Sunday, April 20, 2014

What makes President Obama so divisive?

Bernard Goldberg sums up a lot of conservative thinking these days by suggesting that President Obama is stoking resentments. He points to the President's speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention where he captured our attention by saying, “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America. There is a United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America, a Latino America, an Asian America, There is a United States of America.” But then Goldberg asserts:
I suspect he meant that we could all achieve this wonderful, post-partisan, can’t-we-all-just-get-along America if – but only if – Republicans saw things the way he does; only if conservatives jumped on his liberal bandwagon and helped him “fundamentally transform the United States of America” — the way he thought it should be transformed.
Lets examine the record for a moment, shall we? Here's what President Obama's "liberal bandwagon" looks like:
  • Health care reform that was originally designed by the Heritage Foundation and implemented in Massachusetts by a Republican governor who was the party's last presidential nominee,
  • A 60% reduction of the budget deficit via spending cuts and increased taxes on the wealthy,
  • An attempt to reach a Grand Bargain with Republicans on the federal budget that would have traded reforms of entitlements for increased revenue (closing tax loopholes for the wealthy),
  • Proposed spending on infrastructure,
  • A proposal to institute background checks on all gun purchases and reinstating a ban on assault weapons,
  • Resisting attempts at voter suppression,
  • Supporting an extension of unemployment insurance,
  • Supporting the idea that women should be paid the same as men for the same job,
  • Proposing that the minimum wage should be raised to keep up with inflation,
  • Supporting comprehensive immigration reform that would include enhanced border security and a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented workers.
Most of those items have typically had Republican support in the past. And the list should surprise no one who has understood what Democrats stand for. I'd hardly call it divisive. Its the kind of thing the two parties have been agreeing/disagreeing about for decades. IOW, its American politics.

This is what makes many of us scratch our heads and wonder why - at this point in history - the Republicans resorted to a strategy of total obstruction. Even when President Obama was willing to take on the wrath of many in his own party to consider the idea of implementing chained-CPI, the Republicans walked away from a Grand Bargain on the federal budget.  When President Clinton was willing to negotiate about welfare reform, Republicans took him up on it and then crowed for years about their victory. Not so this time.

In the end, I'd suggest that what drives the Republican's obstruction right now is that its a power play. Its not so much about the policy as it is an attempt to win a battle against their opponent. As Sen. McConnell said during Obama's first term - their number one goal was to ensure he was a one-term president.

Under other circumstances that kind of naked power play wouldn't sit too well with voters - especially those who would benefit from the policies they are obstructing. But there is one thing that is different about this President that hasn't been in the cards before...the thing they could exploit to create fear and suspicion about the man rather than his actual policies. That's where the legacy of racism in this country comes in. Its about divide and conquer - always has been.

At this point, my problem with the Republican Party isn't so much about their policies (at least as they've been articulated in the past). We're finding out that the Heritage Foundation's proposal for health care reform isn't so bad after all and a reduced federal deficit can give us the opportunity to better define our priorities for spending. There are lots of other examples where President Obama has shown his willingness to be open to traditional Republican ideas.

But it is this exploitation of fear and suspicion that is fueling our divisiveness. It is the root of the problem we face right now. President Obama is doing his part to tackle that one. The rest is on us. I'd suggest that we listen to him and take his advice.
I firmly believe that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, or oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose. A polarized electorate that is turned off of politics, and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate, works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate...

Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Who was the actual "Deporter-in-Chief?"

People have been throwing lots of numbers around to compare the records of Presidents Bush and Obama when it comes to deporting undocumented workers. Nora Caplan-Bricker has done the best job I've seen of helping to clear up the confusion.  It can be summed up with this chart.

The blue part of the graph (removals) represents those who have been deported as a result of a court appearance and the red part (returns) are those who were simply returned to their home country without a court hearing (what the Bush administration so disrespectfully called "catch and release"). What you can see is that the number of "removals" has gone up - but the number of "returns" has gone down dramatically.

What strikes me immediately is the question: which is more in keeping with our legal standards - to simply send someone back without access to a judicial hearing, or to allow them their day in court? Its not surprising that our President's history with constitutional law would mean an emphasis on the latter.

But its true that there have been some consequences to that change. As many have pointed out - those who go through the court system have a criminal record as a result. With the administration's emphasis on deporting those with such records, some undocumented workers are being deported with that as their sole offense. It reminds me what Professor Obama's law students said was his emphasis when teaching:
But as a professor, students say, Mr. Obama was in the business of complication, showing that even the best-reasoned rules have unintended consequences, that competing legal interests cannot always be resolved, that a rule that promotes justice in one case can be unfair in the next.
The best way to clear this up of course, would be to pass comprehensive immigration reform containing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers. That's what President Obama and the Democrats in Congress have been working on. Any attempt to solve this via executive order would have meant the sure death of that solution.

But Republicans have engaged in their usually obstruction. And so they have been given an ultimatum: either pass comprehensive immigration reform by this summer, or President Obama will do what needs to be done on his own. That's where things stand at this moment.

All of this reminds me of another way President Obama's record on deportations varies greatly with that of his predecessor. Back in 2008, those of us who were paying attention were appalled at what the Bush administration did in Postville, Iowa. If you want to remind yourselves of how completely they subverted our constitutional principles, go meander around that link for awhile. Or listen to a real whistleblower recount what he saw that day.

The 400 workers who were rounded up at that plant were charged - not simply with being undocumented - but with social security fraud and aggravated identity theft. With limited access to legal counsel in rushed on-the-spot proceedings, many of them didn't understand what was happening to them.

Of course there were other instances of the same kind of thing. A few months later there was a raid on a factory in Laurel, Mississippi. Particularly appalling was that the 600 workers who were rounded up in that one were sorted by race in order to determine who to investigate and who to release.

I'll join with anyone who is working towards improving the situation of the 11 million undocumented workers who live in the shadows in this country. But given the history, I'll be DAMNED if I'll stay quiet when anyone suggests that President Obama has a worse record on this than GWB!!!!

When obstruction meets pragmatism

Those posters highlight just a few facts about the success of Obamacare. You can find a lot more here.

All of that creates a pretty big dilemma for Republicans who - from day one of the debate about health care reform - have chosen to simply obstruct anything President Obama and the Democrats tried to do. As David Frum told them 4 years ago, by refusing to even participate in the discussion, they were buying into creating their own Waterloo.
No illusions please: This bill will not be repealed. Even if Republicans scored a 1994 style landslide in November, how many votes could we muster to re-open the “doughnut hole” and charge seniors more for prescription drugs? How many votes to re-allow insurers to rescind policies when they discover a pre-existing condition? How many votes to banish 25 year olds from their parents’ insurance coverage? And even if the votes were there – would President Obama sign such a repeal?

We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat.
Of course it was that kind of pragmatic talk that got Frum kicked out of the Republican tribe.

After Obamacare passed, the Republican mantra became "Repeal and Replace." The trouble is, they never got around to the "Replace" part. And now that its working for millions of Americans, they have a problem. As one Republican aid told Sahil Kapur:
As far as repeal and replace goes, the problem with replace is that if you really want people to have these new benefits, it looks a hell of a lot like the Affordable Care Act. ... To make something like that work, you have to move in the direction of the ACA.
Yesterday President Obama said, "This thing is working." That's what happens when you build a policy on pragmatism. Where does that leave the Republicans? Brian Beutler points out that The Republican Position on Obamacare Makes No Sense Anymore. Because nobody believes there is any GOP alternative to Obamacare.

It all reminds me of something Mark Schmitt wrote about President Obama's approach to creating change way back in 2007.
One way to deal with that kind of bad-faith opposition is to draw the person in, treat them as if they were operating in good faith, and draw them into a conversation about how they actually would solve the problem. If they have nothing, it shows. And that's not a tactic of bipartisan Washington idealists -- it's a hard-nosed tactic of community organizers, who are acutely aware of power and conflict.
Being pragmatic doesn't tend to get you the soundbite or linkbait that so often fuels our hysteria-driven media. But if you're willing to play the long game, it not only is an excellent strategy for boxing in the obstructionists.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Why Taibbi's brand of linkbait works

Perhaps by now you've heard that Matt Taibbi went on Democracy Now to promote his latest book and gin up that old emo meme about how President Obama is worse than Bush - this time its about not holding Wall Street accountable for the crimes that led to the Great Recession. So he managed to get our attention and probably sold a lot more of his books.

Taibbi and his pals at Democracy Now trot out all the inflammatory reasons for why the Obama administration didn't go after the perpetrators.
So, I mean, it’s—you have a whole bunch of people sort of at the top of the regulatory agencies, whether it’s Justice, the SEC, the CFTC, maybe the Enforcement Division of the SEC, who all came from these big banks or from law firms that represented these big banks. And it’s a very incestuous a result of this kind of merry-go-round of people who all work for the same companies—and they’re going to go to government for a while, then they’re going to go back to the corporate defense community after they leave and make millions of dollars—they’re very, very reluctant to be aggressive against these companies, because it’s their—culturally, they’re the same people as their targets...
Easy peasy argument to make, isn't it? Our government is in bed with Wall Street and that's why they let them off. Doesn't take much thought to connect the dots and goes right to our rage. Now we can all rail at how bad our government is and feed our cynicism.

In stark contrast to this approach is a long article by Jed Rakoff, United States District Judge for the Southern District of New York (someone who knows a thing or two about securities law and white collar crime). He thoroughly reviews every argument made for the lack of prosecutions (including the one made by Taibbi), discarding them all. Then he speculates about three of his own. The reason you probably haven't heard about it is that he makes intelligent and nuanced arguments. He's writing to educate, not inflame.

In case you are intrigued by what Rakoff has to say, here are his three reasons for the lack of prosecutions:
  1. After 2001, the FBI had reduced the number of prosecutors assigned to securities fraud and prioritized counter-terrosim, while the SEC was focused on Madoff-like ponzi schemes,
  2. The government was complicit in setting the stage for the securities fraud that led to the Great Recession (red meat for defense attorneys to exploit),
  3. For the past 30 years or more, there has been a shift away from prosecuting individuals and towards plea bargaining with corporations in an attempt to alter the culture of corruption that led to the crimes.
Whether or not Rakoff is right about any of these, I am much smarter for having read what he has to say. But there is no singular focus I can point to in blame and rage. IOW, no linkbait. 

Contrasting these two styles tells us a lot - not only about what is wrong with our media - but how we drive those failures. If we want it to change, we're going to have to start paying more attention to the kind of writing Rakoff has provided and less to Taibbi. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Not buying the hysteria or the cynicism

During his speech on voting rights a few days ago, President Obama said something that we should all take a minute to absorb.
If your strategy depends on having fewer people show up to vote, that’s not a sign of strength, that’s a sign of weakness.
Wait a minute! Did he just suggest that the Republican Party is weak? Yes mam, he sure did. But, you might ask, how can he say that when they've managed to obstruct almost everything he's tried to do for the last four years and the pundits are predicting bad news for Democrats in the 2014 midterms?

I'd suggest two reasons for it. First of all, you have to be someone who sees the long game in order to understand what he's saying. If you are addicted to the 24 hour hysteria-inducing media, you might miss it.

Interestingly enough, one person who has recently shown that he gets it is Markos at Daily Kos. His latest is titled: Liberalism has won, which is why conservatives do what they do. In it he points out that Republicans have basically lost their "culture wars" and that the rise of economic populism has the billionaires so scared they've taken to calling us Nazis. If you think of it in terms of the stages of grief, the current battles inside the Republican Party are between those who are in the denial stage (Sarah Palin), those in the anger stage (Ted Cruz) and those who are ready to bargain (Chamber of Commerce).

But Markos nails it when he points out that we've still got work to do.
We certainly have won the battle of ideas. But power isn't just about ideas. It's about wrestling the institutional levers of government from the retrogrades. Those entrenched economic and conservative interests wield power via the Supreme Court, through gross gerrymandering, through voter suppression efforts. So we've got a lot of work ahead of us.
That brings us to the second reason why President Obama defines the Republican Party as weak...he still believes in the democratic process.
James Chaney and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner believed so strongly that change was possible they were willing to lay down their lives for it. The least you can do is take them up on the gift that they have given you. Go out there and vote. You can make a change. You do have the power.
The cynics among us are suggesting the end of democracy - especially since the latest Supreme Court ruling on campaign financing. I have to admit that there have been times in my past that I've gone there. But that all changed for me on November 4, 2008. As President-Elect Barack Obama said that night:
If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.
The old cynic in me says that's corny. But the realist says that I had just watched a grassroots small donor-funded campaign beat both the establishment Democrats (in the primary) and Republicans (in the general election). Now we've seen it happen twice. The second time around, all the big money Karl Rove could put his hands on after Citizens United opened the floodgates couldn't defeat the will of the Obama coalition in the voting booth.

So as we watch the white male patriarchy lash out in its death throes and speculate about what that means for the future of the Republican Party, I'm not going to take my eyes off the prize by getting caught up in either hysteria or cynicism. That's because I can see the long game and I still believe in the democratic process. Here's what that looks like:
For now decisions are upon us and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years and 40 years and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Sweet Darkness

 Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you

by David Whyte

President Obama: Defending voting rights is a two-way street

On Friday President Obama gave an impassioned speech about voting rights. He promised that he and Attorney General Eric Holder will do what it takes to challenge the restrictions Republicans are attempting to put on those rights. President, I’m not going to let attacks on these rights go unchallenged. We’re not going to let voter suppression go unchallenged. So earlier this week, you heard from the Attorney General -- and there’s a reason the agency he runs is called the Department of Justice. They’ve taken on more than 100 voting rights cases since 2009, and they’ve defended the rights of everybody from African Americans to Spanish speakers to soldiers serving overseas.
And yes, he pointed out that its not Democrats who are attacking the franchise.
But it’s a fact this recent effort to restrict the vote has not been led by both parties -- it’s been led by the Republican Party. And in fairness, it’s not just Democrats who are concerned...I want a competitive Republican Party, just like a competitive Democratic Party. That’s how our democracy is supposed to work -- the competition of ideas. But I don’t want folks changing the rules to try to restrict people’s access to the ballot.

And I think responsible people, regardless of your party affiliation, should agree with that. If your strategy depends on having fewer people show up to vote, that’s not a sign of strength, that’s a sign of weakness.
But then he pointed out that there is an even bigger threat to our voting rights.
...the truth is that for all these laws that are being put in place, the biggest problem we have is people giving up their own power -- voluntarily not participating.

The number of people who voluntarily don't vote, who are eligible to vote, dwarfs whatever these laws are put in place might do in terms of diminishing the voting roles...

Like the three civil rights workers in Mississippi -- two white, one black -- who were murdered 50 years ago as they tried to help their fellow citizens register to vote. James Chaney and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner believed so strongly that change was possible they were willing to lay down their lives for it. The least you can do is take them up on the gift that they have given you. Go out there and vote. You can make a change. You do have the power.
Its not enough to get enraged at Republican attempts to restrict access to voting when so many Americans give it up willingly. President Obama has promised that he and his administration will do everything they can to ensure our right to vote. Its up to us to use it!

The problem with single payer

When President Obama was asked about why, during the debate about health care reform, he said "If you like your insurance you can keep it," he had an interesting response. He pointed out the fact that the status quo prior to reform was unacceptable, but that calls for things like single payer would be too disruptive. He took a middle ground that didn't upend the way all Americans get their health insurance - just those who's only choice was to buy it on the individual market.

You often hear the opposite when you talk to the proponents of single payer. Their claim is that the current system of private insurers is the problem and the least disruptive option would have been to insure everyone via something like Medicare for all.

Who's right? We're about to have a test case on that question. The entire country is in the midst of adjusting to Obamacare, so we're experiencing how disruptive that change will be. But there's one exception. The state of Vermont is currently working on putting together a single payer system. As Sarah Kliff recently wrote, its not as simple as it sounds.

In 2011, the Vermont legislature passed a law committing the state to single payer. But they left out one thing.
Now comes the big challenge: paying for it. Act 48 required Vermont to create a single-payer system by 2017. But the state hasn’t drafted a bill that spells out how to raise the approximately $2 billion a year Vermont needs to run the system. The state collects only $2.7 billion in tax revenue each year, so an additional $2 billion is a vexingly large sum to scrape together.
Its important to keep in mind that the $2 billion is already being spent for health insurance in Vermont. So its not necessarily "new" money that is needed for health care. Its that the government needs to find a way for the people spending it to send it to the state for single payer. That's the rub.

Other than government spending on health care via Medicare and Medicaid, health insurance costs are currently a patchwork of spending by employers and employees. The question becomes: how do you tax these entities in a way that covers the costs, is not disruptive to the economy and doesn't unduly burden anyone?

Four years after committing to single payer, Vermont's Governor Shumlin is still working on that.
"We haven’t figured this one out yet," Shumlin says. "Every time you think you have the answer, there are ten people who will point out the flaw with that particular answer. And they’re usually right."
When confronted with this question, the few single payer advocates who have actually addressed it suggest that we simply expand the payroll FICA tax that covers Medicare - which is paid by both employer and employee. That is certainly the most viable solution. But questions there abound as well. The portion of insurance currently covered by employers ranges from O% to 100%. Any fixed percentage payed in a FICA-like tax will result in employers/employees who line up as winners and losers. After that comes questions about how high the new tax will be and wrestling with the fact (at least for liberals) that FICA is the most regressive federal tax we pay.

So I've gone into the weeds with this one a bit. But its the kind of thing advocates of single payer need to wrestle with. Because when/if it ever becomes an actual option in the U.S., these are the political land mines that will blow up...immediately. That is what is happening in Vermont as we speak. Perhaps the best option is to simply watch and see how it goes there.

In the meantime - viva Obamacare!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Doctor is in

Its good to know these two guys are covered :-)

An open letter to my "disappointed" Democratic friends

Dear Disappointeds:

Back in 2010 you told us that you were disappointed in the President you helped elect. And because of that, you weren't motivated enough to vote in the midterms. While I don't share your disappointment, I want to say that I hear you.

Now we're facing another midterm election and we have the benefit of hindsight to tell us what changed as a result of your lack of enthusiasm.

Sure, you might have wanted single payer and a larger stimulus package. But you have to admit that Obamacare is doing an awful lot of good. And perhaps you should read Michael Grunwald's book The New New Deal to learn how the American Recovery Act was way more than many of us thought it was at the time. Of course the list of legislative accomplishments during those first two years goes beyond those two milestones to include things like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and an end to Don't Ask Don't Tell.

But since 2010, take a look at what has (or better yet, hasn't) happened. As President Obama said, we've witnessed the least productive Congress in modern history.

If you originally voted for President Obama because you wanted to see some changes, we were on that path prior to 2010. Its all come to a screeching halt since then.

Come November this year we're going to have an opportunity to decide whether we want more gridlock, government shutdowns, endless debates over repealing Obamacare and a political environment that feeds the Republican narrative by fueling cynicism, or whether we want a Congress that will work with President Obama to tackle what he believes is "the defining issue of our time."
I believe this is the defining challenge of our time: Making sure our economy works for every working American. It’s why I ran for President. It was at the center of last year’s campaign. It drives everything I do in this office. And I know I’ve raised this issue before, and some will ask why I raise the issue again right now. I do it because the outcomes of the debates we’re having right now -- whether it’s health care, or the budget, or reforming our housing and financial systems -- all these things will have real, practical implications for every American. And I am convinced that the decisions we make on these issues over the next few years will determine whether or not our children will grow up in an America where opportunity is real.
Its "gut check" time for all of us. I don't know about you, but after these last four years I'm actually psyched to get back to Democrats arguing with other Democrats over HOW MUCH change we want to see rather than being pissed at Republicans all the time for their total obstruction. There's a lot riding on this one. I hope we can all work together to make that happen.

Nancy LeTourneau

Why we can't have nice things

Fox News has a conversation about Race in America:

Republicans hold a hearing about women's reproductive health:

White House Press Corp criticizes the Obama administration for lack of diversity:

Nuff said...

Saturday, April 12, 2014

What we can learn from LBJ

We are right to honor President Lyndon Johnson on this 50th anniversary of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Its also fitting that we honor him for working so hard to pass the Voting Rights Act, launching things like Medicare/Medicaid and initiating the Great Society. That is a powerful progressive legacy. Perhaps its true, as Adam Serwer implies, that it took a racist white southerner to do all that in the 1960's.

But before we go wishing for a return to that kind of leadership - as some have done recently - lets also remember that the same heavy hand that accomplished all of that is the one who was driven out of seeking re-election by chants of "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?"

The same man who muscled legislation through Congress by doing things like giving Sen. Richard Ruseell "the treatment"... the one who lied to Congress about the Gulf of Tonkin in order to escalate the war in Vietnam.

An argument can be made that this is the kind of power that must be wielded in order to bring about the progressive change we witnessed in the 1960's. That is a discussion worth having. But we cannot afford to do that without taking into account the "dark side" of that kind of power. President Lyndon Johnson is a perfect example of that. He used the power of dominance for tremendous good and unconscionable evil. I would suggest that its very likely you don't get one without the other.

Friday, April 11, 2014

A coup in the GWB White House?

You won't find many liberals/Democrats who want to talk about this. We tend to be much more interested in vilifying the Bush administration than understanding what went on. But for a while now we've been seeing evidence that the George HW Bush realists implemented a coup inside the George W Bush White House sometime in 2006. I'm not going to try to guess at their motives or tactics, but it came right on the heels of the midterm election. The most public event that signaled the coup was the "resignation" of Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense.

And now, from the leaked report of the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation into the detention and interrogation practices (ie, torture) of the Bush administration, comes this:
The CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program ended by 2006 due to legal and oversight concerns, unauthorized press disclosures and reduced cooperation from other nations.
Its also true that by January 2007, the Bush administration stopped the NSA's warrantless surveillance program and started going to the FISA Court for approval.

Cheney/Rumsfeld/et al had their field day from 2001-2006. Then something changed. I'd love to hear more about the back story on that. But regardless, at some point even the Republican realists recognized that those folks had gone off the deep end.

When people suggest that President Obama is continuing some policies of the Bush administration, a correction is in order. That might apply to the policies of the post-coup Bush White House of 2007-2008. But definitely not its prior incarnation.

The Brothers and The Boss

The same guy who knocked it out of the park with this video is at it again.

Ask yourself who you know that needs to see this one. Then go share it.