Thursday, November 5, 2009

Michele Bachmann Tea Party Rally - An Honest Man's Perspective

Today I spoke with a man who attended the Michele Bachmann's Tea Party rally near the capitol in Washington DC. He was an honest man. With honest concerns. Most of which were based on faulty information. He told me his thoughts, and I listened.

He had traveled to Washington DC from Tennessee, along with his mother and 86 year old father (which he proudly told to everyone in sight). They had come to DC the day before and had taken in the World War II Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial (his Dad's favorite), and of course, the Bachmann Rally today. He was proud of the service his Dad gave in the second world war, and his own 17 years of service in the Tennessee National Guard. He was proud of his life of labor as a wood cutter. He was proud to be an American. He told me there were "100,000 people at the rally" (best estimates were about 10,000).

He said he was in DC to "stop healthcare." His basis of opposition - that "he didn't believe anyone else should have to pay for his health care." That's it. That's how he saw the entire health care debate. [I didn't mention that we already pay for the health care of others through increased insurance premiums.]

On Afghanistan, he called it "Obama's Vietnam." He felt that when General McChrystal came asking for 40,000 more troops Obama's only response should have been, "I'll give you 100,000, now go get them." He felt that "it's been two months" [since McChrystal's initial report] and Obama needed to do something now. Again, that's it. He saw the entire decision-making process about Afghanistan to be simply a matter of saturating the area with hundreds of thousands of troops because the general wanted them. He did understand that bin Laden and al qaeda are in the mountainous border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that Pakistan wasn't doing its job (and he even understood why it was so difficult for Pakistan to do so). But to him it all came down to some variation of "fish or cut bait," with his preferred action to be "fish...and do it with lots of poles."

So why am I telling this story? Mainly to draw out the following take-home points.

1) There are real people with real concerns out there.

2) Much of that concern is based on misinformation.

3) Details aren't that relevant, what matters is the big picture message.

4) These are the people that the White House and the Congress need to reach.

So, how does the WH and Congress reach out to average, every day, honest Americans who base their feelings on their gut and the simple messages (even if the messages are often based on incorrect details)?

First, politicians need to stop talking only to themselves. They need to start listening better to the people. And by people I mean to real people like the guy I spoke with today, not the professional instigators with lobbyist talking points. Not other Congressman who come armed with nothing but their party's political talking points. And not the pundits, who mostly don't know diddly but play like they are informed on TV. And when I say listen, I mean listen. Not stand quietly while someone talks and then respond with their own prepackaged talking points. Listen. Ask questions. Learn. Think about what really matters to the people, even if they mess up a few details or mime some talking points they heard on their favorite cable propaganda station.

Second, ensure that the misinformation is corrected in people's minds. Put the facts online so people can fact check for themselves, but remember that many people rely more on word of mouth at church and in their neighborhoods and just don't trust anything politicians say. So find a way to get the facts out there.

Third, speak to the people. Tell them why health care reform 1) will not do what they most fear it will do, and 2) will benefit them and their families and their children. Tell them why it isn't wise to "just send 100,000 troops when the general asks for 40,000," for example, because 100,000 troops (or a million) won't help us reach our goals because x, y and z also need to be fixed. Oh, and tell them what are goal(s) actually are in Afghanistan. Tell them why dealing with climate change is important to them and to their grandchildren. And if you aren't ready to make a decision, tell them why it will take a little longer.

Fourth, keep the minority party honest. Not surprisingly, the minority party tends to think that their best route to winning back seats is to keep the majority party from getting anything accomplished. They often lie. Don't let them. Call them out for lies. There is plenty of room for honest ideological differences, but our elected officials are elected to represent our interests, not their own reelection interests. And lying serves no one's interests but the liars.

Fifth, "It's the Economy, Stupid." The state of the economy, real or perceived, is the driving force behind much of the angst right now. It matters not that the economy tanked last year, well before Obama was elected, the perception is that he needs to fix it...and he needs to fix it fast. Fiscal responsibility is the common thread for everyone no matter to which party they belong. Health care, climate change, finance reform, and other major legislative pursuits actually should improve the economy in the long run, but people tend to have a very short time horizon, and even shorter memories of how we got here. So make the tough decisions, and follow rule 3 above.

I learned a lot from my conversation today with an honest man. We should listen to each other more often .

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

No Time to Lose on Climate Change!! Angela Merkel Lectures the US Congress

"We all know, we have no time to lose."

These are the words of German Chancellor Angela Merkel today in an address to a joint session of the US Congress.

And she didn't stop there. She also said that dealing with climate change is one of the great tests of the 21st Century and that "in December the world will look to us, to the Americans and the Europeans," for leadership.

Most Republicans sat quietly during this while Democrats gave Chacellor Merkel a standing ovation.

I agree with Chancellor Merkel. Climate change is the test of our lifetimes. The Democratic majority and President Obama understand this and are taking a leadership role in guiding both the US and the world toward finding solutions.

Meanwhile, the Republicans dither. They whine that "EPA hasn't done an analysis of the impact," which, of course, is false. EPA has done an analysis. Republicans whine that they "don't have enough time to read the bill," though the major issues have been discussed for the last 9 months, the revised draft bill has been available for at least a week (and the original bill was available long before), and the process of discussion is ongoing. Perhaps if Republicans assigned their staffs to work on the bill rather than immediately find a microphone to whine about it they would actually be able to accomplish their jobs.

Merkel noted that "curbing greenhouse gas emissions would spur growth in innovative jobs" in the US, in Europe, and worldwide. Republicans seem intent on doing nothing but stand in the way of any meaningful legislation because they think it will help them keep their own jobs in next year's elections.

It's time for all of us to insist that Republicans start contributing to the solution rather than putting all their efforts into blocking any attempt by others to look out for the future of the United States.

For more information, read the articles in the Washington Post, BBC News, and CNN.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Auto Industry Worried Chemical Regulations in US Will Look Like Europe's REACH Program

As Senator Lautenberg prepares to introduce chemical control reform legislation in the US, possibly as early as this month, some in the auto industry are worried that they will be severely impacted. But then, maybe not. There is a lot of misinformation out there and everyone seems to be worried about US chemical legislation somehow mirroring the worst parts of REACH, the chemical legislation that has industry frustrated in Europe.

While the reform (or modernization, if you prefer) of the 33 year old Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is unlikely to look exactly like REACH, there clearly are some facets of REACH that will be in the new law. EPA, industry and the advocacy community all seem to be on the same page with respect to the general principles, but still differ considerably on the details.

The auto industry, and for that matter most other industries, were concerned about potentially significant disruptions to the supply chain as companies not normally considering themselves in the chemicals business were brought into the review process. But the experience of the auto industry in Europe has suggested that even REACH hasn't been as disruptive as they expected. That doesn't mean it has been easy for the smaller firms, but the larger firms have had the resources to be ahead of the game.

So the wait continues to see if the newly introduced chemical control legislation will look like REACH, the previously introduced Kid Safe Chemical Act, or something completely different.