely organized protests that began Sept. 17 and have spread from Boston to San Francisco.

"I never thought I'd be a part of something like this," she told me. Not after the price she paid for her snap decision to join that protest in 2000. Though that past haunts her, Patton said she worries about the future.

"I got out there because I still believe in democracy," she explained. "I think this is a movement about economic justice. I think it's pretty obvious what people are protesting. They are protesting greed, recklessness, illegal behavior, home foreclosures and rising student debt. We can't get jobs, but we have mounting student debt."

Patton said the Occupy Wall Street protest is the counter-narrative to the Tea Party movement, which is demanding that government become smaller and less involved in people's lives. But many Wall Street protesters want government to do more to end home foreclosures, generate jobs and punish those whose greed brought this nation to the verge of economic collapse.

While it's not clear exactly what will satisfy this movement — or for that matter who its leaders are — this much seems certain: The Arab Spring has come to America.

Unlike the Tea Party movement that seeks to remake the political process through elections, Occupy Wall Street is more of a revolt than political takeover. The people who have taken to the streets under this banner are demanding a more responsive government, not plotting a government takeover.

For Patton, Foley Square isn't very far removed from Egypt's Tahrir Square as a staging ground for a second American Revolution — not a violent struggle, but one of ideas about good governance. For all this nation's greatness, too many Americans live below the poverty line. And for too many people who are unemployed, underemployed or about to lose their home, the American dream is a nightmare.

The protest has awakened in a wide swath of Americans the kind of passion for change that earlier this year drove millions of Arabs into the streets of Cairo, Tunis and Damascus. Ironically, Foley Square is just a short walk from a park named for Thomas Paine, a Revolutionary War leader who once wrote of that American crisis: "These are the times that try men's souls."

The same, it seems, can be said of the protests that forced Patton to suspend her fears and anxieties to join a street demonstration in New York City that threatens to engulf the nation.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Cain's attack on black voters gives GOP racial absolution

By DeWayne Wickham

Energized by his surprise victory in Florida’s GOP straw poll, Herman Cain quickly sought to strengthen his standing among conservatives by giving them something that no other GOP presidential candidate can — absolution on the haunting issue of race.

“Many African Americans have been brainwashed into not being open-minded, not even considering a conservative point of view,” Cain, the only black in the field of announced Republican presidential contenders, said during an interview on CNN.

By pinning the overwhelming support blacks give Democratic presidential candidates on some Svengali-like, forced manipulation of their minds, Cain relieves GOP conservatives of any responsibility for chasing the majority of black voters out of the party of Abraham Lincoln.

By blaming black mindlessness for this flight, Cain ignores the race-baiting “Southern strategy” that virtually every Republican presidential candidate since Richard Nixon has used as a wedge issue to win the backing of Southern whites.

By suggesting that most black voters are herded to the polls like sheep by liberal Democrats, he leaves no need for the GOP to explain why blacks, who have a strong conservative streak, have largely abandoned the Republican Party.

Instead of telling the GOP voters he courts some hard truths, Cain courts them with doublespeak about black voters, who he later told CNN “more and more” are thinking for themselves and would likely vote for him in large numbers if he ends up in a general election showdown with Barack Obama.

The truth is, most blacks are conservative on issues of religion, education and crime. But for the vast majority of blacks, race is a survival issue that trumps all others. To most blacks, the GOP push for more “states’ rights” (a battle cry of the Confederacy) and a smaller federal government (which many blacks believe will threaten their hard-won civil rights protections) is an assault on them.

I suspect Cain knows this. But as with just about every Republican black elected official, he’s more interested in courting white voters than black voters. The last time a black Republican won election to a national office from a majority black district was in 1932, when voters in Illinois’ first congressional district re-elected Oscar De Priest to his third — and final — term in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Most black Republicans elected to Congress since then have done so with the embrace of the conservative GOP voters they had to court. And most of those black Republican officeseekers, in one way or another, sought to immunize their party against the charge of racism — often in the face of compelling evidence of its intolerant treatment of blacks.

Cain is the latest in this long line of black Republicans. What distinguishes him from the rest are the impressive showing he made in an early voter test of the GOP’s presidential candidates and his claim that a sizable number of blacks would abandon the Democratic Party and vote for him in 2012. The first may say more about the weakness of GOP opponents than Cain’s strength. The other would be laughable if it were not beneath the dignity of satire.

Republicans who want their party to be more a part of this nation’s future than its past would do well to reject the absolution Cain offers them — and the self-denial that has plagued their relations with this nation’s black electorate.