Saturday, June 30, 2012

Capital Spending

Funny thing about leverage; it’s only good if you use it.  Looking back at Thursday’s Supreme Court healthcare victory and Mitt Romney’s awkward, almost sheepish, response afterwards, what struck me was this.  Far more crucial than any tangible benefit this political win means for the President, is the predicament it puts the former governor of Massachusetts in.

You see, when Chief Justice John Roberts called the mandate penalty a tax, thus allowing it to be upheld, he may have given the GOP some badly needed ammunition to call Obama and Democrats tax and spend libs – like they really needed a court for that – but he also took the wind out of the sails of Mr. Mittens, who now has to talk about repealing a law which is identical to his and which the highest court in the land just pronounced as basically a tax on the uninsured.

But, Peter, you don’t understand, that’s a state law and we all know that states are the laboratories for the country.  The federal government?  Well that’s another story altogether.  Right, when the state taxes you for not complying with a law, it’s called liberty (or states’ rights if you’re from the Paul family); when the feds do it, it’s called tyranny.  That’s what happens when you spend too much time listening to Mark Levin; you end up sounding like him.

Except I’m not at all sure that most voters – especially independent voters – are going to care much about the distinction.  A tax is a tax is a tax, right?  And that’s where Democrats can start having some fun for a change.  It seems the used-car salesman from hell stepped in it big time back in ’09 during an interview with CNN, in which he discussed the merits of adopting his Massachusetts-style healthcare plan as a “model” for the country, including, unfortunately, the penalty, err, tax, I mean.

There are a number of ways to encourage people to get insurance and what we did, we said 'you're going to lose a tax exemption if you don't have insurance.' ...You gotta have health insurance because we want everybody in the system. No more free riders.

Oops!  I’d say that was a mouthful, wouldn’t you?  I mean, no more free riders, personal responsibility, you play you pay.  Seems like a fairly cogent conservative principle if ever I heard one.  I can’t imagine what a commie subversive like Obama would want with such a radical concept as personal responsibility.

And yet that’s pretty much what the President did.  When the public option was going up in flames, Obama shifted gears and looked at the only working example out there.  He figured Republicans would be relieved that he would propose a healthcare plan which had already been adopted by a Republican governor and had been endorsed by such “distinguished” groups as the Heritage Foundation.  What could go wrong?

Well everything.  I won’t rehash all the ugly details, but, suffice to say, the GOP went from loving the mandate to hating it quicker than you can say “You lie.”  Regardless of the backlash he took, both from the Right and the Left, Obama persevered and managed to get the Affordable Care Act passed.

And now, as the hordes of critics prepare to take him apart over John Roberts’ pronouncement, one critic is walking on egg shells.  You see, Romney has to be very careful how he chooses his words.  He can’t talk about the mandate, because every time he does, he’ll come face to face with the staggering reality that his own healthcare plan is virtually identical to the one he wants to repeal, and it’s a tax to boot.  Uttering the word tax around Republicans is akin to placing a crucifix on a vampire.

So, here’s what I propose the Democrats do every chance they get:  Talk about the mandate; talk about it often.  Talk about things like personal responsibility and no more free lunches; things that conservatives used to talk about all the time before they got bought and sold by the Koch brothers and Grover Norquist.

Have some fun at Republicans expense for a change.  Then, when they insist on repealing “Obamacare” talk about all the things it brings to the table: No more pre-existing conditions as a bar to medical treatment, keeping your kid on your healthcare plan till he or she turns 26, not having your policy canceled just because you had the nerve to get sick, affordable coverage for people who can’t afford insurance, and so on.

Republicans have made a career out of using short catch phrases that resonate with voters; it’s time Democrats stole a page or two out of that rule book and stuffed it down their throats.  To quote one of my favorite coaches of all time, Vince Lombardi, “The best defense is a good offense.”  It’s about time the Dems started offending.

The Supreme Court victory may have given Republicans some ammunition, but it also gave Democrats a chance to redefine a narrative that they badly mishandled the first time around.  Now is the time for redemption.  The country desperately needs to know the truth about this law and it is essential that the Democrats be the ones to explain it to them.  If they play their hand right, they can take this all the way to November 6th.   


Friday, June 29, 2012

Broccoli Be Damned

Did you hear it?  Just in case you didn’t, there were two distinct sounds that permeated the ether at around 10:15 Thursday morning: a collective sigh of relief coming from the west wing of the White House and the collective thump of every right-wing radio talk-show host from Rush Limbaugh to Mark Levin falling over each other in disbelief.  If you’re a religious person, pray that Limbaugh wasn’t on top.

But let’s get serious and honest for just a moment.  When it comes right down to it, the Supreme Court’s ruling on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act’s mandate came out of left field.  Prior to the oral argument phase, most legal scholars thought it was a slam dunk that it would survive; afterwards the obituaries began flowing including, I’m sorry to say, my own.

Yes, yours truly had it dead to rights by a 5 to 4 count.  Well, as fate would have it, I got the score right, but the winner wrong.  Guess who’s not going to Vegas anytime soon.

So how did the improbable happen?  First off, Chief Justice Roberts caved.  There’s no other way to put it.  With Justice Kennedy leading the dissent (swing vote my ass) all Roberts had to do was go along with the other conservatives and “Obamacare” was a goner.  It was that simple.

But if Roberts’ decision to side with the liberals on the Court was unusual and completely unexpected, his majority opinion was one for the ages.  In a nutshell, Roberts attempted the legal equivalent of having his cake while eating it too.  He ostensibly rejected the Administration’s claim that the mandate was constitutional under the commerce clause. Strike one.  He equally rejected the claim that it was constitutional under the necessary and proper clause. Strike two.  If you were watching it live on CNN, you probably thought that was it – they sure did! 

And then Roberts knocked it out of the park, so to speak.  The mandate was constitutional because it was ostensibly a tax and Congress has the authority to levy taxes.  It says so in section 5000A of the Internal Revenue Code.  And that was it.  The only problem was that the word tax doesn’t appear anywhere in the statute and neither the President nor congressional Democrats referred to the penalty as a tax.  So how did Roberts arrive at his conclusion that a tax existed where none was implied?  He inferred it, that’s how.

And that’s where this bizarre decision gets even weirder because the reason Roberts was able to infer the penalty was indeed a tax was due in no small part to the oral argument phase.  That’s when the solicitor general for the Administration – the one we all wanted to draw and quarter because he looked (how did I put it) “about as prepared as a frat student taking his midterms after an all-night binge” – conceded that the penalty was, in fact, a tax.  And that was all Roberts needed to hang his hat on, and along with it the hopes of every right-wing gasbag in A.M. radio land.

Speaking strictly as a sports fan, I never question how my team gets into the playoffs, so long as they get there, but even I must confess a sense of bewilderment at not only Roberts’ decision, but the motive behind it.  As I said in an earlier piece, the commerce clause argument may have been weak, but I thought it made the most sense. 

If you just look at it logically, Congress was never, as Kennedy snidely noted during oral arguments, “creating new commerce in order to regulate it.”  The commerce was always there to begin with.  All the law said was that everyone should have to pay for it.  Ironically, that has been the stance of conservatives for more than two decades.  Indeed, had Bill Clinton not been so stubborn he, and not Obama, might’ve been the one to get healthcare reform passed.  The uproar and protestations over this legislation have been phony from day one.

But the problem with the tax law angle is that it’s an even flimsier and more difficult argument to make and for two reasons: one, neither Roberts nor the solicitor general specified what type of tax it is; and two, you’re basically taxing people for not buying something.  Unless I missed something basic in my Intro to Economics class, a tax is levied on goods and services bought or imposed on income earned.  Neither was the case here.

So how can Roberts, in good conscience, call it a tax?  I suspect we’ll never know the answer to that question, any more than we’ll know the motive that drove him to go against his fellow conservatives and side with the liberal wing of the Court.  Maybe he finally saw the light and wanted to carve out some kind of legacy for himself.  Or maybe it was far more basic than that.   Last March, after the oral phase, I suspected the key to this ruling might rest with Roberts and not Kennedy.

Despite his obvious ideological bent, Roberts is keenly aware of his position as Chief Justice.  Upholding the mandate would permit him to portray himself as above politics.  It would also allow him to concentrate his efforts on the more nefarious matters that await this Court down the road.  The environmental and civil rights laws that many conservatives decry as overreach will no doubt be re-visited by the judicial branch.  These cases are the real prizes for the Right and they badly want them.  The healthcare debate, while good theater for the wingnuts who listen to Mark Levin, is mere window dressing in the grand scheme of things.  If Roberts punts on the mandate but gives them the rollbacks they want on the other issues all will be forgiven.

Of course only time will tell if the Right actually forgives him, or, for that matter, whether the Court’s last two rulings are a harbinger of things to come or just a temporary reprieve from what many legal analysts consider the most activist conservative bench in the country’s history.  Lest we get too optimistic, these justices still have the blood of Citizens United on their hands, so I would hold off on any Brennan comparisons.

What we do know is this: Were it not for Roberts’ defection, the whole law would’ve been tossed.  The dissenters were clearly of the mind that the lack of a severability clause prevented the Court from picking and choosing which provisions survived and which got booted.  Maybe that’s what finally pushed Roberts over the ledge.  At least that’s the opinion of David Frum.  “The jointly-written dissent was intended to be majority opinion. Any informed reader would reach that conclusion after the first three pages.”  Indeed a careful read of both Roberts’ opinion and the dissenting opinion clearly reveals a schism that ultimately proved irreconcilable.  No matter how politically expedient it might’ve been, it seems Roberts just couldn’t agree with his fellow conservatives that the whole statute needed to be scrapped.  It was that split that brought forth the opinion which allowed it to survive intact; well, almost.

In fact the only casualty involved the Medicaid provision.  The Court ruled 7 to 2 that states which choose to opt out cannot be denied their existing Medicaid funding as a penalty; only those funds needed for the implementation of the law.  Admittedly problematic, but remediable nonetheless.

So what’s next?  Well, much as I hate to rain on a victory parade (actually I kinda enjoy it in a perverse sort of way) I wouldn’t get too carried away over this ruling.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to win one now and then, but make no mistake about it, the ACA survived by the hair of its chinny- chin-chin.  Indeed in can be argued that were it not for the fact that Antonin Scalia and his cohorts were such dicks, it’s more than likely the mandate would’ve been gone and we would’ve been left with a law with no enforcement provision and no funding mechanism.   Chew on that.  The last thing progressives should be doing is gloating.  A little humility is in order.  To quote John Boehner, let’s not “spike the ball.”  There’s a lot of work ahead.

Already Republicans are in full court press, calling the mandate the largest tax increase in history and accusing Obama and the Democrats of lying to the American people about what it was.  More than ever they are frothing at the mouth to repeal this baby.  The painful truth is that, even with this win, the Administration is still stuck with a mandate which, though legal, is hated by conservatives and progressives alike.  Obama has some ‘splainin’ to do over the next few months to keep Mitt Romney from framing yet another wedge issue for the fall elections.  And while narrative building has never been his strong suit, he’s going to have to connect the dots he didn’t connect last time around and sell a law that many people like, few comprehend, and which, even under the best of circumstances, is still quite flawed.  A daunting task to be sure.

And then there’s the June jobs’ report which will be out next week.  Another anemic performance could spell trouble for the Administration.  The President is right.  It’s time to “move forward.” The economy will have more to say on who wins in November than any court case settled in June.  Besides, the best way to ensure that the healthcare law remains the law of the land is for Democrats to prevail this fall.

I’d call that a pretty full plate.


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Tip of the Hat

It's one thing to have a progressive's point of view about the Republican witch hunt over Fast and Furious; it's quite another to check out a conservative's take on it.

To be clear, Darrell Issa has stated publicly that there is no evidence that the White House was involved in a cover up regarding the operation, thus contradicting Speaker of the House John Boehner, who said there appeared to be.  So then the sole purpose of Issa's contempt charge against Eric Holder appears to center around a February, 2011 memo that was eventually retracted later that year in which the Department of Justice denied that sales of firearms were going on.

Issa believes that the DOJ lied to Congress and is demanding any and all documents pertaining to the memo and other information that could be useful not in finding out what actually happened, but in embarrassing Holder and the Administration.  Hence the witch hunt.

But, there is another angle to why the GOP is pursuing this contempt action with such vigor, and since my opinion is, shall we say, biased, I'd thought I'd let a frequent flyer to this segment try his hand at it.

Fast and Furious: Inside Joke

Fast and Furious
Attorney General Eric Holder speaks to reporters following his meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 19, 2012. (Susan Walsh / AP Photo)

Karen Hughes tells the following story in her memoirs:

She had left the White House and was recuperating with a beachside vacation. She looked up from the sand and saw a small plane crossing the sky, dragging a big advertising banner behind it. It said, "Come back, Jill. I am miserable without you. Love, Jack." She thought: Bad message Jack—too much about you, not enough about her.

I think of this passage as Republicans prepare for a constitutional show-down over the Fast & Furious fiasco.

Yes, the operation was a terrible and embarrassing failure that led to the violent deaths of one American and hundreds of Mexicans. Yes, there should be accountability—and indeed there is an Inspector-General's investigation underway, and relevant officials have been dismissed or reassigned.

What's driving the intensity in this story, though, is an unspoken theory among some conservatives that the true purpose of Fast & Furious was not a (tragically misconceived) plan to end gun violence in Mexico but a (secret and sinister) plan to tamper with gun rights in the United States.

Here's an explicit statement of the conservatives' theory by one of the case's most passionate observers, Bob Owens, writing at
We know for a fact that Operation Fast and Furious was designed by the Obama administration to put American weapons in the hands of Mexican cartels to kill Mexican citizens, and that the guns recovered in those deaths would be used to call for more gun control.

Hundreds died in a plot that appears to have been designed to impose gun control. It’s past time for the appointment of an independent prosecutor, and to press for criminal charges against those responsible for the carnage that has resulted from the deadliest scandal in U.S. government history.

(It's worth remembering at this point that was the site that launched the false story that the Environmental Protection Agency was using military drones to spy on farmers.)

This theory is self-inflated and unsupported, but it's widely believed. Probably nothing to be done about that. The question for Republicans is: do they really want to take this wild-eyed conspiracy to the country as a national voting issue in 2012? We're not talking to the country. We're talking-to ourselves—or rather, to a fringe constituency within ourselves.


Bananas Split

The Supreme Court on Monday delivered long-awaited decisions on two landmark cases.  And no, one of them was not the Healthcare law; that one is expected Thursday. 

The first was hardly unexpected.  In a 5 to 4 vote that was strictly along party lines, the Court overturned Montana’s challenge to its 2010 Citizens United ruling.  I predicted as much a while back and quite frankly it was overly optimistic – perhaps naïve – for progressives to believe the Court would ever reverse itself, even on a decision so appallingly bad as this one.  Old dogs learn new tricks faster.

But the second decision was somewhat unexpected.  In a 5 to 3 vote (Justice Kagan recused herself due to a conflict of interest) the Court threw out three of the four provisions in the Arizona immigration law, S.B. 1070.  The lone provision left standing was the “papers please” provision, which basically permits police to check the immigration status of any one they arrest.  Fortunately this shouldn’t be too much of a concern, since one of the key provisions that got tossed was the one that allowed authorities to “make warrantless arrests of anyone they had probable cause to believe had committed a deportable offense.”  If you can’t detain people for no good reason, then the issue of racial profiling is significantly reduced.  I say reduced and not eliminated because even after they are arrested, Hispanics can still be detained if they don’t have proof of citizenship.  Overall, I'd say S.B. 1070 and Jan Brewer, legally speaking, got bitch slapped.

If you’re keeping score that’s a split decision: one loss, one win.  Thursday will undoubtedly be the tie breaker, when the Court announces its ruling on the Affordable Care Act.  To be honest, I’m not all that optimistic.  The only hope, as I see it, is if the Court decides not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  In other words, if they toss the mandate they might keep some of all of the rest of the statute.

The problem for the Obama Administration and Democrats is that there is no severability clause within the statute that would allow for part of the law to stand if the mandate is stricken.  In what looks like a game of chicken for the ages, the writers of the legislation deliberately chose not to include one, believing that the Supreme Court, if it got that far, would never throw out an entire statute over one provision, however polarizing.

That may be the only hope of salvaging “Obamacare.”  Clearly the conservative justices during the oral phase showed no inclination to parse through the massive legislation.  If the gamble pays off on Thursday it will be the grandest stroke of genius ever achieved legislatively; if it doesn’t, it’ll be the biggest blunder of all time.  Either way, millions will be affected.

If the whole law is struck down, then it’s back to square one.  Obama can go back to the voters, who clearly favor most of the provisions in it, and say it was the Republicans who took away your healthcare and permitted the insurance industry to once more exclude coverage based on pre-existing conditions.  However, if only the mandate is tossed, that’s a different story.  Suggestions by some progressives that this will allow for a revisit of the public option should stop smoking whatever it is their smoking.  Let’s get something straight: If the ruling goes against the law, whether in toto or part, don’t expect any legislative remedies for the remainder of the year, maybe longer.  Republicans will do what they’ve pretty much been doing for three and a half years: nothing.  And Democrats, afraid of a backlash, will sit on their hands, bite their lips and bide their time.

They don’t call it gridlock for nothing, you know.

Stay tuned.  


Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Romney Platform: I’m Better Than Obama; I Just Can’t Say How

Watching Mitt Romney address NALEO (the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials) last week was like watching one uncle trying to explain to his nephew how the gift he was going to give him was better than the one he just got from the other uncle.   Ralph Kramden sounded more convincing stuttering, “humina, humina humina.”

President Obama’s executive order to suspend deportation of approximately 800,000 Hispanics under the age of 30 who were brought here illegally, not only was a brilliant stroke of genius by an Administration that admittedly needs all the help it can get between now and November, it took the wind out of the sails of hope for the Republicans – and more particularly their presidential nominee, Mittens – who were desperately trying to shore up badly-needed support within the Latino community.  As things stand now, about the only group Romney is sure to secure a majority of votes from are white men, notably older white men.  In every other category – African Americans, Hispanics, women – he is trailing, and by some counts badly.

Of course the issue for Romney is actually quite complex and problematic.  On the one hand he knows that he just can’t count on his base to get him elected.  They’ve done the math at the RNC.  Barring a complete collapse of the economy, Romney needs to improve his numbers with the above groups if he is going to beat Obama.  That was one of the reasons Marco Rubio was seriously being considered as a running mate.

On the other hand Romney’s base is his biggest anchor.  He can’t afford to piss them off, not when he will need every single one of them to vote for him in November.  And, among this lot, talk of immigration reform his akin to selling secrets to the Soviets during the Cold War.  Remember these were the people who cheered over the prospect of an electrified fence between the U.S. and Mexico.  Talk about a catch-22.

So there was the used car salesman from hell on the podium trying to extricate himself from the box that his own party placed him in, “answering” the question about what he would do regarding Obama’s order should he get elected president.  His “answer” was precious.

Some people have asked if I will let stand the President’s executive order. The answer is I will put in place my own long-term solution that will replace and supersede the President’s temporary measure.  As President, I won’t settle for stop-gap measures. I’ll work with Republicans and Democrats to build a long-term solution.

In other words a President Romney actually won’t repeal the order but put in place his own version of it.  Of course just what that means is anybody’s guess.  He’ll work with Republicans and Democrats.  Sure he will, and when he gets fifty-five senators to pass the legislation that he wants – just as President Obama did – and the other party threatens a filibuster to keep it from getting to his desk, then what?

Oh well, I guess that’s not part of the plan then.  It never is over at the Romney campaign.  Come to think of it, the “plan” is pretty simple.  Share as little as possible about the hows and whys lest some might not like what they hear.  Remember how popular Ross Perot was until he stood up one day and told reporters just what he’d do if he got elected?  And then there was that debate where Rick Perry said he was going to eliminate those departments in the government that he couldn't quite remember the names of.  His popularity sank faster than the Titanic.

I’ll say this for the Mittster: he’s a quick study.  If the Devil is indeed in the details than the former Massachusetts governor must be sportin’ one hell of a tail under that suit.  So far as I’ve been able to ascertain the whole Romney platform comes down to this: I’m better than Obama; I just can’t say how.

He’ll balance the budget, reduce unemployment to 4%, grow the economy at 6%, cut taxes for everyone (especially his buddies), “reform” immigration and bomb Iran.  How he proposes to do all this is anybody’s guess, because when you ask the man from Michigan what his plan is to accomplish all this, he refers you to his 59 point plan on his website, which also is somewhat vague about little things like implementation [one of his advisers called it “a starting point”], or he simply refuses to answer the question altogether.  He “endorses” the Ryan plan, yet won’t commit to saying he would sign it into law as president.  And for good reason: the moment he does, Florida goes out the window.

Let’s see, Bain Capital is off limits with him; so is his term as governor of Massachusetts; and he won’t get specific about how he would fix the economy.  The man has been running for president for five years, yet can’t or won’t answer direct questions about policy.

Basically what the Romney campaign is banking on is that enough voters will vote for their guy out of sheer frustration with Obama without actually asking what it is he would do and how he would do it.  And while that might have worked during the primaries and may work with some voters in the general, I doubt it will work with a majority of them.  At the end of the day, Romney will have to reveal at least some specifics about how he plans on turning the economy around.

In my line of work – sales – you can count on a few disgruntled customers to buy from you, but at the end of the day, if you want to succeed, you have to differentiate yourself from your competition.  In 2004, the Kerry campaign tried to cash in on voter dissatisfaction with George Bush.  The Iraq War wasn’t going as advertised and it turned out those weapons of mass destruction were nothing but a figment of the Administration’s imagination.  “Vote for us, we’re not Bush” didn’t go over too well.  While voters conceded the point that Kerry was in deed not Bush, the simple truth is that Kerry didn’t close the deal with them.  He lost.

Saying the other guy sucks only gets your foot in the door.  Sooner or later, if you want to get the rest of your body in, you have to start talking about yourself.  For Mitt Romney, that day should prove most illuminating.


Friday, June 22, 2012

Thomas Friedman’s Third-Party Obsession

I like Tom Friedman.  I like reading him, which I make a point of doing quite often.  He’s a liberal, but he’s more of a center-left liberal than a far-left one.  He realizes the Republicans and Mitt Romney have nothing to offer the nation except the specter of a third George Bush term with a dash of Ronald Reagan romanticism sprinkled in for good measure.  And he isn’t shy about letting you know about it, either.

But, like a good bartender, he knows how to spread the graft around evenly.  As brutally honest as he’s been with the Republicans, he’s been equally open about his disappointment with Barack Obama.  In fact, he’s been a royal pain in the ass about it at times.  And while it’s hard for many of us on the Left to admit it, the painful truth is that for all the hoopla over his election in ’08, the President simply hasn’t delivered on his promise.  Sure he’s done a lot to help the country dig out of the worst financial nightmare since the 1930s, and Friedman, to his credit, has acknowledged that. 

When the economy was going over a cliff in early ’09 and the Republicans were ostensibly offering another dose of Hooverism as a tonic, Obama correctly rejected the offer.  We could argue whether the stimulus was, well, a stimulus, but it did manage to stave off a second Great Depression.  And, with Europe now spiraling toward what some fear is a meltdown thanks to its austerity fixation, America is one of the few countries whose economy is actually growing, albeit at a much slower pace than most would prefer.

The problem, as Friedman sees it, is not so much one of intent but of vision, or lack thereof.  In an op-ed piece in The New York Times “Wasting Warren Buffett,” he decries the lack of pushback and narrative building.

Obama loyalists often say: “Those Republicans are so bad. They’ve tried to block us at every turn.” Yes, the G.O.P. has tried to stymie Obama; it’s been highly destructive. But the people who keep pointing that out don’t have an answer for the simplest next question: Why have they gotten away with it? My view: It’s because too many Americans in the center-left/center-right do not feel in their guts that Obama is leading.

Obama is like that contractor who manages to fix the leaky roof in your kitchen without letting you know why he needs to do it.  Then along comes a competitor who tells you that the roof was fine to begin with and that the other guy just took your money without really doing all that much.  The political vacuum that has often, sadly, defined this Administration has been incredibly frustrating to watch for those of us who can count and who know a thing or two about history and economics.  In the real world – the world that votes but often doesn’t pay much attention – it’s almost as though Obama’s efforts amount to nothing, because at the end of the day his message, as well as whatever swagger he had during the ’08 campaign, got lost in the chaos of trying to prevent Armageddon.  It’s hard to prove things could’ve been worse; it’s even harder when you can’t explain why.

So, like most disgruntled centrists, Friedman’s thoughts have drifted to an all-too-familiar option that many of us on the Left have flirted with over the years: third-party candidates.  We’ve seen them come, we’ve seen them go.  The most famous of them – Ralph Nader – virtually sank Al Gore’s chances of becoming president in 2000.  For all the uproar over Bush v. Gore, the simple truth is that had Nader not been on the ballot in Florida, Gore wins the state and the election hands down.  Case closed.  Third-party candidates mean one thing and one thing only: defeat for the incumbent party.  Just ask Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush what they think of John Anderson and Ross Perot.

Still, even with the statistics right there in front of him, Friedman is defiant as ever.  One can certainly understand his disenchantment with the two-party system; in fact, given the current state of politics in this country, it’s laudable, maybe even enviable.  No one who has been paying careful attention over the last few decades could seriously believe that the nation’s political process is not seriously broken and corrupt.  It now ranks just above third-world status and, were it not so pitiful, it would be comical.  Thomas Jefferson and John Adams must be rolling over in their graves.

The problem with Friedman’s “obsession” isn’t his zeal for a transfusion of fresh blood into a cancerous body politic, but rather the utter impracticality of such a transfusion.  For all the merits of a third-party candidacy, the simple, inescapable fact is that it will never work, not in the United States anyway.  Like it or not, for much of its history, the country has had a two-party system.  First it was the Federalists vs. the Democrats; then it was the Whigs vs. the Democrats; and, ever since Lincoln, it’s been the Republicans vs. the Democrats.  There’s something about those Dems, hey?

In Europe, where there are multiple parties vying for political power, what you have is ostensibly coalition governments where two, often conflicting, ideologies are constantly battling it out within the same government.  That’s because one party seldom gets more than 50% of the vote.  The winner usually only gets a simple majority; hence they are often forced to join ranks with the second- or third-place finisher.  The 2010 general elections in Britain underscore this point.  Because no party was able to secure the seats needed to effectively win and govern, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats formed a coalition government.  How would you like to be a fly on the wall when David Cameron and Nick Clegg sit down to tea and crumpets?  Think that’s weird?  Look what happened in Greece recently – this from the country that invented philosophy.  The neo-Nazis and the socialists split the vote.  Go figure.  And you think we’re screwed?

The real target of Friedman’s contempt should be the quality of the parties vying for power in America, not the quantity.  Let’s for the moment assume that Friedman gets his wish and we have several, viable third-party options to “challenge” the supremacy of the decrepit Repulsivicans and Demograbs; let’s also assume that we could suspend that silly little rule that says a presidential candidate needs 270 electoral votes to win the general election – hey, it’s a fantasy, just go with it.  How does Thomas Friedman suggest these viable third parties compete with their bigger, better financed counterparts?  By using Monopoly money?  Maybe they could hold their first convention at Marvin Gardens.  If they win, they can have their precession on the Boardwalk and Park Place.

Of course I’m being a dick, but the point I’m trying to make is that if you don’t actually deal with the root cause of the rot that’s infected the American political system in the first place, then it just multiplies and spreads to everything else.  Like the Borg in Star Trek, it assimilates everything within its reach.  If Ralph Nader had actually become president, do you really think he wouldn’t have been corrupted by the same powers that made sure we got George Bush and Al Gore to choose from instead of John McCain and Bill Bradley in 2000?  And while we’re at it, those same powers have done a pretty good job on the current president haven’t they?

To paraphrase a well-known slogan, “It’s about the money stupid!”  Those who don’t have it often get screwed by those who do.  Ronald Reagan was famous for saying many things, most of which were irrelevant and insipid.  But there was one thing he said which bears repeating here.  “Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.”

So my advice to Tom Friedman would be simple.  Give up your third-party dreams and focus your venom where it belongs: at the feet of those who have stolen our country and bought our elected officials.  When we solve this dilemma and end our long-standing national nightmare that jeopardizes our very Republic, we won’t need a third or fourth party; two will be quite sufficient thank you.


Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Austerity Myth

As economists go, Paul Krugman is about as good as it gets.  He was absolutely on the money when he predicted that the stimulus would not be big enough and he was among the first to sound the warning that the austerity measures Europe was embarking on more than two years ago would not prove successful.

While reading one of his latest blog pieces in The New York Times “A Mythical Anniversary,” the Nobel Prize winner was practically beside himself as he took a stroll down memory lane.  The reason for his “I told you so” moment?  Almost two years ago to this day, Krugman wrote what I call the signature piece on Europe’s economic woes, titled “Myths of Austerity.”  Prophetic would be a word in a half.  Quoting bits and pieces of it doesn’t do it justice; a full read is the only way to appreciate its sheer brilliance.

To sum up, Europe’s austerity measures backfired.  In essence they turned a weak but fledgling recovery into the motherload of all double dip recessions.  It isn’t just Spain, Portugal and Greece that are the problems, or for that matter the entire European Union.  Great Britain, which isn’t even part of EU because it had the good sense to keep its own currency, is now in a huge hole thanks to David Cameron’s obstinate policy of slash and burn.

The facts clearly indicate that while long-term debt remains a serious problem, the number one issue that needs to be dealt with is growth.  Matthew O’Brien in The Atlantic spoke to this point quite effectively:

Great Britain's experiment has been all pain and no gain. Britain's budget cuts haven't even bought them any more credibility in the eyes of markets than America's relatively spendthrift ways have.

That's the mistake Cameron's government made. They thought deficits mattered more than growth. They don't. That's not to say that Britain's budget cuts haven't reduced borrowing costs. They have. But not for the reason Cameron hoped for. Rather than "restoring confidence" in Britain's finances, austerity has destroyed confidence in Britain's growth. And, again, that's good news for borrowing costs. But it just shows how unnecessary austerity has been. Britain probably wouldn't be paying much, if any, more to borrow even if they hadn't narrowed their deficit. Consider that since Cameron was elected, British yields have fallen 181 basis points while American yields have fallen ... 170 basis points. But even if Britain did pay more, that would be good news! It would mean that their economy is growing enough that investors are more worried about inflation than low-growth.

The real test is going to be whether Barack Obama can hold off the horde of austerity buffs who want to repeat in America what has already pretty much failed in Europe.  The good news is that thanks to the debt-ceiling “deal” last year, we won’t have to go through another shut-down circus scenario until after the election; the bad news is that Republicans have basically taken a stand against any bipartisan measures to try and help the economy.  Translation: a political stalemate and a recovery limping along at 1.5% annual growth.

And while that may be a pretty hard sell for the President this fall, it’s a hell of a lot easier than the burden Mr. Cameron has on his hands in merry old England.


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Idiots' Delight

Usually I wait till the end of the month to do this segment, but I just couldn’t wait that long.  Besides, if anybody manages to beat out these two morons, I guess I’ll just have to do two segments instead of my usual one.  Somehow, I doubt that will be the case here.  Both these dumbasses finished in a dead heat.  I’m not much of a bettin’ man, but, if I were, I’d bet the ranch that this month’s Idiots’ Delight feature will be in the running for the year-end award.

Well, enough with the intro, let’s have at it.

Neil Munro and Tucker (Bowtie) Carlson.  It should come as no surprise to anyone that President Obama has been thoroughly disrespected by a multitude of people from the right-wing media to members of Congress (bet you thought we’d forgotten about you, Joe Wilson), but this latest affront was so egregious and so over the top, it left even me speechless, and that takes a lot.

In case you missed it – and you would’ve had to have been off the planet or in a coma to miss it – Neil Monro of The Daily Caller repeatedly interrupted the President while he was delivering a speech to a press gathering.  Despite several attempts by Obama to explain that it was not the time for questions, Monro persisted in his heckling.

How bad was Monro’s conduct?  Former spokesman for George W. Bush, Tony Fratto, along with Fox News anchors Shepard Smith and Chris Wallace condemned it, that’s how bad.  All three said that Monro should have his White House credentials revoked.  You know you’ve stepped in some pretty deep shit when a former member of the Bush Administration and two Fox employees end up defending this president over you.  I’m pretty sure it’s a crime punishable by torture [or being forced to watch Gretchen Carlson and Steve Doocey try their hand at journalism.  Oh wait, that’s the same thing] to side with Obama on anything over at Fox, so trust me, Monro really screwed up here.

But, as atrocious as Monro’s insolence was, it was equaled only by his boss, Tucker Carlson.  Seems old Bowtie couldn’t understand what all the hubbub was about.  Not only did he defend Monro, he dug the hole deeper by insisting “This is what reporters are supposed to do.  They're supposed to get their questions answered.”

To emphasize his point, Carlson brought up Sam Donaldson, who was often an aggressive White House reporter during the Reagan years.  Of course, Bowtie conveniently forgot to mention that while Donaldson was aggressive in his questioning of Reagan, he never interrupted one of his speeches.  To do so would’ve been disrespectful and you just don’t do that to the President of the United States.

But therein lies the real crux of the matter: respect.  There’s just something about this President that somehow allows the Right to believe it can get away with virtually anything it wants with no consequence at all.  Even as unpopular as George Bush was, I don’t ever recall him being so thoroughly dissed.  Yes, he was fodder for the late-night comedians; yes his decision making was often fair game for his opponents.  But while the Left blasted him for his policies, it never pulled the kind of stunts that Neil Monro pulled at this briefing.  I don’t recall one Senator or Congressman shouting out “You Lie,” during a Bush address.  And if ever there was a president who deserved to have those words shouted at him, it would’ve been old W for sticking us with the a trillion dollar illegal war. 

I guess that’s the price you have to pay when you’re the political equivalent of Jackie Robinson.  You have to take the barbs and the slights so that you don’t come off as an angry black man.  Except for one thing.  While Robinson had to walk and act like a gentlemen in public, even while being called every despicable name possible, it was on the playing field that he exacted his revenge.  Robinson was merciless towards his opponents.  He was one of baseball’s most fierce competitors.  He was more than just the first of his kind; he raised the standard by which all ballplayers – black and white – are measured.  That’s why he’s in the hall of fame.

Obama, by contrast, has adopted Robinson’s public persona, with none of his fiery competitiveness in the field of play.  The result has been that his opponents often consider him an easy mark.  In his zeal not to be seen as merely a black man – as though that were even possible – he has ironically unleashed the worst vestiges of a segment of the population that sees nothing but his skin color.  No matter how hard he tries, he can’t hide the fact that he is a black man in a white man’s world.

And because he naturally wants to prove he is above those who hold such views, he ends up enabling idiots like Neil Monro and his asinine boss Tucker Carlson to imply with a straight face that they are only doing their jobs.

They may not think their actions are racist, but they are.  And the longer this President keeps pretending he can take the high road, the more emboldened they become.  I have said this on more than one occasion.  Obama needs to get his dander up.  No he doesn’t have to go all gansta on his opponents, but he needs to stop being a human piñata.

I was certainly no fan of George Bush, but there was one trait of his that I did admire.  He had the ability to completely ignore any criticism that was levied at him and just go with what his gut told him.  In fact, every president I can think of from Clinton to Reagan to Johnson to Truman had an innate ability to both drive a narrative while at the same time damning the torpedoes.  Not one of them would’ve allowed themselves to be treated in such a humiliating fashion.

By comparison, Obama seems like the college professor who is desperately trying to persuade the miscreants in his class that they should study harder so they can get better grades.  You don’t reason with hatred and ignorance; you call it out for the world to see.

Is there a possibility that by standing up to it that Obama might be seen as overreacting and playing the race card?  I submit it’s a little late in the game to worry about that.  The Right has been playing the race card for four years.  It’s high time this President called them on it.  Jackie Robinson was black; so was Curt Flood.  Right now the country needs the latter more than the former.

Americans love a fighter.  It’s time Barack Obama learned to put up his dukes.


Sunday, June 10, 2012

June Swoon

As months go, this June is shaping up as quite the stinker. First the jobs’ numbers show anemic growth for the month of May; then Bill Clinton goes off the reservation by suggesting that the Bush tax cuts should be extended; and now the Wisconsin recall gut punch.  Don’t forget, the Supreme Court is due to release its decisions on the Affordable Health Care Act and the Arizona immigration law any time now, so we could be looking at one hell of a shit sandwich before it’s all over.

While it’s only been a few days since Scott Walker “survived” his brush with political oblivion, after reading the various takes on what happened and why, I thought I’d chime in with my own two and a half cents worth.

What happened in Wisconsin can be attributed to two factors: money and incompetence.  Regarding the former, Walker outspent his opponent by a seven to one margin thanks not only to the Citizens United ruling but also to a rather quirky state law passed in 1987 that exempts incumbents facing recall from the typical contribution limits of a challenger.  In other words, Walker’s contributors could donate any amount they wanted while Barrett’s contributors were limited to a maximum donation of $10,000.  Anybody want to take a stab at how many FOW’s (Friends of Walker) had more than $10,000 just lying around?  A hell of lot more than Tom Barrett would’ve had that’s for sure.

But if money played a huge role here, it was not the decisive reason for Walker’s win.  For one thing, exit polls indicated that a majority of voters who voted in the election said they were likely to vote for the President in November, including 18% of those who supported the Governor.  If this was a mandate for Walker, I’m sorry, I missed it.

So if it wasn’t a mandate, then what the hell was it?  In short, it was a referendum on the whole idea of a recall.  As strange as it may sound, while a majority of voters did not favor the tactics that Walker used against the unions, that wasn’t enough to convince them that he needed to be replaced, especially by the guy who got his butt kicked by him in 2010.  I don’t know what genius thought it was a good idea to re-run Tom Barrett against Walker, but whoever it was needs to be run out of town.  The conventional wisdom is that once you lose – and lose big – you sit out the next election.  Even Nixon waited eight years before he ran for president again after losing to Kennedy in 1960.  Apparently the Barrett campaign never got that memo.

But even before Barrett won the Democratic primary, it was clear that the strategy was to make the recall about Walker versus the unions.  Back in January, I expressed grave concerns about such a strategy, believing that state Republicans would use it against the Democrats.  Evidently no one was listening.  Walker, in a classic application of divide and conquer that would’ve made Marx grin, tapped into the unrest of the electorate by reminding them of how privileged their union counterparts were.

In a brilliant op-ed piece in The Huffington Post titled “Lessons Learned,” Jason Linkins nailed it in one paragraph:

The real story here is that the strategy of rechannelling all that post-crash, populist angst and anger away from the malefactors of the financial crisis and directing it back at the larger, middle-class community worked like a charm in Wisconsin. Scott Walker performed to his patrons' expectations, successfully creating a zero-sum game in which one group of have-nots was pitted against another group of have-nots. You can distill Scott Walker's message down to this: “The reason you are suffering is because your neighbor takes home a pension and a health benefit.”
The problem for the Democrats from day one was that, by making it solely about the rights of the unions to collectively bargain, they ostensibly opened the door for the GOP to rub it in the noses of the millions of non-unionized workers who weren’t the favorite sons and daughters.  The Democrats have their backs; we’ve got yours!

Of course, all that was bullshit.  Unfortunately for Tom Barrett, when it comes to building a narrative that resonates with voters – true or otherwise – Republicans have it down to a science.  Just look at how deftly they redefined the whole healthcare debate into a death panel canard.  In a few short months, they had a majority of voters convinced that the government was going to euthanize their grandparents.

And now the party that lied through its teeth about healthcare and painted union workers as leeches, is now in the process of undertaking the endeavor of a lifetime: dressing up its national image so it can win a general election.  After a contentious and embarrassing primary season in which the inmates had all but burned down the asylum, Mitt Romney, the reluctant conservative, is now running neck and neck with Obama in several key swing states.  Wisconsin hasn’t gone red since Reagan in ’84; but with a Walker win in the recall election, expect the GOP to pour in tons of cash and force the President to campaign hard to keep the state from tipping.  Funds that will be badly needed in Ohio, Florida and the mid-Atlantic states will have to be partially diverted to protect what should never have been in jeopardy in the first place.

This is the price you pay when you don’t win on the state level.  The DNC and the Administration were MIA throughout this whole process and they must share at least part of the blame.  Certainly the Citizens United decision is also partly to blame.  But the reality is that blaming Citizens won’t get the job done in November.  Like it or not, the nation is stuck with this horrible decision.  Democrats must make the most of it by picking their fights more closely and then engaging proactively in them.  Whatever else you might say about Republicans know this: when they see meat on the table, they don’t leave it there. 

Hunger can drive a person to do desperate things.  It’s hard to believe that only three years ago, political pundits were referring to the GOP as the next Whig Party, so out of touch were they.  Now the Republicans are a little more than five months away from wielding complete power in Washington. Crazy isn’t it how quickly things can turn on a dime.  Yes, as Cyndi Lauper once sang, money does change everything.  But it’s not so much the money as what you do with it that determines your fate. 

The Republicans have been unrelenting and consistent with their message ever since they got their asses kicked in ’08.  With a fervor seldom seen even in championship teams they have pursued the Democrats on every front and capitalized on the opportunities afforded them brilliantly.  They have been patient and diligent while their counterparts have been dazed and confused.  If the Democrats do not regain their mojo and become as hungry as their opponents they are in for some bitter times, not only this November but in Novembers to come.

The economy is barely moving forward, Europe remains a mess and last month’s campaign contributions showed Romney with more donations than Obama.  The scary thing in all this is that June might be a harbinger of things to come.  Obama will be hard-pressed to equal, much less surpass, his ’08 total of $750 million in contributions for the simple reason that most of his likely donors just don’t have the money they did four years ago.  His SuperPac will help, but let’s face it: there are a lot more conservative millionaires and billionaires out there than there are liberal ones.

Reality sure does suck sometimes.  But crying over it won’t change a thing.  When life deals you lemons, you make lemonade out of them.  What you don’t do is take the lemons and go home.