Friday, July 3, 2015

The Role of Peggy Noonan's Pearl-Clutching


I have to admit, no one on the right intrigues me more than Peggy Noonan. It might be because she is the most prominent female conservative pundit. But it also has to do with her unique skill at pearl-clutching. She is absolutely the queen of that venue.

Exhibit A would be her recent column in the WSJ about the Supreme Court's decision on marriage equality. Peggy's big concern is that it wasn't a unanimous decision.
Unanimous decisions tend to quell dissent; they confer an air of inarguable legitimacy, even inevitability. Whatever your own views, you as a citizen must acknowledge that nine lawyers, presumably skilled interpreters of the Constitution who hold different judicial and political philosophies, were able to agree on the charged issue at hand. Unanimous decisions rob opponents of arguments.

Landmark decisions based on narrow splits reflect a continuing breach.
With that, Noonan never has to specifically say that she disagrees with marriage equality - or that the Court was wrong. She simply clutches her pearls and worries about the "continuing breach" created by those who disagree with the likes of Scalia and Thomas.

Of course Noonan hasn't reserved her pearl-clutching for Supreme Court decisions. She regularly employs it in defense of Congressional Republicans as well. The problem, you see, is never the fact that Republicans are embracing extremist positions and - even more importantly - a strategy of total obstruction. You can always count on Noonan coming up behind them to worry about how sad it is for the country that Democrats won't play ball with them.

So whenever I see Peggy clutching her pearls, I know that her job is to attempt to give the obstructionists legitimacy. Never mind that the folks she is defending can hardly utter the word "compromise." It's just such a damn shame we're so divided (because of those mean liberals). Oh, my!!!

Bernie, Hillary...and Joe

The story in the Democratic primary this week has all been about Bernie-mania. Sanders drew a huge crowd in Denver and gained ground on Clinton in a poll in Iowa. On the former, Jonathan Topaz points out that it's a good strategy for an insurgent.
He’s running to win a movement as much as an election, and there’s no clearer sign of it than the liberal strongholds he’s visiting — Madison, Wisconsin; Minneapolis; Denver; Portland, Maine.

“The news of large crowds manages to make its way to people, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire,” said senior Sanders adviser Tad Devine. “It’s demonstrating that the message Bernie is delivering is connecting with a large audience.”

The idea is to barnstorm the nation’s most progressive cities in the hopes of attracting field organizers, small-dollar donors and, most importantly, the kind of media attention that insurgent candidates are typically starved for.
I decided to look a little deeper into the polling and found something interesting that I haven't seen anyone comment about. In the Quinnipiac poll of Iowa caucus-goers, 52% support Hillary Clinton and 33% support Bernie Sanders. But it's interesting to note who comes in third...Joe Biden with 7%.

There was some buzz last week about the possibility of VP Biden getting into the race. But I think it's important to note that it came from an article in the conservative Washington Times. An article in Politico yesterday showed how most of that came from people who have had no contact with Biden or his inner circle.

I personally doubt the Vice President will get into this race. But in some ways, that's beside the point right now. Even with no announcement or campaign operation, Joe Biden is coming in third in Iowa. In the Quinnipiac poll, he draws on the same group of supporters that Clinton does. A breakdown by ideology shows that Sanders actually beats Clinton (47/43) with those who identify as "very liberal." But among "moderate/conservative" Democrats, Clinton wins big (60/17) with an additional 11% preferring Biden.

We see much the same thing (only more so) in national polls. The Huffington Post aggregator shows the race this way:

Clinton - 58%
Sanders - 15%
Biden - 12%

And at Real Clear Politics, Biden actually comes in second.

Clinton - 63%
Biden - 13.5%
Sanders - 12.7%

A comparison of two individual polls shows what might happen in Biden doesn't run. The latest CNN poll includes Biden and shows this result:

Clinton - 58%
Biden - 17%
Sanders - 15%

But NBC/WSJ's latest did not.

Clinton - 75%
Sanders - 15%

What all of this suggests is that, in order for Bernie-mania to gain traction, his supporters should really be hoping that VP Biden decides to run. It's the only way he has a chance of getting anywhere close to Clinton's numbers.

But the national polls also show one other major problem for Sanders. In reporting their latest national poll, PPP summed it up this way:
Clinton continues to be dominant nationally with every segment of the Democratic electorate- she's over 60% with liberals, moderates, women, men, Hispanics, whites, and voters in every age group and she's polling at 83% with African Americans. The lack of racial diversity in New Hampshire [and Iowa] is one reason Sanders is coming closer to her there given her dominance with black voters nationally.
Sanders will have to dominate in both Iowa and New Hampshire as he heads into primaries like South Carolina - where the Democratic base is much more diverse. Hillary Clinton has made it clear that she is running a campaign to address the issues that are important to what we've come to call the "Obama coalition." Bernie Sander's appeal is still primarily with white voters. He also doesn't do as well with women. In order to be competitive over the long run, he'll have to close those gaps.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Fox Fail

If you click on this link you'll find a video of Condoleezza Rice (piano) and Jenny Oaks Baker (violin) playing a rendition of Amazing Grace. Notice that it was just released today.

And if you click on this link, you'll find a clip from Fox and Friends this morning playing that video and oogling over how wonderful it is. Never once did they mention the role that song played in President Obama's eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney last week. Can you say A-W-K-W-A-R-D?

The whole thing is either the very worst timing in the history of music or an incredibly crude example of "me-tooism."

I report...you decide.

Perfect Timing for the New Overtime Rule

The June jobs report (223,000 jobs added and unemployment rate down to 5.3%) extends the longest period of private sector job growth in our country's history.

But there are two things that are causing concern. First of all, the labor force participation rate (LFPR) dropped 0.3 percentage points to 62.6%. As I've written before, it is important to keep in mind that there are several factors that affect this number:

1. The increasing number of baby boomers who are retiring
2. The increasing number of high school graduates who are going directly to college
3. The number of people who find it difficult to get a job because of a criminal record

I haven't seen anyone attempt to quantify this, but it would also be interesting to find out the number of people who are voluntarily leaving the job market for early retirement (or other reasons) because Obamacare has made that a viable alternative. That might also be a factor.

Finally Betsey Stevenson, a member of the Council of Economic Advisors, points out that the change in LFPR might be credited to something as simple as the fact that the survey tracking it was distributed earlier than normal last month.

Taking all that into consideration, the big focus on the LFPR drop is probably over-heated. Of all the potential explanations, the one that should spur us to action is the need for passage of something like the REDEEM Act, which would allow non-violent offenders to have their criminal records expunged.

The other cause for concern in the jobs report is much more significant - little to no increase in wages. That's why this is the perfect time for President Obama's new overtime rule. In the best case scenario, people who are working overtime but not getting paid for it would get a big pay increase.

Republicans who are criticizing the new rule suggest that it will mean fewer jobs. That is completely counter-intuitive. What many employers are likely to do is hire more employees in order to avoid paying overtime. That means more jobs, not fewer.

But here's where the timing is important. We are now at or near what economists consider "full employment." If the new overtime rule had been implemented during a time of high unemployment, businesses would have likely hired those new employees at lower wages - thereby actually depressing wage growth. That is highly unlikely now.

Due to federal regulations regarding the need for public comment on these kinds of changes, the new overtime rule won't go into affect until next year. When it does, employers will have two choices, (1) give existing employees a raise via overtime pay, or (2) hire more employees. Either way it's a win for workers.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Photo of the Day: #AskPOTUS

We've come a long way from FDR's fireside chats.


Here's @POTUS today doing a twitter Q & A hashtag #AskPOTUS using a bluetooth connected keyboard with his iPad (if you don't understand what that means, ask your granddaughter).

Initial Steps in Building a Feminist Foreign Policy

A few months ago I wrote about our need for a feminist foreign policy. At the time, I quoted this from an article by Jenny Nordberg about Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom.
Wallstrom also cites a growing body of research showing that women’s security is directly related to both national and international security. In the 2012 book “Sex and World Peace” a team of four researchers (Valerie M. Hudson, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Mary Caprioli, and Chad F. Emmett) present data indicating that the more violent a state and its citizens are toward women, the more violent that state is likely to be over all, both internally and in its dealings with outside world. “In fact, the very best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is not its level of wealth, its level of democracy, or its ethno-religious identity; the best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is how well its women are treated,” Hudson wrote in a piece for Foreign Policy.
So you can imagine my interest in a headline like this: Women and Countering Violent Extremism. It is about a forum being sponsored this month by the United States Institute of Peace.
Women worldwide suffer disproportionately from violent extremism and conflict. Women’s key roles in society put them in ideal positions to prevent extremist violence. Yet, 15 years after the United Nations Security Council vowed to reverse the broad exclusion of women from leadership in security and peacebuilding, they remain marginalized. On July 21 at USIP, experts from civil society, the United Nations, academia, and the U.S. government will discuss ways to include women in efforts to counter violent extremism. The debate will directly inform U.S. government officials preparing for major international conferences on these issues this fall.
I had never heard of the United States Institute of Peace. My first thought was that it sounded like what Dennis Kucinich used to say we needed. But it actually began in 1984 on the recommendation of a commission appointed by President Jimmy Carter. The enabling legislation defined is purpose:
To serve the American people and the federal government through the widest possible range of education and training, basic and applied research opportunities, and peace information services on the means to promote international peace and the resolution of conflicts among the nations and peoples of the world without recourse to violence.
What I found even more interesting is that current board members include Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.

It will be interesting to see what comes out of forums and conferences on this topic. But overall I am encouraged to see the discussion being promoted by people/groups like this.

Can We Agree to Disagree?

Brent Budowsky has written the ultimate version of "disappointed" liberals being alienated by President Obama and how that could spell doom for the Democratic Party in 2016. Ed Kilgore did an excellent job of dismantling that argument with data. But I'd like to take it a step further.

Budowsky bases his argument mainly on the disagreement the President recently had with a lot of Democrats over trade legislation. But he suggests that it went beyond a disagreement.
It was political malpractice for Obama to have spent a month dishing personal and political insults against prominent liberal Democrats, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), organized labor and liberals across America during the trade debate. 
This is a narrative that gathered a lot of momentum a few weeks ago and largely went unchallenged. I think that's because we don't pay enough attention to the difference between political disagreements and personal insults. From what I saw, President Obama disagreed with Sen. Warren about TPP. But I'd challenge the notion that he engaged in personal attacks against her.

The exchange most often used as an example of President Obama attacking Sen. Warren is his interview with Matt Bai. Yes, the President said she was "wrong." But that hardly counts as personal attack. It's pretty much what you'd assume someone thinks when they disagree.

The one thing from that interview that is most commonly cited as a personal insult is when Obama said this:
The truth of the matter is that Elizabeth is, you know, a politician like everybody else. And you know, she’s got a voice that she wants to get out there. And I understand that.
On the face of it, that is simply a true statement...Sen. Warren is a politician. But true statements can be used as a subtle form of personal insult. So after hearing people interpret this one that way, I went back and watched the video again to get the context.

What is completely ironic is that President Obama made that statement in response to Bai saying this about the arguments Warren was making: "It's getting personal, though, isn't it?" The President responded by basically saying, "No, its not personal, Elizabeth is a politician." He was doing the exact opposite of how it's been characterized in making an attempt to take it out of the personal realm. Was it an in-artful attempt? Perhaps. But his intention was to refute the idea that the disagreement between he and Senator Warren was personal.

I actually think that both Senator Warren and President Obama deserve kudos for handling this disagreement respectfully. That's exactly what the President talked about in his last State of the Union speech when he urged us to engage in a "better politics."
A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears. A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues and values, and principles and facts, rather than “gotcha” moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people’s daily lives...

If we’re going to have arguments, let’s have arguments, but let’s make them debates worthy of this body and worthy of this country.
As liberals, we should recognize the difference between disagreements and personal insults. We belong to a party with a variety of views and perspectives. Robust arguments over our differences are something to embrace. To see that as insulting only weakens our position. We should be able to agree to disagree.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Teamwork on the Supreme Court

Now that the current term is over for the Supreme Court, analysts are digging into the record to draw conclusions about what happened. In a fascinating analysis, Adam Liptak writes: Supreme Court Tacks Left, With Push from Disciplined Liberals.
The stunning series of liberal decisions delivered by the Supreme Court this term was the product of discipline on the left side of the court and disarray on the right.

In case after case, including blockbusters on same-sex marriage and President Obama’s health care law, the court’s four-member liberal wing, all appointed by Democratic presidents, managed to pick off one or more votes from the court’s five conservative justices, all appointed by Republicans.

They did this in large part through rigorous bloc voting, making the term that concluded Monday the most liberal one since the Warren court in the late 1960s, according to two political-science measurements of court voting data.

“The most interesting thing about this term is the acceleration of a long-term trend of disagreement among the Republican-appointed judges, while the Democratic-appointed judges continue to march in lock step,” said Eric Posner, a law professor at the University of Chicago.
For example, this session there were 19 SCOTUS decisions that were decided 5/4. In 10 of those, the four liberals voted together and were joined by one conservative. In contrast, the conservatives only voted together 5 times.

Ian Millhiser suggests that the problem for the conservative justices is that they "represent three - and possibly as many as five - distinct versions of judicial conservatism."

* The Ideologue - Clarence Thomas
* The Partisan - Samuel Alito
* The Reaganite - John Roberts

He points out that Scalia purports to be an "originalist" (like Thomas), but mostly votes as a partisan. And he can't seem to find a way to characterize Kennedy.

Liptak credits the cohesion among the liberal justices to the leadership of Justice Ginsberg. But I'm also interested in how they managed to pretty consistently pick off one of the conservative justices to vote with them. I was reminded of something Adam Winkler wrote about Elena Kagan almost 2 years ago. He described her as a justice in the mold of Earl Warren.
Warren didn’t accomplish these by embarrassing his colleagues or by making sharper arguments on the merits. Warren was a master politician, one who’d sit with the other justices and bring them along slowly and steadily to his side. He sought to understand other justices’ concerns and address them. Unlike most of today’s justices, Warren was willing to work the halls to gain five votes.
He says this about why Kagan was chosen to be the dean of Harvard's Law School:
She was seen as someone who could bring together a faculty known for ideological and personal divisions that institutionally hobbled the law school, especially when it came to hiring. As dean from 2003 to 2009, she calmed faculty tensions, launched an aggressive hiring spree that netted 32 new professors, and earned praise from both left and right.
I remember that some liberals opposed Elena Kagan's nomination. But it strikes me that President Obama would see "bridge-builder" as a necessary role for someone to play on the Supreme Court. It's exactly how people describe his tenure as President of the Harvard Law Review.

If that's the case, here's what we know about the 3 women on the Supreme Court: the senior member is Ruth Bader Ginsberg - the Notorious RBG - tiny woman who throws quite a punch. Then there's my hero - Sonia Sotomayor, the wise Latina with a heart as big as they come. And finally, there's Elena Kagan, the bridge-builder. What a team!

Monday, June 29, 2015

From "Lame Duck" to "Fourth Quarter"

It seems to me that the job of political scientists is to identify patterns in political history as a way to predict the future. One of those patterns that has been pretty generally accepted is that once a presidential campaign begins to replace a second-termer, the White House occupant goes into "lame duck" status. That is certainly what everyone was expecting from President Obama after the huge losses Democrats suffered in the 2014 midterms.

But as we all know by now, the President decided he'd start a new pattern...one that saw his remaining two years as a "fourth quarter" in which he vowed to play to the end. His success in being able to do that hinged on several factors.

1. A scandal-free presidency

During my lifetime, no two-term president has managed to escape the drag of either scandal or terribly flawed policies at the end of their second term. Johnson had Vietnam. Nixon had Watergate. Reagan had Iran/Contra. Clinton had impeachment. Bush had torture, the war in Iraq and the Great Recession.

Recently David Brooks noted that the current administration is the exception to that pattern.
I have my disagreements, say, with President Obama, but President Obama has run an amazingly scandal-free administration, not only he himself, but the people around him. He’s chosen people who have been pretty scandal-free.
That means that not only does the President maintain the good will of most Americans, but he doesn't have to devote an inordinate amount of time to defending himself or attempting to fix policy failures.

2. Previous work is bearing fruit

Last December President Obama sat down for an interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep. In response to questions about some of the bold moves he'd already taken since the 2014 midterms, the President said this:
But at the end of 2014, I could look back and say we are as well-positioned today as we have been in quite some time economically, that American leadership is more needed around the world than ever before — and that is liberating in the sense that a lot of the work that we've done is now beginning to bear fruit. And it gives me an opportunity then to start focusing on some of the other hard challenges that I didn't always have the time or the capacity to get to earlier in my presidency.
The major things he is referring to are that the economy was recovering, healthcare reform was working and ground troops were out of both Iraq and Afghanistan. But in addition to all that, diplomacy had opened the doors in Cuba, brought Iran to the negotiating table over their nuclear program and led to an agreement with China about climate change.

3. Pen and phone strategy

A lot of the assumption about President Obama's pending lame duckness had to do with the intransigence of Congress that was only bolstered by the 2014 midterms. But in January of 2014, the President instructed his Cabinet to bring him ideas he could implement via executive order or through persuasion with business leaders and local/state governments. Thus began his "pen and phone" strategy that led to everything from DAPA to new rules for overtime pay to working with local governments to provide paid sick/family leave.

4. Big events

Political pundits are often guilty of assuming that whatever is happening today will be a permanent narrative. But national/international events have a way of changing the current dynamic. Nowhere has that been more evident than the handwringing over President Obama's assumed irrelevance when House Democrats handed him a "humiliating" defeat on TPA a couple of weeks ago. We all know how that one turned out. Just as the House and Senate re-grouped to pass TPA, the events in Charleston, SC were unfolding and the Supreme Court was preparing to hand down rulings affirming Obamacare and marriage equality. As Michael Cohen wrote, we've recently been witness to Ten Days that Turned America Into a Better Place. From an affirmation of his policies to his Amazing Grace eulogy, President Obama has been front and center on it all.

But big events can help or hurt a presidency. The lesson we should all learn from their recent trajectory is that things can change in a heartbeat. President Obama still has a year and a half to go. There are a few things we know are coming up, like whether or not he is able to work with Iran and P5+1 to reach a deal on nuclear weapons. This December we'll learn whether or not the agreements the Obama administration has crafted with countries like China and India will lead to an international agreement on climate change at the UN Conference in Paris. Both of those would be historic achievements. And then, of course, there are the unknown events that could be on the horizon.

This may very well be the first time in the modern era that a sitting president has as much influence on a presidential campaign as any of the candidates who are running for office. The increasing size of the clown car on the Republican side means that it might be months before any one candidate is able to break through all the noise. That leaves the stage pretty wide open for a Democratic message. And Hillary Clinton has wisely chosen to run with President Obama and his record rather than against it. That means she's looking pretty good right about now.

Whatever happens, this will be one for the history books as lame duckness is tossed aside and President Obama plays through to the end of the fourth quarter.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Photo of the Day: Fearless

I don't know about you, but I've shed a lot of tears over the last 10 days. Some have been tears of grief and some of joy. It's hard to miss that we're going through a great historical moment in this country.

And so I wanted to mark this occasion with a few important words that have been written about it.

Inside Obama's "Amazing Grace" Moment by Joshua DuBois

Obama's Grace by James Fallows

Understanding Obama in the Fourth Quarter by Dan Pfeiffer

The Time Has Come to Recognize President Obama's Game-Changing Liberal Legacy by Gregory
Krieg

Ten Days in June by David Remnick

Barack Obama is officially one of the most consequential presidents in American history by Dylan Matthews

Ten Days That Turned America Into a Better Place by Michael Cohen

The theme, of course, is that we have been led both to and through these last 10 days by a great man...one who has been fearless.

President Obama on Patriotism and Faith

For over seven years now, Republicans have fueled the racism of their base by claiming that our first African American president was neither patriotic nor Christian. On the other hand, a group of what some call "blackademics" have claimed that he wasn't "black enough."

I would like to point out to both groups that President Obama articulated his patriotism at the 50th anniversary celebration of the Selma march and gave voice to his Christian beliefs in his eulogy at one of the original Black churches in this country after its minister was gunned down in an act of racial hatred.

Some have already noted how the President talked about patriotism and love of country at Selma.
What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?

That’s why Selma is not some outlier in the American experience. That’s why it’s not a museum or a static monument to behold from a distance. It is instead the manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents: “We the People…in order to form a more perfect union.” “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”...

Fellow marchers, so much has changed in 50 years. We have endured war and we’ve fashioned peace. We’ve seen technological wonders that touch every aspect of our lives. We take for granted conveniences that our parents could have scarcely imagined. But what has not changed is the imperative of citizenship; that willingness of a 26-year-old deacon, or a Unitarian minister, or a young mother of five to decide they loved this country so much that they’d risk everything to realize its promise.

That’s what it means to love America. That’s what it means to believe in America. 
Do you see what he did there? He said that those who fought against racism and Jim Crow demonstrated what it means to be patriotic. At one point, he expanded on that and gave a diverse list of other examples. But on that day, he put the Civil Rights Movement at the center of what it means to love one's country.

Of course nothing in our Constitution requires that a president be a Christian. But it just so happens that our current one is. The attempts to paint him as "other" (usually Muslim) are efforts to elicit fear. In his eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, President Obama put his Christian faith - and the African American church - at the center of his message about grace.

First of all, he gave an eloquent history about the meaning of church in the African American community.
To the families of the fallen, the nation shares in your grief. Our pain cuts that much deeper because it happened in a church. The church is and always has been the center of African-American life -- a place to call our own in a too often hostile world, a sanctuary from so many hardships.

Over the course of centuries, black churches served as “hush harbors” where slaves could worship in safety; praise houses where their free descendants could gather and shout hallelujah -- rest stops for the weary along the Underground Railroad; bunkers for the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement. They have been, and continue to be, community centers where we organize for jobs and justice; places of scholarship and network; places where children are loved and fed and kept out of harm’s way, and told that they are beautiful and smart -- and taught that they matter. That’s what happens in church.
And then he grounded his next remarks in what might be the one song that could be called the Anthem of Christianity - Amazing Grace.
This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace. The grace of the families who lost loved ones. The grace that Reverend Pinckney would preach about in his sermons. The grace described in one of my favorite hymnals -- the one we all know: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind but now I see...

Removing the flag from this state’s capitol would not be an act of political correctness; it would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought -- the cause of slavery -- was wrong -- the imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong...By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace.

But I don't think God wants us to stop there. For too long, we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present. Perhaps we see that now. Perhaps this tragedy causes us to ask some tough questions about how we can permit so many of our children to languish in poverty, or attend dilapidated schools, or grow up without prospects for a job or for a career.

Perhaps it causes us to examine what we’re doing to cause some of our children to hate. Perhaps it softens hearts towards those lost young men, tens and tens of thousands caught up in the criminal justice system and leads us to make sure that that system is not infected with bias; that we embrace changes in how we train and equip our police so that the bonds of trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve make us all safer and more secure.

Maybe we now realize the way racial bias can infect us even when we don't realize it, so that we're guarding against not just racial slurs, but we're also guarding against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal. So that we search our hearts when we consider laws to make it harder for some of our fellow citizens to vote. By recognizing our common humanity by treating every child as important, regardless of the color of their skin or the station into which they were born, and to do what’s necessary to make opportunity real for every American -- by doing that, we express God’s grace.

For too long, we’ve been blind to the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation. Sporadically, our eyes are open: When eight of our brothers and sisters are cut down in a church basement, 12 in a movie theater, 26 in an elementary school. But I hope we also see the 30 precious lives cut short by gun violence in this country every single day; the countless more whose lives are forever changed -- the survivors crippled, the children traumatized and fearful every day as they walk to school, the husband who will never feel his wife’s warm touch, the entire communities whose grief overflows every time they have to watch what happened to them happen to some other place.

The vast majority of Americans -- the majority of gun owners -- want to do something about this. We see that now. And I'm convinced that by acknowledging the pain and loss of others, even as we respect the traditions and ways of life that make up this beloved country -- by making the moral choice to change, we express God’s grace.

We don’t earn grace. We're all sinners. We don't deserve it. But God gives it to us anyway. And we choose how to receive it. It's our decision how to honor it.
I wanted to quote that lengthy passage because what the President did was outline what might be called "the civil rights issues of our time." As a country, we've been blind to racism. But perhaps, because of God's grace, now we can see.

And so, over the last few months, we've seen President Obama's powerful answers to those who have questioned his patriotism and faith...questions that were designed to invalidate him via racism. He has done so as in a way that is grounded in his own experience as an African American.

All of that makes me think of one of the four critical steps of the Aikido way: "You must enter the very center of the conflict." In other words, rather than avoid the racist implications of those questions and attempt to make white people comfortable with his answers, the President stepped right into the center of the allegations and responded by saying that he is both patriotic and a man of faith BECAUSE he is African American. That is a unique gift that Barack Hussein Obama has given this country.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Hate Won't Win

Wow - yesterday was such an emotionally powerful day! I remember reading my twitter timeline late in the morning as some folks were struggling with the desire to celebrate the SCOTUS ruling making marriage equality the law of the land - and yet preparing themselves for the home-going service of a minister/public servant who had been gunned down by a white racist. And then came the amazing sermon by our Rev. President Barack Obama. OH MY!!!!!

The juxtaposition of these two long struggles for equality in our country reminded me of another day when the two came face-to-face. On November 4, 2008 this country elected our first African American president. But on that same day, California said "yes" to Proposition 8 - a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. I will never forget what terrance - a black gay man - wrote in response.
It has been a strange couple of weeks. Just last week, I saw something that I never thought I’d see in my lifetime, and felt like I was witnessing it for all my ancestors who didn’t live to see a hope fulfilled. But — with a “twoness of being” that DuBois probably didn’t imagine when he coined the term — it was a deeply conflicted moment.

As a Black man, in that moment I felt like more of an American than I ever had before, like a barrier to full citizenship and belonging had been raised. As a gay man with a husband and a family, however, I ended up feeling like less of an American than I ever had before; divorced from the celebrating and even the historic significance of the moment by a barrier to citizenship and belonging that fell more firmly into place even as another one was lifted.
It was through terrance's words that day that I gained a whole new appreciation of what we mean when we talk about "intersectionality." While a lot of people slice and dice these issues up and ask us to pick sides, the lines that we assume divide us sometimes run through the actual bodies of human beings.

Watching these two movements for equality once again intersect yesterday was a powerful reminder of history teaching us that the struggle is never over and giving up is not an option. Who would have thought that 6 1/2 years after Prop 8, marriage equality would be the law of the land? And while we all knew that the election of Barack Obama didn't mean that this country was finally post-racial, who knew that it would lead to such an explosion of hate?

And so today I'm once again thinking about something Michelle Obama said about her husband - our President - a few years ago.
Here's the thing about my husband: even in the toughest moments, when it seems like all is lost, Barack Obama never loses sight of the end goal. He never lets himself get distracted by the chatter and the noise, even if it comes from some of his best supporters. He just keeps moving forward.

And in those moments when we're all sweating it, when we're worried that the bill won't pass or the negotiation will fall through, Barack always reminds me that we're playing a long game here. He reminds me that change is slow — it doesn't happen overnight.

If we keep showing up, if we keep fighting the good fight and doing what we know is right, then eventually we will get there.

We always have.
In other words, as long as we continue to show up:

Friday, June 26, 2015

Was Blind, But Now I See

It's hard to avoid feelings of despair when a 12 year-old black boy is gunned down by a Cleveland police officer for playing with a toy gun and yet people continue in their denial that racism was a factor. That kind of thing has been happening on a regular basis these last few months. It was getting difficult to maintain any hope that things could change.

But then last week a young white man who was filled with hate gunned down nine black people in their church. The explicit nature of the racism was too difficult to ignore. That's why the tears started to flow for me at this point in Reverend President Barack Obama's eulogy today.
We do not know whether the killer of Reverend Pinckney and eight others knew all of this history. But he surely sensed the meaning of his violent act. It was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random, but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress. An act that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination; violence and suspicion. An act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin.

Oh, but God works in mysterious ways. God has different ideas.

He didn’t know he was being used by God. Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group -- the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle. The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court -- in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness. He couldn’t imagine that.

The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston, under the good and wise leadership of Mayor Riley -- how the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond -- not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.

Blinded by hatred, he failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood -- the power of God’s grace.

This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace. The grace of the families who lost loved ones. The grace that Reverend Pinckney would preach about in his sermons. The grace described in one of my favorite hymnals -- the one we all know: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind but now I see.

According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God -- as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Grace.

As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves. We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other -- but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.
Our Reverend President knows - like many of us have felt - that over the last week and a half this country has been facing a potential turning point. It's not that we'll cure all of our ills in one fell swoop. But what we make of this particular moment will form the trajectory of our future. Today he went all in on a bet that we'll absorb the amazing grace that allows us to let go of our blindness and find our best selves. He was even willing to go out on a limb and ask us to sing along with him...

Photo of the Day: Equality Wins!

To commemorate the historic decision from the Supreme Court today: Equality wins!


From Justice Kennedy's ruling:
No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed.

It is so ordered.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

President Obama and Risk-Taking

One of the critiques of President Obama that has some merit is that he is pretty risk-averse. He doesn't take a lot of chances on things that might prove to be failures. For example, the President has been very clear about the fact that he would have preferred a single payer health insurance system. But he knew that the chances for failure with that were way too high (see: Vermont) and so he went for a more modest change to our current system with Obamacare.

The one time I can think of that the President took a big risk that didn't pay off was when he attempted to negotiate a Grand Bargain with Speaker John Boehner. That one failed. But I also think that after all his talk of wanting to engage in bipartisan reform, he had to at least give it a go or prove himself to be yet another politician made of empty promises.

I suspect that Obama's risk-aversion is tied to his competitive desire to win. We've gotten a pretty big taste of that this week with the SCOTUS Obamacare decision and (even more so) with Congressional approval of TPA. The President tends to take risks when he has pretty well gamed out how to win. I'm reminded of this quote from Steven Waldman:
One can debate the extent to which these achievements happened because of Obama’s skills or his timing. I think his long view, maturity, and pitch-perfect sense of when to take the big risk (e.g., jamming through Obamacare after the Scott Brown election; invading Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden) were major factors.
That "pitch-perfect sense of when to take the big risk" is the reason President Obama almost always wins when he engages on something 100%. His opponents would do well to remember that.