This Week in Politics, from Wisconsin to Libya

Monday, March 07, 2011

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer ShowJonathan Alter, correspondent for Newsweek and the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One, previewed the week in politics ahead.

Fourteen Democratic state senators from Wisconsin have been in hiding across state lines for weeks, their absence leaving too few legislators in Madison for a vote on Governor Scott Walker's controversial budget to take place.

But no vacation lasts forever. The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that the missing senators will return to Madison soon, finally allowing a vote that protestors have been railing against 24/7, and which Democrats are certain to lose.

So far, the Journal is the only publication reporting that the senators have plans to come back to the capitol. It's unclear how reliable this information is, but it appears that the Democrats were bound to return sooner or later. Gov. Walker still refuses to budge, even after weeks of round-the-clock protests against the anti-union proposals in his budget. Jonathan Alter thinks that the Democrats, if they have indeed decided to return, may be banking on Walker's popularity being sufficiently crippled in the long run.

The bottom line is, they don't have the votes, but they do have the public, because polls have been very unfavorable for Walker in Wisconsin and nationally. He just overplayed his hand, so we'll see how it plays out over time. I think there's a consensus among the public that there need to be major concessions on these contracts and pensions from unions, but the idea of busting them by eliminating collective bargaining for everything except wages is kind of a non-starter at this point.

Recent polls have also shown that about 60 percent of Americans believe unions should be able to keep collective bargaining rights for everything except wages. At the same time, though, a majority of Americans also favors asking unions to take pay cuts and make greater contributions to their own pensions and health care. That's right: Americans are supporting compromise. Alter said this was unusual and, in a way, refreshing.

The good news is that there is a basic common sense to the American public—not necessarily the holding of two opposing ideas, but here was a complexity that the public had to sort through. It reminds me of something President Clinton said to me once...He said, if you give the American people enough information and time, "they always get it right." I'm not so sure I agree that they "always" get it right, but I think he's on to something important: if the press can focus enough and provide enough public information, the public can make these subtle distinctions and can hold contradictory ideas in their head at the same time.

Speaking of controversial policies and opposing ideologies, the United States finds itself in another quandary with regard to the situation in Libya. Calls have started coming from the political right, urging President Obama to authorize direct military intervention in the conflict between Col. Muammar Qaddafi and rebel forces in the nation. Senator John McCain has even recommended instituting a no-fly zone over Libya, which he says would "send a message" to Qaddafi.

Why hasn't the administration listened to McCain? According to Jonathan Alter, expecting Libyan President Muammar Gadhafi to become intimidated or change his mind about anything is laughable. There are people in the Obama administration who feel the same way.

Defense Secretary Gates thinks it's a bad idea right now, and he has tremendous influence in the administration. When McCain talks about sending a signal to Gadhafi, I'm not sure what he means. Gadhafi is crazy. There's no incoming signal reception there. It's not like if we do something, he's going to start acting in a rational way. He's a lunatic.

Alter said it was also mistaken to think of imposing a no-fly zone as anything besides military intervention. In other words, it's not an alternative; it's a preamble.

That means going to war. That means bombing anti-aircraft installations so they can't endanger American aircraft that are enforcing the no-fly zone...You are crossing a line to military action, but as we learned with the no-fly zone in Iraq under Clinton in the mid-'90s, it doesn't necessarily mean the regime is going cry uncle...It's a nice buzz word, but most people don't really know much of what it entails. It's not a solution for this lunatic.

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has recommended arming the opposition forces in Libya—which we've tried before in Afghanistan, with less-than-desirable results.

Ultimately, the decision President Obama makes in response to the Libyan crisis will either continue his commitment to staying out of Middle East revolts, as he did in Tunisia and Egypt, or set a new standard for when the administration feels intervention is necessary. Alter said that regardless, he expects the president to seek more international consensus ahead of military action than his predecessor did.

I think there are some bigger questions about what kind of foreign policy Barack Obama really believes in here. He doesn't want the U.S. to take direct military action without having true international involvement—not just a coalition of the willing, like President Bush had (that's not real), but something where our allies genuinely join us in addressing this problem. If you don't do that, it becomes the U.S. and one or two other countries staging military action. You give the Arab leaders, the dictators, a lot of recruitment opportunities.


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Comments [9]

Chuck Levey from Manhattan

Re: Libya

Since the Arab League has approved the idea of a no fly zone over Libya, is it out of the question that they should be the one to enforce it? We know that they have the planes, we sold them to them. They also have US trained pilots. ???

Chuck Levey

Mar. 14 2011 10:53 AM

Yes James, "management" is the one that brought the economy into the "crapper". Mr. Alter was simply referring to the deregulation from top down via Robert Rubin,Larry Summers, Clinton & Bush of finance and banking that led up to the 2008 fiasco. You clearly begrudge union employees (perhaps your own neighbors) for not being as victimized as other workers. I am not affiliated with any union, but I root for their far more balanced salaries as opposed to all the executives and financiers whose remuneration's are clearly over the top and out of line. For the common good of us all get a perspective James.

Mar. 07 2011 12:36 PM
James from Manhattan

To say that "management" is the one that brought the economy into the "crapper" is an uniformed, simplistic and naïve statement especially for Mr. Alter. While non-union employees across the country have been suffering wage freezes and layoff across the country in almost every industry, unions have steadily gained salary increases, healthcare increases and locked in their jobs through bulletproof collective bargaining agreements that make it almost impossible to reduce a union workforce even if the company is headed toward bankruptcy, an event that results in the loss of jobs and pay cuts for administrative employees on the "management" side of the company. We saw our largest union in NYC, the 32BJ building service employees union, get a significant pay raise last year relative to the demise and pain of so many workers across the country.

Mar. 07 2011 10:45 AM
Maureen from Nassau

@Hazel Sharpe - I'm sorry, they do. My neighbor showed my seethoughnewyork, where you can see salaries on public employees including teachers- they absolutely routinely make 100k+ salaries not including benefits - some districts even more. We need to get a handle on this.When one can't afford their taxes, they have no choice other than not eating.

Anyway, in your last sentence I guess you prove my point.

Mar. 07 2011 10:44 AM
Hazel Sharpe from New Jersey

@ Maureen from Nassau

Teachers DO NOT routinely make 100K - on LI or anywhere else. That's a myth. Teachers who have teaching for 25-30 years make that kind of money and they deserve it. Those teachers probably started their jobs at 18K. Part-time work is another myth. I taught. And I spent a lot of my time in the evenings and on weekends working: grading papers, writing progress reports, lesson plans, creating art work for the classroom, etc.

And 15K for a 3 bedroom is a lot better than the 14K you would pay for a one-bedroom here in Hoboken NJ.

Mar. 07 2011 10:35 AM

So a wealthy journalist -- Jonathan Alter -- comes on the show to explain that public employees simply cannot enjoy lives of comfort, like the privileged sector does (though far reduced from those heights, of course). And this is counted supreme wisdom, a virtual lovefest on the program.

And while it's certainly true that public employees are not responsible for looting the economy, Jonathan Alter does bear some responsibility. He was among the palace guard which cheered "financial innovation". As a faithful establishment retainer, what sacrifices is *he* making? Of course, we know the answer: none.

That this depraved, Villager political commentary is taken for the height of perception is one measure of American intellectual decline. So strange, to hear this discourse laud the public for doing two things at once, when the American media can't do one thing -- tell the truth.

Mar. 07 2011 10:27 AM
Maureen from Nassau

I don't know,but out here on LI, where teachers routinely make over 100k for part time work, superintendents over 350k, police average over 160k, then add pensions (with overtime sweeteners), lifetime health care, etc, and where the tax on a small 3 bedroom house in an average town exceeds $15,000 there is a big problem. I'm trying to sell my home, guess what, no takers, I might lose it because I cant afford my TAXES on my fixed income. So please, lets not compare other states to NY. We most definitely need to get this under control

Mar. 07 2011 10:23 AM
Bobby G from East Village

How and when did the public employee pensions and health benefits get out of whack? One word "Pataki." And he's a Republican!

Mar. 07 2011 10:17 AM
Rose from Jackson Heights

The reason that unions have declined is not because workers don't want them (for themselves or workers elsewhere) but because corporations have become so powerful politically that they can crush unions and workers with impunity.
When it comes to public sector workers, people don't want to believe that the government is as ruthless as corporations.

Mar. 07 2011 10:15 AM

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