Friday, November 18, 2011

Idiots’ Delight

Really now, with all the craziness coming out of the GOP field of candidates the last few months, I’m starting to wonder if I even need a separate Idiots’ Delight feature.  Seems not a day goes by that something idiotic doesn’t happen involving that group of half-witted presidential wannabes.  Sometimes I think I should just go ahead and change the title of my whole blog from The Spirit of a Progressive to Idiots’ Delight and be done with it.

And then, miraculously, someone steps forward and goes that extra mile, confirming my long-held belief in that most enduring of sayings: Patience truly is a virtue.  This month’s winner of the Idiots’ Delight award so outdistanced every other past winner that I am going on record right now in predicting that, barring a late entry even more absurd, he has first dibs on the yearly prize, so egregious was his fait accompli.  

So without further ado, let’s have at him.

Herman Cain.  It takes a certain amount of determination to rise to the top of any political opinion poll, especially a presidential one.  But give the Godfather Pizza man credit, rise he did.  Like a one-hit wonder from an old jukebox, Herman Cane shot up the charts to become the prohibitive favorite among Republican voters.  His 9-9-9 tax plan – flawed though it is – garnered him attention from the main-stream press and accolades from every-day people who connected on a visceral level with his simple and down to earth approach.   

And then it happened.  Herman Cain began to speak and not just in vague political speak; he started answering questions regarding important issues that a candidate for the highest office in the land should concern himself with and at least know a little bit about.  Forget the sexual harassment charges concerning him – funny they never seemed to derail Bill Clinton – it was Cain’s own words not his alleged sexual impropriety that has now become his worst enemy. 

They say in the advertising world that nothing kills a bad product better than good advertising.  If that’s true, Herman Cain is as good as dead.  The now famous “Libya interview” was about as embarrassing a display of ignorance as I have ever seen quite possibly in my entire lifetime.  Forget Gerald Ford’s insistence that Poland was not under the sphere of Soviet domination; forget Michele Bachmann not knowing that the Lexington and Concord she was referring to was actually in Massachusetts and not New Hampshire; forget Rick Perry not being able to name all three of the departments he would eliminate should he be elected president.  Old Herman has ‘em all beat. 

In a moment that can only be characterized as Ross Perot like, the former presumptive Republican nominee, when asked by a reporter what he thought about the Libyan war, melted like an ice cube under a burning mid-day sun.  Never mind a deer caught in a headlight, this was pure out to lunch.  It was actually painful watching the man struggle to formulate even a thought about the war.  In five minutes Cain managed to dig himself a hole halfway to China. 

Cain spokesman J.D. Gordon tried to downplay the gaffe.  “He didn't say anything wrong or inaccurate; it just took him a while to recall the specifics of Libya.”  Yeah, like almost two minutes.  To make matters worse, Cain completed his journey to downtown Beijing several days later by defending his performance and insisting the Taliban and elements of Al Qaeda are now a part of the new Libyan government.


What can you say about someone who makes Michele Bachmann look sane and Rick Perry seem intelligent?  It’s one thing to be wrong about an issue, or even to flip flop on it – hello, Mitt Romney.  It’s quite another to be clueless about it.  With the exception of the killing of Osama bin Laden, no other issue dominated foreign policy more than Libya.  You don’t get a mulligan for not being at least somewhat aware of what happened and what your thoughts about it are.

No matter what spin Cain chooses to put on the interview the fact remains that his lack of knowledge is appallingly apparent.  Anyone seeking the nomination of his party for the Presidency of the United States needs more than just a smile and a catchphrase to earn the right to occupy that office.  Honest men and women may disagree as to whether Barack Obama has earned the right to be reelected, but it is nothing short of arrogance to presume that just because you differ with him philosophically on every issue that you somehow deserve the job.

At the end of the day, who ever wins the 2012 presidential election is going to face the toughest challenges any head of state has had to face in decades.  To solve the problems besetting us will take more than just guile and simple delegation; it will take a level of competence and sophistication that few men and women possess.  It is a title no one should ever seek lightly; yet Herman Cain has turned the quest into a sideshow and, in so doing, has embarrassed himself and his party.  There is simply too much at stake to entrust the nation to someone who is in over his head and is clearly a flimflam artist. 

If Mitt Romney is the used-car salesman from hell, then Herman Cain is the conman extraordinaire.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Bait and Switch Time Again for the GOP

By now you’ve heard of the proposal floated by one Republican on the Super Committee to “raise taxes by $300 billion” over the next ten years as part of the $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction plan.  The lone Republican? Pennsylvanian Senator Pat Toomey, that’s who.  Hopelessly locked in a quandary between a unified Democratic opposition to any deficit-reduction package that does not include some revenues and an equally unanimous steadfast rejection by the conservative flank of his own party against any tax hikes, Toomey has come up with a way to have his cake and eat it too.  He has baited Democrats with promises of additional revenues in exchange for the lowering of tax rates on all income brackets, the lion’s share of which would come from the top bracket.  And the source of the “revenue” would come from the elimination of tax deductions, mostly from the middle class.

Toomey’s plan basically has two stages:     

1. All tax brackets would be reduced, starting with the top bracket, which would drop from 35% to 28%.  The lowest bracket would fall from 10% to 8%.

2. To make up the anticipated loss in tax revenues, all charitable donations and mortgage interest and state and local tax deductions would be eliminated for individuals earning more than $174,400 and married couples earning more than $212,300. 

Critics of the plan were quick to point out that roughly one third of all filers – or 50 million households – would see a precipitous increase in the taxes they pay every year, not to mention that the elimination of the mortgage deduction would adversely affect a housing market which is still trying to recover from the worst crash since the 1980s, with experts predicting years before a full recovery occurs.  Additionally the loss of charitable donations would be devastating to countless charities, churches and synagogues that provide, in many instances, the last hope for millions of impoverished people. 

Of course the switch in this bait and switch scheme of Toomey’s is the “revenue” part.  The fact is there isn’t any real revenue, because the elimination of the deductions under this plan would barely cover the lower tax rates.  At best it would be revenue neutral to the Treasury, at worst it would actually increase the deficit.  At the end of the day, millions of Americans would end up paying more in taxes just to enrich the wealthiest 1 to 2 percent of their fellow citizens.

This is what the GOP offers up as a fig leaf to appease Democrats and deficit hawks within their own party.  Not a balanced plan to reduce spending AND legitimately increase tax revenues, but a scheme designed to appear as revenues that is in effect nothing more than supply-side economics on steroids.

I would’ve had more respect for Toomey and his ilk if, while he was asking hard-working middle class families to make a sacrifice, he had proposed eliminating other tax deductions like corporate jets and the like.  But then I’ve long since given up any hope of having even an ounce of respect for a party that still has the nerve to invoke the name of Lincoln, but who long ago abandoned any resemblance to that historic president and what he truly represented.     

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Mutiny on the Bounty: Republicans Going AWOL on Messaging

Are my eyes and ears deceiving me or has the GOP gone soft?  Like the Grinch on Christmas day, maybe their hearts have suddenly grown three times in size?  Perhaps there’s something to this compassionate conservatism after all.

Listening to Tom Coburn this past Monday, it sure seemed that way.  You see Coburn released a report this week that revealed some rather startling and unsettling facts.  Millionaires, it seems, are receiving billions in taxpayer dollars for things like childcare and bad debts.  And Coburn was none too thrilled over the details.  This is what he wrote in an accompanying letter to the report:

“From tax write-offs for gambling losses, vacation homes, and luxury yachts to subsidies for their ranches and estates, the government is subsidizing the lifestyles of the rich and famous.  Multimillionaires are even receiving government checks for not working. This welfare for the well-off – costing billions of dollars a year – is being paid for with the taxes of the less fortunate.

“The income of the wealthiest one percent of Americans has risen dramatically over the last decade.  Yet, the federal government lavishes these millionaires with billions of dollars in giveaways and tax breaks.  The government's social safety net, which has long existed to catch those who are down and help them get back up, is now being used as a hammock by some millionaires, some who are paying less taxes than average middle class families.”

In case you were wondering that was the Tom Coburn, bad-ass Republican from the state of Oklahoma.  It has suddenly dawned on him that the wealthy in this country have been getting along just dandy while the majority of Americans – the 99 percent – have not been nearly as fortunate.

And it isn’t just Coburn who’s had an awakening of sorts.  Recently Darrell Issa, old Mr. Subpoena himself, while addressing a group of retirees whose pensions have been drastically cut, let slip the following:

“We don’t need laws for the powerful. We need the Constitution and laws for the weak. Ultimately the success of our Democracy is about the minority having rights, not the majority.”

Oops, that was rather transparent, not to mention quite obvious.  But wait, as they say in that commercial, there’s more.  In fact, I’ve saved the best for last.  None other than Paul Ryan – yes the Paul Ryan who wants to privatize Medicare and turn Medicaid into a grant program for the states – agreed with a caller on a conservative talk radio show that Glass-Steagall should be reinstated.

“Mixing banking and commerce, meaning allowing banks to go do non-banking activities, by leveraging their deposits. The way I look at this, there’s a lot of merit to what you just said. If banks want to make hedge fund-like returns, then they should go be a hedge fund. But if you want to be a bank, then be a bank. Don’t try to be a hedge fund and take undue risks with your depositor’s money. So the way I see it, we need to have more conservative leverage limits, so you can’t leverage too much, and keep these firms within the silos where they are supposed to operate based on the degree of risk that they’re supposed to take. And if you’re just taking deposits, then I think we need to reestablish those kinds of limits.”  

Wow!  I hope you were sitting down for that last one, because it was a doozy!  Now, before we start nominating any of these fearless leaders for a humanitarian award, a little context, I believe, is in order.

One, Republicans are starting to get an earful from their constituents over not just the state of the economy, but the side-show antics they’ve been engaging in.  It has become abundantly clear to them that their dog and pony show is starting to wear thin with an electorate that has already seen fit to give the Democrats the heave ho in the last election and is now apparently prepared to do the same to them.  Give them this much, they can read the poll numbers.  President Obama may have a low approval rating, but he’s still considerably higher than anybody in the GOP.

Second, they’re taking a page out of Bill Clinton’s playbook.  After seeing what happened in Ohio, Maine, Mississippi and Arizona just the other week, some Republicans have decided to engage in their own game of triangulation.  They have figured out that crazy isn’t selling the way most of them thought it would, so they’re trying something unique. They are taking populist positions that resonate with voters in the hopes of stealing some of Obama’s thunder in next year’s election.  Witness Mitt Romney’s flip flop over the Occupy Wall Street movement.  First he was against it, then, when he found out how popular it had become with a majority of Americans, he quickly reversed himself and said he sympathized with their message.

Whether this new-found strategy is successful will depend on two things: 1. How many Republicans actually have the daring to break free from the wingnuts who control the apparatus of the conservative movement, and 2. How long they can keep up the show before their true inner selves re-emerge.  And make no mistake about it: It IS a show.  The greatest freak show on Earth, in fact.  Just make sure you bring your shovel with you. It can get pretty messy having to clean up after so many elephants.

Compassionate conservatism?  Sure, and I’ve still got that bridge in Brooklyn that I’m trying to unload.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Harbinger of Things To Come?

Sometimes the glass is just plain full.  For over a year the country has been watching a heated and tense legal tennis match going on between conservative-leaning courts and liberal-leaning courts over the legality of President Obama’s signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act.  Conservatives have been adamant in their opposition to the individual mandate, calling it unconstitutional and an infringement of their liberty.  Proponents have consistently held that the only way to ensure that every one would be covered was to include a mandate in the law.

Prior to this week, the score of this wild back and forth volley was deadlocked with one court ruling in support of the mandate, one against and one court refusing altogether to hear the case.  Now the U.S. Appeals Court for the District of Columbia Circuit – a conservative court if ever there was one – has cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of the mandate.

The majority opinion was written by Judge Laurence Silberman – a Reagan appointee!

“It certainly is an encroachment on individual liberty, but it is no more so than a command that restaurants or hotels are obliged to serve all customers regardless of race ... or that a farmer cannot grow enough wheat to support his own family.

“That a direct requirement for most Americans to purchase any product or service seems an intrusive exercise of legislative power surely explains why Congress has not used this authority before – but that seems to us a political judgment rather than a recognition of constitutional limitations.  The right to be free from federal regulation is not absolute and yields to the imperative that Congress be free to forge national solutions to national problems."

The dissenting opinion issued by Judge Brett Kavanaugh, also a conservative appointed by George Bush, was hardly helpful in that he said that the court lacked the jurisdiction to even hear the case due to the fact that the law does not take effect until 2014.

The significance of this decision cannot be stressed enough.  A conservative court has rejected the argument of the appellants in this case.  This is not only newsworthy but it reveals a fundamental flaw in the prevailing logic that the law’s fate will ultimately be decided along strict political lines.  If anything what this ruling shows is that opponents of the law may be in for quite a surprise as they learn what true judicial restraint could mean.  For if you read the whole opinion by Silberman it is clear that, while he is sympathetic to the claims made by the appellants – as indicated by his use of terms like “encroachment” and “intrusive” – the claims are ultimately irrelevant to the main thrust of their argument. At one point he wrote that the fact that Congress has never mandated individuals to purchase something before “seems to us a political judgment rather than a recognition of constitutional limitations.”  In other words, Silberman was saying, “So what?”

That this decision is the first rendered by a court with no trace of ideology or politics anywhere near it is not only refreshing, it is encouraging.  The Supreme Court will ultimately have the final say, and it is likely that both this decision and the 11th Circuit one out of Atlanta, which struck down the mandate, will figure prominently in its ruling.  While we’re still not out of the woods yet, we are getting closer to the clearing.           

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Not So Fast!

The news that Ohio voters resoundingly defeated Senate Bill 5, and in so doing dealt a serious blow to Republican Governor John Kasich’s plans to ostensibly destroy the unions in that state, should be celebrated by every progressive not just in Ohio but across the country.  This was a good day no matter how you sliced it and diced it.  Also encouraging was the news out of Maine that voters in that state overturned a law that banned same-day voter registration, a law which had only one purpose: suppressing Democratic turnout. In Mississippi voters overwhelmingly rejected a constitutional amendment that not only would’ve outlawed abortion – even in the case of rape and incest – it would’ve defined human life as beginning from the moment of fertilization.  And in Arizona, voters recalled that state’s immigration law architect, Russell Pearce.  A grand slam you could say.

But, as they say at the racetrack, hold onto your tickets, boys, this race ain’t over; not by a long shot.  Yes what happened in Ohio and Maine and Mississippi and Arizona was certainly uplifting and gratifying, given how dismal Democratic fortunes have looked over the last year, but a closer look at what happened reveals not so much a leftward shift among the electorate but rather a repudiation of a poorly played hand by Republicans.  In each and every loss suffered by the GOP, voters expressed a profound disapproval over what they perceived as an ideological distraction from the number one objective they had voted for in 2010: Jobs, jobs, jobs.  Issues like collective bargaining, voter registration, abortion and illegal immigration, while fodder for the Right, were considered inconsequential to millions of independents and moderates, and they voted accordingly.

But no matter how tempting it may be for the Left to pound its chest and beat the drums of victory, the painful truth is that Democrats in general still have an uphill battle on their hands when it comes to convincing a majority of voters that they have the answers to what ails the economy.  The Republican gains in Virginia, a crucial swing state in 2012, underscores this point all too well.  There were no controversial and ideological-driven initiatives on the ballot in that state.  Rather it was a straight up and down referendum on whose vision voters preferred to run the state.  And if Virginia was a litmus test for their fortunes going forward, I’d be very worried if I were a Democrat.

Translation?  Crazy got shown the door, but the Landlord still hasn’t seen fit to hand over the keys to the other tenants.  And that adds up to a major problem come November 2012.  I have been saying this now for months.  Democrats need to get up off their butts and start building a sellable narrative to the electorate that doesn’t start and end with the other side being insane.

Consider the facts.  Unemployment remains stubbornly high, with little prospect of it coming down over the next year or so.  Indeed, the Fed recently downgraded its economic forecast for 2012.  Growth projections will remain anemic for the foreseeable future.  We may not be headed into a double-dip recession, but it will take several years before anything resembling a full recovery occurs.

No president since Franklin Roosevelt has been reelected with such poor numbers.  Poll after poll over the last few months has shown definitively that voters are overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the direction the country is headed in.  With the exception of a temporary bump in the wake of the bin Laden killing, President Obama’s approval rating has been south of 50% for well over a year now.

And yet, even with such woeful numbers, Democrats will proudly remind you that their guy is beating all the other Republican candidates by anywhere from 5% (Romney) to 15% (Cain).  And while that may comfort a good many of them, the truth is that those numbers do NOT represent an endorsement of Obama but rather a concern – particularly among independents – that the current crop of GOP contenders has not made the case for change.  And not only that, it has demonstrated some rather “interesting” idiosyncrasies that are most disturbing to them.  Want proof?  The Republican with the least amount of baggage – Romney – is the one closest to beating Obama.  If between now and next fall the GOP manages to dress up this turkey-shoot enough to make it look respectable to the electorate this is going to be a very difficult presidential election to watch for Democrats.

The good news is that, for now at least, the Republican Party seems hopelessly caught in the grips of an ideological wave hell-bent on remaking the country in its own twisted image; the bad news is that for every John Kasich, there is a Bob McDonnell.  If history is any indication, sooner or later the Bob McDonnells will prevail.  Democrats had best accept this or they stand to lose a lot more than just the next election.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Iraq Revisited

Of all the deplorable things that the Right has done, none has been more loathsome and damaging than its incessant attempt to rewrite history.  Throughout most of 2009 and 2010 Republicans desperately tried to convince the public that the Great Depression was brought about, not by a lack of government regulation and intervention, but by a plethora of wasteful and meddlesome government spending that prevented the private sector from doing what it does best: create jobs.  Only the advent of World War II got us out of the depths of that depression.  It mattered not that not a single economist has gone on record to validate such hogwash, just saying it made it so, as far as the GOP was concerned.  I don’t suppose it would do any good to remind conservatives that the build up to that War, whether they want to admit it or not, counts as government spending, meddlesome or otherwise.

It was the same with the causes of the 2008 recession.  Forget all you’ve heard about derivatives and sub-prime mortgages, according to conservatives, the real culprits were Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac forcing all those helpless bankers to loan money to poor black people who knew they couldn’t afford a mortgage in the first place.  Not doing it for you?  Well then how about all that nasty debt due to wasteful government spending?  How about a combination of both?  Facts?  Why concern yourself with such trivial things as facts when it’s so much easier to pull nonsense out of your ass and peddle it as truth?

Well, as strange as it might sound to those of us who actually bother to fact-check such stupidity before falling for it, the electorate bought in lock, stock and barrel.  Whether out of sheer frustration, a lack of commons sense, or a combination of the two, a majority of people polled now believe that the Great Recession of 2008 was due in large part to excessive government spending and needless regulation of an industry that was running just fine without a hitch.  Go figure.

And now comes the greatest obscenity of all: the Iraq War.  With this monstrosity of an endeavor now coming to a long overdo end, the final price tag has far exceeded the trillion-dollar mark, and that’s not counting the impact it had on the economy.  In fact, according to Joseph Stiglitz, the total cost for both the Afghan and Iraqi Wars is over $3 trillion.  Granting that our involvement in Afghanistan was just, given the 9/11 attacks, that still leaves the sixty-four thousand dollar question: why did we get involved in Iraq?  If you thought the Right’s explanation of the causes of the Great Depression and Great Recession creative, you won’t believe what they have to say for themselves regarding Iraq.

The reason for our involvement comes down to one word: hindsight.  Bet you thought it was going to be something radical like temporary insanity brought about, no doubt, by Cold-War withdrawal.  But, no, hindsight is what they’re going with.

For those of you who don’t feel like consulting your on-line dictionary, hindsight is defined as the ability to understand, after something has happened, what should have been done or what caused the event.  So when Republicans use the word hindsight to defend the Iraq War, what they are really saying is that had they known the reality of the situation – in other words had the true facts of the matter been available to them – naturally they wouldn’t have gotten involved in such a costly endeavor.

To which I say, Bullshit!

There is no hindsight regarding Iraq, for the very simple reason that the Bush Administration knew full well that the “intelligence” they had “gathered” was suspect at best and flat out fraudulent at worst.  There were no weapons of mass destruction and they knew as much.  There was never going to be a mushroom cloud over a populated city because the terrorists who attacked us were not in Iraq.  The lone reason for invading that country had nothing to do with how evil Saddam Hussein was – and for the record he was a bad guy – or whether he had any involvement in the 9/11 terrorist attacks – he didn’t.  It was about the oil that Iraq possessed, pure and simple.  9/11 was an excuse for overthrowing a legitimate and sovereign government in the name of the almighty dollar.  If hindsight comes into play at all it has more to do with the fact that the Bush Administration grossly underestimated the resources it needed for securing the country’s borders not to mention its inept occupation of that country in the aftermath of the military victory, which led to the chaos that continues to mar its badly fractured political system, and which has now embolden its neighbor and chief exporter of terror: Iran.  Some mission accomplished!

But to suggest with a straight face that saddling the U.S. taxpayer with a $1 trillion plus dollar debt for an unjust, illegal and unnecessary war has anything to do with hindsight is the grossest form of obscenity that can be perpetrated on the general public, and for the mainstream press, which was derelict in its duty in ’02 and ‘03 during the buildup to that War, to now even permit it to be spoken aloud without challenging it does violence, once again, to the journalistic integrity they purport to have. 

Well, unlike the economic fairytales that have gained traction over the last couple of years, thankfully the majority of the American public isn’t swallowing this whopper of a lie.  The hindsight justification is falling flat on its face and, no matter how hard the Right tries to spin it, there appear to be few takers.

It just goes to prove what Lincoln used to say: “You can fool some of the people all the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time.”  Or, as another, less popular Republican President once said, “Fool me once, shame on - shame on you. Fool me - you can't get fooled again.”

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Get Them To the Greek

What was I thinking believing that even the Greeks couldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth?  Well guess what, folks?  Not only have the Greeks looked a gift horse in the mouth, they have screwed the pouch as well.  That’s because Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou did his best impersonation of Curly Howard by calling for a referendum on the European bailout.  If the vote is “no” (and many analysts now predict that that is a likely scenario) it could be disastrous, not only for Greece, but for the entire European Union and most of the West.  It would most likely mean bankruptcy for Greece and a nasty split with the euro.  A payment of $11 billion, which would’ve kept the government afloat, is now in jeopardy.

But wait, it gets worse.  The bailout wasn’t only designed to prevent a Greek default, but shore up other fragile economies in Europe like Italy and Spain, which are substantially larger and far more problematic.  Italy’s debt is roughly $1.4 trillion – or the entire emergency fund set aside in the deal – and if it goes south, like dominoes, it will take most of the other countries with it.  So much for a rosier economic forecast for 2012.

This is what Curly – I mean – Papandreou had to say about his decision.

“We will not implement any program by force, but only with the consent of the Greek people.  This is our democratic tradition and we demand that it is also respected abroad. A referendum will be a clear mandate, and a clear message within and outside of Greece, about our European course and our participation in the euro.  The dilemma is not this government or another one, the dilemma is yes or no to the agreement, yes or no to Europe, yes or no to the euro.”

This is what I get for being an optimist.  The next time I see a half-filled glass of water somewhere, I’ll be certain to pour it out.