World's Leading Minds Gather in Erie

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Wednesday, October 30th, 2013 at 7:04 AM
World's Leading Minds Gather in Erie by Jay Stevens

There's going to be a brawl soon, right on State Street – a bruised-knuckle, bloody-lip wrangle with no quarter. And the stakes? Everything. The world. The future. You and me, and everything we hold dear.

Okay, maybe that's an exaggerated way to describe the main event of this year's Jefferson Educational Society Global Summit, when, on Nov. 13 at Collegiate Academy, Howard Dean and William Kristol will engage in a debate on the role of government in America's future.

Certainly neither man sees the debate in such terms.

“I know what I think,” said Kristol in a telephone interview, “and Howard [Dean] knows what Howard thinks, and we'll have an informative and interesting debate.”

Dean, too, downplayed the differences between the two.

“There's a lot of people I talk with, like [Tennessee Republican and former U.S. Senator] Bill Frist,” said Dean, “who I spend a lot of time on panels with. There's a fair amount of common ground. I'll bet you Bill Frist and I could sit down and design a health care program we could both agree on in an hour and a half.

“There's often common ground between Democrats and Republicans outside the Beltway.”

Jefferson Educational Society Executive Director Ferki Ferati, when I see him in his office, also thinks the debate will be foremost entertaining and informative.

“They're polarizing in a way,” he admits. “But Howard Dean is more center left. So is Bill Kristol. He's center right. They're not opposite extremes. They're both very bright people. They're both good debaters.”

And to focus on Dean and Kristol's debate does detract a little from this year's Global Summit, which, as Ferati explained, is focused on the future of humanity. Over the course of the five days of the summit, beginning on Monday, Nov. 11, ten speakers will lecture – or debate – on a wide variety of topics, from the essence of presidential leadership, to the role of First Ladies in U.S. history, from deep underwater exploration, to possible cures from cancer.

But.

It's hard to look at a debate between Howard Dean and William Kristol and not think about the recent mess in Washington, D.C., the standoff in Congress, the government shutdown, the flirtation with defaulting on the nation's debt, and the implementation of the new health care reform law, the Affordable Care Act. Right now, our nation seems to be lurching from crisis to crisis – and at the helm of the ship of state is a squabbling crew, riven by factionalism, and unable to agree on just about anything.

What is our future? What will our government look like in six months, a year, five years from now? These aren't frivolous or idle questions. They are critical.

These two men – Dean and Kristol – may not be extremists. There won't be fisticuffs, spilled blood.  But both men are intellectual torchbearers for very different ways of looking at government. And both influence or represent deep and powerful movements within the U.S. political spectrum. Maybe all of our political wrangling won't be decided in the halls of a local Erie high school; maybe the future course of our country won't be decided here and now. But we'll see the topography of the struggle.

That is, this debate is a very big deal. And the stakes are high.

***

“It's not that I advocate partisanship,” said Howard Dean in our interview. “I advocate sane policies for the future of the country – which I think differentiates me significantly from the right wing.”

Dean's direct, almost confrontational style underscores his unapologetic and unabashed liberal Democratic principles. Dean, after all, rose to national prominence when he gave a rousing speech at the 2003 California State Democratic Convention denouncing the policies of Republican President George W. Bush and the Democrats that went along with them.

“What I want to know is, what in the world so many Democrats are doing supporting the president's unilateral intervention in Iraq?” he said. “What I want to know is, what in the world so many Democrats are doing supporting tax cuts, which have bankrupted this country and given us the largest deficit in the history of the United States?”

It was a breath of fresh air to progressive activists and stalwart Democrats who, in the months and years after the World Trade Center attack in September 2001, watched in horror as Congressional Democrats quietly agreed to the Patriot Act, warrantless wiretapping, and other assaults on civil liberties, as well as the president's ill conceived invasion of Iraq. The speech won him supporters and propelled him into front-runner status for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, in a campaign characterized by the “Deaniacs” – energetic young grassroots activists who turned the Internet into a fundraising and political messaging tool.

Dean was the governor who, in 2000, signed into Vermont law a bill legalizing same-sex civil unions, the first such bill passed anywhere in the United States. (“It seemed to me that if you're going to have equality under he law,” he said, “then everybody has to be equal.”) He was also an early proponent of universal health care coverage, and, under his tenure as governor, Vermont enacted health care legislation that ensured all children in the state would have access to health care coverage.

He was the progressive's progressive, years ahead of anyone on gay rights and health care. And he didn't sound at all apologetic or shy about being liberal.

But the image of Howard Dean as a liberal ideologue – an image both supporters and detractors held – belied Dean's accomplishments as Vermont governor. When Dean took office in 1991, he was facing a $60 million state budget deficit in a recession economy. Immediately implementing a policy of fiscal restraint, Dean balanced that budget and ten more during his 12 years as governor, paid off the state's debts, and even managed to cut state income taxes.

Dean is also a pragmatic politician. After losing the 2004 Democratic nomination to the establishment candidate, John Kerry – the “electable” candidate who lost to George W. Bush's re-election bid – Dean won the job running the Democratic National Committee. There, he turned from the usual Democratic practice of focusing fundraising and political spending on swing states and districts, and implemented a “50-state strategy,” which challenged the Democratic party to become competitive in every state at every level in politics. The idea was to rebuild the party from the ground up, to reach in all parts of the country, and involved bringing into the fold red-state moderates and conservatives. The strategy proved immensely successful; in 2006, Democrats won control of both the House and Senate, relying on key victories in traditionally conservative states like Missouri, Virginia, and Montana.

“That's all just propaganda,” he said on the phone about the tax-and-spend stereotype of liberals. “I don't pay attention to that anymore. That's old politics.”

The new politics, then, is about getting things done. It's not about ideology. In that way, Dean finds hope in his “Deaniacs” and their – my, your – generation. “Most of your generation are interested in solutions that work,” said Dean, “rather than whether the solutions are on the right or the left. Right and left isn't a reasonable scale anymore for your generation.

“For example, there's a lot of overlap between young evangelical Christians and young, what I would call, 'secular activists.' You've both ranked poverty and global warming as the top concerns that you have. It's obvious there's some common ground, and that common ground pretty much doesn't exist in my generation.”

The current squabbling in Congress, then, the conservative extremism and ideology of the Tea Party prevents finding common ground, prevents collaboration, compromise, blocks all the deal-making that makes things work.

“The problem with the both-sides-are-wrong argument, which is really not true,” said Dean, “is that it doesn't lead to anything actually getting done. There are practical solutions to these things that depend on facts, and I find your generation is much more interested in facts than they are in ideology.”

***

To understand William Kristol, you probably should begin with his father, Irving Kristol. Born in Brooklyn in 1920, Irving was the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. On graduating from the free City College of New York, Irving Kristol was “a member of good standing,” as he put it in his book, Reluctant Revolutionary: Memoirs of a Trotskyist, of the Young People's Socialist League. He was a Trotskyist, a socialist opposed to Soviet-style Communism.

But like many leftists of the era, Irving Kristol in the 1950s and 1960s became disillusioned with liberal social policy. Likewise rejecting traditional conservatism's isolationism, Kristol and others gravitated towards a new form of conservatism that embraced liberalism's idea of progress, and admired president John F. Kennedy's aggressive anti-Communist foreign policy. U.S. military power, believed Kristol, should be used to advance U.S. interests. This new group of conservatives were pro-Israel, supported the Vietnam War, and were opposed to president Lyndon Johnson's “Great Society” programs, believing government social programs – though birthed of good intentions – usually did more harm. They unblushingly believed in good and evil, and they believed the United States was firmly on the side of good.

This was neoconservatism. As Irving Kristol quipped, a neoconservative was “a liberal mugged by reality.” The elder Kristol became known as the movement's “godfather,” and he pushed neoconservatism along in The Public Interest, a magazine he co-founded in 1965.

His son, William, has followed in his footsteps.

After graduating with a Ph.D. from Harvard, the younger Kristol first taught political philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard's Kennedy School of government, but soon entered politics, becoming the chief of staff for William Bennett, the Reagan presidency's Secretary of Education, and later for Republican Vice President Dan Quayle. (The latter position got him dubbed by some smart aleck at The New Republic as “Quayle's Brain.”)

But it wasn't until the Clinton presidency that Kristol made a big splash in politics. As leader of the conservative strategy group, Project for the Republican Future, Kristol penned a now-famous memo in 1993 outlining the political strategy that would scuttle the Clinton administration's health care reform efforts.

Kristol outlined talking points for Republicans to use against health care reform, many of which are still in use today. Kristol urged conservatives to warn Americans that reform would lead to price controls, health care rationing, queuing, and lack of medical innovation. But the most potent argument Kristol used – and which ultimately tanked health care reform for nearly a decade – was that Clinton's health care reform would mean Americans could no longer choose their own doctors.

For Kristol, steeped in neoconservative antipathy for large-scale government social programs, defeating health care reform wasn't just a priority for the Republican party, it was crucial to its very existence.

“Simple, green-eyeshades criticism of the plan – on the grounds that its numbers don't add up (they don't), or that it costs too much (it does), or that it will kill jobs and disrupt the economy (it will) – is fine so far as it goes,” wrote Kristol. “But in the current climate, such opposition only wins concessions, not surrender.”

Kristol then urged Republicans to avoid compromise with Democrats. Passage of the bill “would guarantee and likely make permanent an unprecedented federal intrusion into and disruption of the American economy,” he wrote. “Its success would signal a rebirth of centralized welfare-state policy at the very moment we have begun rolling back that idea in other areas.

“On grounds of national policy alone, the plan should not be amended, it should be erased.”

Kristol explained in a phone interview. “I think the notion of liberalism, whatever hopes it had – some of them legitimate and useful for the country,” he said, “has sort of played out. Now it's just a kind of endless expansion of government in a kind of pointless and damaging way.”

And Kristol sees in health care reform – both during the Clinton administration, and today in the Affordable Care Act – as a symptom of liberalism's expansion of government.

“You can modify the free market in terms of the poor, helping the elderly, in terms of helping those who are sick or have a pre-existing conditions,” he said. “You can do a lot of that without a total government remaking of the health care system.”

Some aspects of the Affordable Care Act – like the insurance exchange, where consumers can shop for various health insurance plans – have been touted as conservative in nature, as opening up the marketplace of insurance, but Kristol doesn't agree, and sees federal regulations mandating that all plans cover certain conditions or procedures as negating any advantages of the exchange.

“It's not a real marketplace,” he said. “The marketplace is where there are ten grocery stores. They're not part of a government exchange, which radically limits what they can offer and at what prices they can offer. It's like saying there are three different DMV offices in town, and they can give you a couple of different options for how long you want to wait in line.”

Later, Kristol added: “We all live in America. If you want to buy something and someone wants to sell it to you, you're not hurting anyone else, why shouldn't you be able to buy your own health insurance?”

After Kristol's success in helping decide the outcome of the Clinton-era health care reform, he co-founded The Weekly Standard, one of the nation's most influential conservative magazines. During the George W. Bush administration, Kristol co-authored a book with Lawrence Kagan – The War Over Iraq: America's Mission and Saddam's Tyranny – which argued for the invasion of Iraq out of neoconservative principle for using U.S. military, unilaterally if needed, as an actor in foreign policy. The Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein, in neoconservative shorthand, was evil, and deserved toppling.

Kristol still remains a hawk on foreign policy issues, despite the mistakes made in Iraq. “Foreign policy is complicated,” he said. “I prefer the outcome in Iraq than what's happening in Syria, where we haven't intervened.

“We pay a price for intervention, we pay a price for non-intervention as well.”

Of today's gridlock in Congress, Kristol thinks it's the not surprising outcome of recent elections.

“It's just a fact that President Obama won and then won re-elction,” he said. “House Republicans won a huge victory in the 2010 election. And they each think, ‘I told the voters what I was for, and I wasn't sent here just to sign off on the others' programs.’ I think given those circumstances, it's inevitable you'll have a lot of fighting and also a certain amount of  gridlock and stalemate.

“It'd be nice to resolve it in a little more orderly way,” he admitted with a chuckle.

In the end, though, we made it through the government shutdown and avoided a default crisis. In general, claimed Kristol, the American people seemed able to simply move on.

***

Kristol, the writer, carrying on his father's political philosophy, he's the ideologue, the idea man. And, Dean, a former governor, presidential candidate, and party leader, he's the politician, the policy-maker. One man is about message; the other, action.

In a way, they're representative of today's gridlock in Washington, D.C.

Fellow Global Summit speaker, Thomas Mann, who'll speak Nov. 12, offered up an explanation for that gridlock in an email. In it, he gave two causes for the recent Congressional impasse.

“The first,” he wrote, “is a mismatch between our deeply polarized political parties and our constitutional governing system, which requires a willingness to collaborate and compromise across branches of government and chambers of Congress.”

That is, the very structure of our legislature and its relationship to the presidency requires a lot of deal-making. Bills originate in the House, go through committees, revisions, a House vote, then through Senate committees, revisions and amendments, a Senate vote – and then to a conference committee to hammer out the differences between the two bodies' bills. And then, of course, if a bill makes it through the committee and votes in both the House and Senate, the president still has to sign it before it becomes law. During that process, there are a lot of opportunities for obstruction. Committee chairs can sit on a bill. The House and Senate leaders can prevent a bill from coming to a vote on the floor. And then there's the filibuster – don't even get me started on the filibuster, that odd Senate procedure that requires a supra-majority of 60 Senators' support for any bill to even come to a vote.

If parties want to obstruct, they can.

The second cause of Congressional gridlock, according to Mann, is conservative extremism.

Over the course of years, but more sharply since the Tea Party movement kicked off, “the Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier,” wrote Mann. “Ideologically extreme, scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

While William Kristol is hardly a Tea Party activist, and much closer to the center than, say, Minnesota Republican Representative Michele Bachmann, Kristol did identify health care reform back in 1993 as something not to compromise on, something that should be “erased.” Kristol two decades ago urged Republicans to view Clinton's health care reform as an existential battle. Lose it, and conservatives lose their identity. Compromise wasn't even an option.

Current Republicans have only since built on that message. Everything now is an existential question. Republicans would no more compromise on health care than they would immigration reform, climate change, or the president's Syria policy.

Dean... well, Dean just wants something to get done.

So when political extremism meets opposition policy that tries to get something done, you get gridlock. “It is extremely difficult,” wrote Mann, of our current situation, “to enact policies responsive to the country's most pressing problems.”

Mann co-authored with 2012 Summit speaker Norman Orstein a pair of books about this very problem with Congress. In 2008, Mann and Orstein released How Congress is Failing America and How to Get It Back; and in 2012, they released the sequel, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism. Needless, to say, both books are making a bit of resurgence in sales lately.

Mann's talk is on Tuesday, Nov. 12, and he's talking about future of U.S. foreign policy. Again, in our email conversation, Mann identified Congress as a problem in creating a coherent foreign policy. “[Congressional dysfunction] has harmed our reputation around the world,” he wrote, “slowed our economic recovery, and delayed critical domestic reforms and investments, thereby weakening our capacity to play the essential role we must in promoting global security.”

So which way lies the future? Is gridlock avoidable? Will Americans tire of conservative extremism? Or has states' gerrymandering made permanent an obstructive conservative minority? Is the only escape from Congressional inaction down the Tea Party path?

***

Of course, the debate between Howard Dean and William Kristol is just one event in the entire week of the Jefferson Educational Society's Global Summit series. Stretching across five days from Nov. 11 to Nov. 15, this year's series showcases the largest number of speakers in the Summit's history, at ten.

Besides expanding the number of speakers, the Global Summit has expanded from three days of lectures to five. And its popularity is growing.

“Every year, we've grown,” said Jefferson Educational Society Executive Director Ferki Ferati. “We've gone from 500 [attendees] to 800 to 1,200, to last year's number of 2,100. This year, who knows?”

Getting speakers is becoming increasingly easy, too. “When we first started this in 2009,” said Ferati, “people would say, 'Global Summit? What's that? Who spoke there?'

“Now when I get asked that, I say, here's who spoke: David Brooks. Michael Hayden. Francis Fukuyama, and all the others who came. They see an impressive list of speakers – they usually know one of them and they call that person. 'Say, how was your experience in Erie?' I usually hear back in a day or two.”

This year's lineup is equally impressive. Starting with the Global Summit's first speaker on Nov. 11, Ian Morris, a professor of History and Classics at Stanford University, who will talk about the future of humanity. Morris has written several books on ancient empires, and promises to use his knowledge of ancient cultures and patterns of history to predict the as-of-yet-unlived arc of human history.

And that's just the beginning. There's David Gergen – a presidential adviser to Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton, and currently a professor of public policy at Harvard and a CNN analyst – who'll speak on the evolution of leadership in the White House. Presidential biographer and librarian, Richard Norton Smith, and C-SPAN founder, Brian Lamb, are teaming up to discuss the role of First Ladies in U.S. history — and likely mull how the role will change if Hillary Clinton becomes our nation's first woman president in 2016.

Science and medicine continue to play an important part in the Global Summit this year. Deep-sea explorer and marine biologist, Edith Widder, will speak on Thursday, Nov. 14 about the untapped potential found in the ocean depths. She should know; her expertise in deep-sea submersibles and bioluminescence allowed her to capture the first-ever footage of a giant squid in its natural environment. On Friday, Nov. 15, cancer researcher Crislyn D'Souza-Schorey will share the latest advancements in her field, and discusses the promise of cancer research.

And this year's Thomas B. Hagen Dignitas Award winner — an Erie native selected for having a significant impact on society — is Harry Markopolos, the securities trader who figured out the Bermie Madoff ponzi scheme a decade before the authorities, and who co-wrote the bestseller, No One Would Listen: A True Financial Thriller, about his investigation into Madoff. Markopolos went to Cathedral Prep and worked with his father at Makefield Securities before heading off to Boston to work as a portfolio manager. His talk on Friday, Nov. 15, will focus on his Madoff investigation.

***

It's hard to overestimate the importance of an event like the Global Summit for a community like Erie.

“I think it is farsighted of Erie to undertake this Global Summit,” wrote Thomas Mann in an email. “In recent years, as a way of promoting economic growth and opportunity, a number of metro areas have vastly expanded their global connections and are rebuilding themselves as innovative and entrepreneurial global players.

“Good ideas are an essential part of that effort.”

Perhaps. But maybe Erie has something to give in return to the Summit speakers. At least, that's something that both Howard Dean and William Kristol agree on.

“The portions of the trip I'll learn something from,” said Kristol, “will be from the people. What's going in the economy, the practical effect of Obamacare, EPA regulations, what's going on at the state level. I always try to talk with people, see what changes they would like to see in Washington.”

On his trip to Erie – a place as a soccer dad Dean has visited frequently – the former Vermont governor concurs. “I think [the Global Summit] is good for both the audience and for us, because there's this framework that goes on inside the Beltway, all that nonsense about left and right. That's just nonsense, it's just silly talk, and it doesn't add anything to the conversation.

“What you tend to get when you have the 99.7 percent of people that don't work in Washington, you get actual real questions and issues that matter, and that's where I think the right and left collapse.”

So. During the Global Summit we won't see any chokeholds or haymakers, there'll be no bloody knuckles or ugly brawls. And if there is drama, a swelling of change, a decisive blow struck in Washington's conflict and gridlock, it won't be from a visitor to the Jefferson Educational Society at State Street. It'll emanate from State Street itself, from the city of Erie.

Jay Stevens can be contacted at Jay@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @Snevets_Yaj. 

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