Monday, October 28, 2013

Sandy: One Year Later

When I lost power that Monday afternoon, I was unaware of the carnage that was being visited upon the New York / New Jersey area. Outside, Superstorm Sandy, the largest hurricane to hit the northeast since 1938, was just making landfall. With nothing but a few flashlights and a portable radio, my wife and I hunkered down and rode out the storm. Luckily, save for a couple of branches on our front lawn, we survived unscathed.

That was more than could be said for many. Sandy had devastated much of the shoreline of Long Island and New Jersey. Lower Manhattan was under water. Tens of thousands of homes and businesses were either destroyed or damaged and hundreds of thousands more were without electricity and, in some cases, running water. It would take weeks before full power could be restored to the region and many more months before the damage that those homes and businesses sustained was repaired.

When the dust finally settled, Sandy ended up being the second costliest hurricane on record to the tune of $68 billion. Only Katrina, at $128 billion, topped it. In all, 286 people lost their lives, more than half of them American citizens in the epicenter of the storm's fury.

In every way imaginable, Sandy was our Katrina: the knockout punch that we always knew was out there, but never believed would touch us. A year earlier, Irene gave us a scare, but, in the end, save for some inland flooding, it turned out to be a non-event for a majority of residents. This time we caught the bullet. This time there was nowhere to run and hide.

It is said that in New Orleans, the biggest feeling exhibited by most of the population, other than  profound sadness at the loss of life, was that of shock and awe at what nature had just unleashed upon their beloved city. Now, for the first time, New Yorkers and New Jerseyans knew firsthand what it felt like to be part of a human tragedy. No longer were we simply spectators to other people's suffering; now we were part of the main event. Death and destruction had landed on our front porch and, in some cases, in our very living rooms. After eight decades of near misses, fate finally caught up to us.

One year later, Sandy stands as a testament to the hubris of those who naively believed they were impervious to the effects of the elements. If we have learned anything from all this it is that attempting to reason with or tame the forces of nature is as foolish as the man who builds an "unsinkable" ship. Sooner or later an iceberg is bound to come along and wreck his plans.


Sunday, October 27, 2013

Calling A Spade A Spade

Jamelle Bouie has a piece in The Daily Beast this week that deals with email comments made by Alan Grayson in which he compared the Tea Party with the Ku Klux Klan. Understandably, the comments have drawn a lot of attention as well as a lot of criticism, most of it from Republicans.

While Bouie does call out Grayson and points out that, however "objectionable" the Tea Party may be, they are a "far cry" from what the Klan was in its heyday, he does draw some distinctions between both, particularly with respect to how both view an emerging cultural diversity in the country and how that diversity is perceived as a threat to their way of life. The fact that the overwhelming majority of Tea Partiers are white and older is indicative of a "reactionary" fear of a future that portends less power and affluence for them. Such fears are often expressed in racist terms.

Such an expression recently reared its ugly head, ironically enough, in a segment on The Daily Show. In an interview with Aasif Mandvi, Don Yelton, a Republican precinct captain for the state of North Carolina, referred to some African Americans as "lazy black people that want the government to give them everything" and used the "N" word repeatedly.

The interview was enough to force Yelton's resignation, but not because of his racist comments; because he was stupid enough to admit what everyone already knew: that North Carolina's voter suppression law would "kick the Democrats in the butt." You don't let that cat out of the bag without paying a price.

But to the point at hand, these racist outbursts are becoming all too frequent in American society and it is simply not enough to dismiss them as the mere mindless ramblings of a few ignorant people. It's deeper than that. In many ways, part of what we're witnessing is as old as the Republic itself. Bouie explains:

For starters, it’s no accident that the Tea Party emerged during a period of mass immigration and rapid cultural change. Like the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s—which directed its energies against Catholic immigrants from Ireland—or the “modern” Klan of the 1920s—which, in addition to blacks, targeted Italians, Jews, and Eastern Europeans—the Tea Party has its roots in demographic anxiety; the profound fear that the country is turning into something foreign and un-American. Earlier this month, pollster Stan Greenberg released results from several focus groups he held with Tea Party and other Republican voters, in which they expressed their fears and concerns. His conclusion?

"They have an acute sense that they are white in a country that is becoming increasingly 'minority,' and their party is getting whooped by a Democratic Party that uses big government programs that benefit minorities, create dependency and a new electoral majority."

But I think it's far more sinister than that. There is an element of purity that runs throughout this movement that is eerily similar to what Germany went through in the 1930s. The effort to purge the GOP from so-called establishment Republicans and "retake" the country is right out of Mein Kampf.

In my opinion, Grayson missed the mark when he compared the Tea Party to the Klan. The real comparison should be to the Nazi movement. The us against them theme is classic fascist dogma. I'm not saying racism doesn't play a significant role here, but mere racism isn't enough to explain the maniacal fixation of this group. Their pursuit of political purity and their unwillingness to bend or compromise, even when it means almost certain cataclysmic consequences, is the driving force behind their tactics. Like the Nazi quest for racial purity, Tea Partiers see it as their duty to eliminate those who don't subscribe to their narrow interpretations of the Constitution. One of their loudest champions - Mark Levin - has been unapologetic about this quest.

The last time the world witnessed a movement like this, it took a global war resulting in millions of innocent lives lost to get rid of it. This time the stakes are a lot higher. Germany, while a formidable military power during its reign of terror, was not close to the scale of the United States. The prospects of the Tea Party movement joining forces with the neo-cons who view the loss of American world hegemony as a threat to its interests and the Christian Right which decries the breakdown of social mores and values would be a trifecta straight out of hell.

If there is one bright spot, it is that this movement, despite the rhetoric of its leaders, is not terribly popular with a majority of voters. In the recent government shutdown, they severely overplayed their hand and have made a lot of enemies within the financial community who would normally be sympathetic to their views. The Republican Party establishment is also beginning to push back against them, apparently undaunted by the specter of what will certainly be a wave of primary challenges next year.

No one knows for sure how all this will play out. But one thing is for certain: the racism the permeates the Tea Party is as overt as any we've seen in this country in over a century. And their motives couldn't be more obvious. The fact that Alan Grayson ruffled a few feathers and opened a scab that had grown infected, doesn't mean he was wrong to do it. Indeed, until the nation has the courage to clean this wound and let it heal properly, it will never be rid of the infection that continues to plague and undermine its alleged heritage.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

It's RINO Hunting Season

As some of you know, I make it a point to listen to as much AM hate radio as possible. Partly because deep down I'm a masochist, but mainly because of the Michael Corleone rule: keep your friends close but your enemies closer.

Now there's a tendency among many in the mainstream and the Left to view Rush Limbaugh as the leader of the wingnut contingent; he certainly has the ratings to back up such a claim. But I've always thought of Limbaugh more as the class clown than a leader; the guy who sits in the back of the room cracking offensive and crude remarks designed to disrupt the class. A nuisance but hardly a threat. Even his famed ratings are a bit of a mirage. It wouldn't surprise me to find out that more than half of Rush's listeners aren't even "Ditto Heads." They're just tuning in to hear what obnoxious thing he will say next.

But of all the hate mongers on the air, none have the street cred of Mark Levin. Intellectually speaking, Levin is light years ahead of Limbaugh.  While Limbaugh was embroiled in the infamous Sandra Fluke "slut" controversy, it was Levin's Landmark Legal Foundation which was busy spearheading the challenge to the Affordable Care Act. In fact, it wrote the brief in the Supreme Court case that ended up - unfortunately for Levin - affirming the law's constitutionality.

It's no coincidence that Sean Hannity refers to Levin as "The Great One."  His roots go all the way back to the days of the Reagan Administration. As an attorney, he defended then Attorney General Edwin Meese during the Iran/Contra scandal. He has an affinity for words like "liberty" and "tyranny" - the title of one of his books - which he throws around the way some people throw around words like "the" and "a." His vitriol knows no bounds or has no equal.

If you've never had the "pleasure" of tuning in and experiencing for yourself Levin's hyperbolic ranting and raving, all I can say is you owe it to yourself to check it out just once. Listening to Levin is like watching the hotfoot scene in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, where all patients on the ward go berserk. Calling him tightly wound would be putting it mildly. The man is a virtual supernova.

But what makes Levin particularly dangerous isn't his over-the-top rhetoric; it's the weight he carries with ultra right-wing conservatives, particularly Tea Party conservatives. They practically worship the ground the guy walks on. Among the faithful, a Levin endorsement is as good as gold. Conversely, if you piss him off, he will unload on you.

People like Levin have more sway and authority over the Tea Party than you would imagine. While Limbaugh, Hannity, et al all bemoaned the debt-ceiling deal that reopened the government and extended the debt limit, it was Levin that went a huntin. He made no bones about how he felt and he named names. And his listeners took notes.

If I were an establishment Republican right about now, I'd start looking over my shoulder. The Tea Party may represent a small percentage of the population, but what they lack in numbers they more than make up for in zeal and commitment. Remember, these were the people who thought it was no big deal to default on the nation's credit just to defund a law that couldn't actually be defunded. Dangerous and dumb is a deadly combination and this lot is loaded with both.

I can't predict what will happen in January and February regarding the budget and debt ceiling. What I can guarantee is that the Republican Party is about to get a colon cleansing, courtesy of the most extremist element the nation has seen since the days of the Reconstruction period. Not only aren't they going away, they are determined to take over the GOP and transform it into their own image.

With the Koch Brothers bankrolling them and ideologues like Mark Levin stoking them on, I wouldn't bet against them prevailing.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Not So Fast

According to a piece in The Huffington Post, Democratic prospects for taking the House in 2014 are looking good. Very good, in fact. The optimism is based on a survey conducted by Public Policy Polling which shows that Democrats could net as many as 49 seats. In other words, a wave election similar to that of the 2010 midterms that saw the GOP sweep into power.

This is not the first time we've seen projections of a sea change in the House. Back in June, another poll conducted by Democracy Corps also hinted that Republicans were in danger of losing the House and for the same reasons: voter dissatisfaction with the GOP. Obviously, with the government shutdown not sitting well with a majority of voters, Democrats are understandably giddy.

Well, at the risk of once more being labeled a Debbie Downer, I'm not as enthusiastic. Don't get me wrong, if Democrats take the House next year, I'll be doing cart wheels. But before anyone goes popping champagne corks, there are a number of obstacles in the road to victory that could prove problematic.

First, while it's true the Tea Party-led insurrection that led to the government shutdown badly damaged the GOP, the problem for Democrats is that the midterm elections are still a year away. Twelve months is a lifetime in politics. In fact, it's a couple of lifetimes. If there's one thing we've learned from the GOP it's that they are extremely adept at spinning their way out of any predicament; even those predicaments they get themselves into.

Secondly, Obamacare hasn't exactly gotten off to a rousing start. There's no way to soft soap this: the website has been a brutal disaster. The irony here is had the Republicans not been so obsessed with shutting down the government in a hissy fit and instead sat back and let the healthcare law kick in, it's entirely conceivable that instead of talking about Tea Party extremism, we'd be talking about government incompetence. Guess what Republicans will be fixated on in the months ahead?

One bright spot that Democrats can hang their hats on is that Ted Cruz and company apparently haven't learned their lesson and are preparing for another go around at derailing the Affordable Care Act. Cruz has been adamant that he will do whatever it takes to stop Obamacare no matter how much damage it does to his party's standing. Mitch McConnell will have his hands full in the Senate trying to stop him.

The civil war that is about to engulf the GOP is another bright spot for Democrats. Primary challenges are almost certain to topple some establishment Republicans, which will give Democratic opponents in the general election a considerable advantage. Can you say Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin?

All things considered, I'd much rather be a Democrat going into 2014 than a Republican. I'm just not as optimistic when it comes to making grandiose predictions. I'm cautious that way. Maybe it's the Mets fan in me. I'm used to getting my heart broken.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Moment of Truth for the GOP

Now that the great government shutdown of 2013 is over, there has been a plethora of pontification from the pundits on who won and who lost. Let me just cut to the chase here: nobody won and everybody lost.

Really, $24 billion sucked out of the economy, hundreds of thousands of workers furloughed, no head start, no meals on wheels, the entire Republican Party reduced to the level of the Keystone Cops and a political process that is more polarized and paralyzed than at anytime in the history of the Republic. You find me a winner in there somewhere.

Yes it was refreshing to see Barack Obama finally stand his ground and refuse to negotiate with a loaded gun to his head. Obviously he learned his lesson after 2011. Hopefully he can bottle that newfound steadfastness; he's going to need it at least a few more times before he leaves office. And while we're at it, kudos to Harry Reid, who did most of the heavy lifting in the Senate. Nice all around job by both men.

Winners and losers aside, the real issue for me comes down to two basic questions: What have the Republicans learned from this debacle? What are they prepared to do about it? If the last few days are any indication, the answer to both is nothing.

Basically, the GOP has fractured into two factions: those who hate Obama and are committed to defeating him and his "agenda" at every turn but want everybody to see them as reasonable and those who hate Obama and are committed to defeating him and his "agenda" at every turn and don't give a rat's ass how they look or sound while they're doing it.

David Frum once said that the problem with the Republican Party wasn't its message but its messengers. I respectfully disagree. Want to know the difference between Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz? Simple, the latter is a sociopath. Aside from that, both men are virtually identical in their ideology and temperament. Let's not forget that long before Cruz got elected, it was McConnell who proudly declared that his number one objective was to make Obama a one-term president. That hardly sounds reasonable. In fact, it's straight out of the Roger Ailes play book.

Spare me all the moderate Republican hokum. There are no moderates in the Republican Party and there haven't been in a very long time.  The Party of Lincoln is now the Party of Goldwater. Want proof? The loudest critic of the GOP's tactics during the shutdown was none other than Peter King. If Peter King is a moderate than Sarah Palin is Elizabeth Warren. And then there was Tom Coburn, the so-called "friend" of Barack Obama who is another supposedly "moderate" Republican senator, gleefully boasting that defaulting on the debt was no big deal.

Give me a break!

Take a good, hard look at all the so-called moderate Republicans who had the "courage" to "challenge" their party the last two and a half weeks. What you'll find is startlingly. Almost to a man and woman they were united in their stance against Obama and his healthcare law. The difference came down to strategy. When Peter King called his party nuts, he was referring to its tactics, not its aims and goals.

The real problem with the Republican Party isn't just the crazies that have taken over, but the power structure in general. The Party has moved so far to the right over the last couple of decades that there just isn't any room for moderation to flourish. Show me an Eisenhower or a Teddy Roosevelt anywhere in this lot. Shit, show me a Nixon, for that matter. You won't find them, because the Party has basically chased them away. Old-guard conservatives like Dick Lugar and Olympia Snowe are being systematically purged like the plague. Chris Christie, one of the few independent voices left in the Party, is shunned and despised by the base.

It's easy to blame the Tea Party, but the fact is that there is no one in the GOP who has had the real courage to not only criticize the insanity within the rank and file, but the actual orthodoxy, as well. Basically, the main positions of the Republican Party have remained unchanged and unchallenged since Ronald Reagan rode his white horse into town. Oh, there have been a few dissenters - Bruce Bartlett comes to mind - but none of them have had the juice needed to affect change within the party apparatus. Truth is, I can't think of another political movement that has been this static and moribund for this long and survived.

Consequently, the Republican Party has been reduced to second tier status on a national level and wields power in the House only through the auspices of gerrymandering. In essence, you have competing interests within the Party. The House fears primary challenges; the Senate and RNC general elections. Schizophrenics are more stable.

And it is those competing interests that make it extremely unlikely that anything will change in the near future. The House is beholden to the interests of a narrow slice of the electorate. Without exception, every representative who voted for the debt-ceiling deal has a bull's eye on their back. Many of them will be primaried next year and some of them will lose to candidates even more extreme than they were.

While this is certainly good news for Democratic prospects down the road, it is bad news for the nation as a whole. Reoccurring crises may be fodder for the wing nuts who view it as their life's mission to take back a country they feel was stolen from them, but as a way of governing it is an abject failure. For the political process to work, both parties must be contributing partners.

This is a moment of truth for the GOP, a turning point, if you will. The Party can either learn from its mistake or it can continue along the same disastrous path that almost destroyed the U.S. and global economies. Expecting the Tea Party to change its tactics is naïve and dangerous; expecting that somehow this malignancy can be reasoned with or managed is equally delusional. Far from moderating or slowing up, the Tea Party is ramping up its efforts for the next fight. One does not reason with a madman.

In the late 1980s, the Democratic Party stood on the verge of electoral extinction. It had just been drubbed in its third consecutive presidential election. While it continued to hold Congress, nationally the party was seen as out of touch with the American mainstream. All seemed lost until the emergence of Bill Clinton in 1992. Clinton ran a center-left campaign that appealed to voters and he won the general election that year. While progressives were disappointed, they managed to swallow their pride.

Admittedly, the spot Republicans find themselves in is far worse than the predicament Democrats were in 25 years ago. For one thing, progressives weren't threatening to destroy the country if their demands weren't met. But in many ways, the disconnect between the local and national parties was eerily similar. It wasn't until Clinton's election that Democrats had their epiphany. Ever since, they have been primarily a center-left party

My gut tells me that there are moderate Republicans out there; Republicans who don't think Obama is a socialist out to destroy America. They believe in lower taxes, but believe in investments in infrastructure and education. While they believe that there are some regulations that are excessive, they're not naïve enough to believe that corporate America should get carte blanche when it comes to the environment and the financial industry. They believe in a strong defense, but don't feel the Pentagon should have a larger budget than the next ten countries combined. While they are still pro-life, they reject the demonization of gays and lesbians that their party has made a living on.  Most of all they aren't locked in a "government is the problem" paradigm. They believe government does have a role to play in both society and the economy. For them it's a matter of degree.

I think there is a strong demand within the electorate for these moderate Republicans, as well as moderate Democrats. With all the talk about the bases driving their respective parties, it's center that drives the country. Fact is, Reagan's Democrats and Clinton's Republicans were the same demographic group. A Republican who could speak to that demographic would be more popular than most believe. He or she could easily be the next president.

It's hard to imagine, but forty years ago the Republican Party was considered mainstream. It was Nixon who created the Environmental Protection Agency and established relations with Communist China. The Democratic Party, by contrast, appealed to what we might commonly refer to as fringe voters. It wasn't until Reagan, that the GOP began its long rightward march. The Tea Party is but the pièce de résistance of a thirty year journey.

The challenge for the Republican Party is to reclaim the place it once occupied in American politics, where policies like supply-side economics were rightfully called voodoo and compromise wasn't considered a four-letter word. It's important to remember the Tea Party didn't just seize control of the GOP; it was invited in with open arms.

The nice thing about invitations, though, is that they can be revoked. The GOP isn't helpless. They made this pact with the devil; they are more than capable of breaking it. All it takes is one or two brave souls to speak up and say "enough." To some extent we are already beginning to hear a few rumblings from within the rank and file. Some have grown tired of the shenanigans of Ted Cruz and his contingent. Frustration is also being expressed by the financial community who are long-time supporters of the GOP and are understandably concerned that this fringe element could threaten their interests. Some have vowed to take action if this doesn't abate. Such news is certainly reassuring.

But it will take a lot more than one or two voices in the choir and a few disgruntled donors to exorcize this demonic presence. Collectively, the Republican Party truly needs to take stock of itself. It must decide whether it wants to be taken seriously as a national party or whether it wants to remain the fringe party that it has become. Doubling down on failed strategies or cowering to extremist elements simply to appease a smaller and smaller insular demographic is a sure fire way to consign it to the same fate as that of the Whig Party.

One thing is certain, the country can't take this three ring circus much longer.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


In the end, all the huffing and puffing, all the bravado and chest thumping, all the threats and extortion demands amounted to nothing. The Republican-led shutdown is finally over and what do they have to show for it? A big fat goose egg, that’s what. Worse, they lost ground. The very thing they had hoped to eliminate – Obamacare – not only ended up surviving intact, it’s actually more popular than it was before this whole nonsense got started. How’s that for irony?

This wasn’t about politics or about the art of negotiating or about government spending or about the deficit or any other bullshit the GOP spin doctors will attempt to make it about in the weeks ahead. This was about a group of terrorists who commandeered the House Republican caucus and held a gun to the heads of about 300 million Americans.  Period!  A group that couldn’t accept the results of two elections and a Supreme Court decision and, in the end, made themselves and their colleagues – especially their beleaguered leader - look like buffoons to the entire world.

Comparing this movement to a cancer in the body politic doesn’t begin to adequately describe it. Cancers can at least be removed surgically. Thanks to gerrymandering, this malignancy is for all intents and purposes inoperable. Even with all the damage they caused in the last couple of weeks and the catastrophe they damn near brought about, Republicans will still likely hold onto the House next year. And that means this sick and twisted group of sociopaths isn’t remotely done with inflicting their brand of terror on the country.

Forget next January and February. Try imagining this circus occurring every three to six months for the next three years; longer if Democrats don’t take back the House in 2016. The two characteristics all insane people possess are a relentlessness that knows no bounds and a complete inability to be reasoned with. Those two characteristics define the Tea Party to a, you’ll pardon the pun, tee.

And Ted Cruz, the self-appointed emperor of this movement and master architect of this siege, who deliberately and maliciously sprinkled itching powder all over the House of Representatives and then split like a bat out of hell, stood on his soapbox in front of reporters, unabashedly and defiantly proclaiming victory while his party was imploding. He didn’t even have the decency not to upstage his own leader who was at that very moment addressing the Senate. But who cares about little things like class when you’re locked in your own private echo chamber. Self-justified and self-absorbed, he has become a rock star to the bubble people. Right up there with Sarah Palin, Jim DeMint, Mark Levin and all the other Orcs in Mordor.

But the real villain here isn’t Cruz and his cronies; it’s the Republican Party as a whole. It’s one thing for a delinquent child to act up; it’s quite another when the parents enable him. I don’t want to hear anything about how Mitch McConnell came through at the 11th hour and forged a deal with Harry Reid to save the day. Where was McConnell weeks earlier when Cruz was staging his fake filibuster on the floor of the Senate?

And for that matter what kind of Speaker of the House permits a junior senator from the upper chamber to ostensibly usurp his authority over his own caucus? All we kept hearing from pundits over the last few weeks was that John Boehner was no ideologue, that he didn’t want any part of this stupidity. You coulda fooled me. Boehner’s inability to lead this fractious caucus was the primary reason the nation almost hit its debt ceiling.

Indeed the entire leadership of the Republican Party was AWOL throughout this ordeal and must bear the brunt of the responsibility for the damage it allowed to happen. According to S&P, the U.S. economy lost roughly $24 billion during the shutdown. That is inexcusable.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the underwriters of this freak show: the rich and shameless who built the Frankenstein monster, turned it loose on the village and then sat back and watched it almost burn to the ground. If ever there was an argument for campaign-finance reform you saw it clearly over the last few weeks. The love child of the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, Freedom Works, Club for Growth and the Heritage Foundation ran roughshod and unchecked over the Congress. They are as complicit as the spineless leaders of the GOP.

Even now, they are plotting their revenge in the form of primary challenges to any and all so-called RINOs who caved on their “principles” and abandoned the cause. Not only haven’t they learned anything from this near-death experience, they are ramping up for another skirmish. They already have January 15th marked on their calendar. To a man and woman they were willing to shoot the hostage this time around just to prove a point. Next time, you can bet the ranch they’ll pull the trigger.

That’s why I know this isn’t over, not by a long shot. Forget the polls; these people don’t read them anyway. Forget facts; they could care less.  You can’t reason with people who are mad enough to crash a world economy over a bankrupt ideology.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

House of Horrors

Just when it looked like the Senate was this close to hashing out a truly bi-partisan deal to avert a catastrophe, John Boehner threw a monkey wrench into the works by announcing that the House would be voting on its own bill. That gave Mitch - just call me primaried - McConnell the excuse he needed to bail on the Senate bill he'd been working on with Harry Reid.

And now that same monkey wrench that Boehner threw at the Senate has come back like a boomerang, courtesy of the very same far-right band of gypsies that he has been catering to for more than a month. As of this writing, Republican leadership doesn't have the votes to actually bring a bill to the floor. Hence, it has pulled it.

So basically, with about two days to go, there is no Senate bill and no House bill. In effect, Congress is back to square one. Even if the Senate resumed its efforts and managed to craft a bill by tomorrow, the likelihood is that it would be held up by either Ted Cruz or Mike Lee or both.

The inmates of this asylum are determined to burn the whole damn house down unless they get their way. I would say they are behaving like four year olds, but that would do a disservice to four year olds everywhere.

It's looking more and more as though the United States will default on its debt, which will formally take place at the stroke of midnight this Thursday, according to the Treasury Department. Already, there are warning signs that the financial community is not only losing faith, it's losing patience.

Over the last few days, both Fidelity and JP Morgan have dumped government treasuries in anticipation of a default. So far, the selloff has been limited to 1-month bonds. And just today, Fitch, the third largest credit agency, issued a warning that it is considering downgrading America's AAA rating. Two years ago, you'll recall, S&P downgraded the U.S. for just flirting with the idea of a default. Almost everyone agrees that an actual default will guarantee a downgrade by all the credit agencies and trigger a wholesale selloff of treasuries and a stock market tumble.

As if that wasn't bad enough, The New York Times is reporting that there is an "open revolt" in the House between the hard liners and the more pragmatic caucus. It's a virtual free-for-all. Some have openly questioned whether Boehner even has enough juice left to permit a vote on a Senate bill. So imagine a scenario where Reid and McConnell manage to get their bill passed without Cruz or Lee holding it up and Boehner can't even bring it to the floor.

Over the last few days, this has gone from mildly amusing to frustrating to flat out frightening. In my 52 years on this planet, I have never met a group of individuals so determined to commit suicide and homicide all at the same time. Hundreds of millions of people are about to be deeply impacted by the irresponsible actions of a few dozen insane ideologues.

And that will be a sad day for America.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Three Things To Be Grateful for During the Government Shutdown

While I am not usually an optimist by nature, I do feel there are three things progressives can be grateful for during this whole shutdown/debt ceiling fiasco:

One: The President managed to keep his healthcare law intact, regardless of whether or not the medical device tax is sacrificed in a deal. Republican attempts to repeal, defund, or delay it have not only thoroughly failed, they have managed to allow Obama to turn the tables on them and regain the mojo he lost in the 2011 debt-ceiling fiasco. Way to go, geniuses.

Two: Republicans, by insisting on shutting down the government over repealing, defunding or delaying the ACA, have managed to do what years of Democratic campaigning have been unable to: split the GOP into two warring factions. Establishment Republicans are furious at the Tea Party for picking a fight with no end game and no chance of success. And Tea Partiers have doubled down on their rhetoric and are threatening to primary any Republican who bails on the cause. Oh, please, God, pretty please!

Three: The public has finally figured out what the Tea Party is and what they're up to. The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll speaks for itself. Republican popularity has now plummeted to the level of a sex offender on the lamb. In fact, you could say the public is way ahead of the main-stream press, most of whom seem obsessed with this nonsensical, both sides are to blame, false equivalence argument. By almost 2 to 1, the public rightfully blames the GOP for the shutdown and debt ceiling crisis. It's about fucking time.

To be honest, the third point impresses me the most. Those who know me will tell you I've never been much of an optimist when it comes to the public being able to figure out on their own the truth behind the whole Tea Party movement. Basically, most of them have been too busy with their mundane lives to pay much attention to it anyway. A simple glance at the ratings of various TV shows is all you need to know about what most people value. Fact is, you could add up all the viewers of Fox News, CNN and MSNBC and they wouldn't equal the number of viewers who tune in to watch Two and a Half Men or Big Bang Theory.

So it was a pleasant surprise to learn just how on top the public was regarding the causes of the government shutdown. Even those who self identify as Republicans have criticized their party for its conduct. This wasn't what they thought they were getting when they went to the polls in November of 2010. Many of them are reevaluating their overall opinion of the GOP. As a result, if the midterm elections were held today, Democrats would hold the Senate and regain the House.

While there's still a whole year to go before the actual midterms, Republicans have taken a huge hit in the eyes of a good many people. If the Tea Party decides to up the anti and follow through with their primary threats, 2014 could prove to be a VERY good year for Democrats.

And for that we can all be grateful.

A Government Stuck In Neutral

T-minus four days and counting till Armageddon and the prospects for a deal seem almost as remote now as they were a week ago. Frankly, I'm feeling more and more pessimistic with each passing hour.

In the Senate, both the Susan Collins plan and the Harry Reid plan went down to defeat. The Collins plan called for a continuing resolution to fund the government for six months at sequester spending levels, an extension of the debt ceiling through next January and a repeal of the medical device tax in the Affordable Care Act. It also would allow for each agency affected by the sequester to set priorities with respect to those spending levels, thus avoiding many of the furloughs that have hurt the economy. The Reid plan would've extended the debt ceiling through the end of 2014 with no additional conditions. In other words, it was a clean bill. 

Of course the problem really won't be the Senate. I expect something to come out of the upper chamber by Wednesday. The real problem is the House. Now that it is crystal clear that the Tea Party's attempt to derail Obamacare has failed, will John Boehner allow a bill on the floor that needs Democratic support. Until and unless that happens, we are spinning our wheels going nowhere fast.

My take on this is that the medical device tax is really no big deal. It is not integral to the ACA. Repealing it won't affect the law's implementation. The real sticking points for Democrats are spending, which for the moment is locked in at sequester levels, and the fact that by next January, we will have to revisit the whole debt ceiling issue again. Understandably, they want any deal to allow for the possibility of additional spending and a debt ceiling increase that takes them passed next year's midterms, possibly even into January of 2015.

So now Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell are holding meetings together to decide the fate of the U.S. and global economies. Basically, it comes down to whether Felix Unger and Oscar Madison can agree on a deal that not only will pass the Senate with 60 votes, but will pass the House with 217.

Like I said, the Senate isn't my concern. They'll pass something they and Obama can live with. My concern is whether John Boehner will do the right thing and put the country ahead of his speakership. It's clear he can't do both.

If the last few weeks are any indication, I would start dumping any 1 month Treasury bills from your 401k portfolio as fast as possible.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Dazed and Confused

What a difference two years makes. In 2011, Republicans huffed and puffed and blew the doors down on President Obama during the debt-ceiling debacle. That led to the sequester, arguably one of the worst pieces of legislation ever passed.

As you might recall, back then, the GOP was demanding massive spending cuts as a precondition to lifting the debt limit. They were willing to let the nation default if their demands were not met. Obama was on the defensive. The economy was barely out of the recession and he was facing what many thought was going to be a tough reelection. One could hardly have blamed him for doing what he thought was best, even if, as it turned out, the deal was a bad one for him and the country.

The problem for the President, however, is that a dangerous precedent had been established. Republicans now knew that they could hold Obama hostage and, inevitably, he would blink and give into their extortion. Which is what the GOP was banking on this time around. Going into this September, the consensus among many of them was that if they simply held their breath and counted to a zillion, daddy Barack would tuck them in with a cookie and a glass of milk.

Only this time, big daddy gave them the political equivalent of a time out. Obama rejected each and every demand House Republicans made on him. First, they demanded the healthcare law be defunded. No was what they heard. Next, they demanded the law be delayed for one year. Another no. Then they insisted on a one-year delay of the individual mandate. And, still, no.

Perplexed, Republicans sulked and accused the President of not compromising. The public, however, wasn't buying the sob story. An overwhelming majority of them blamed, and continue to blame, the GOP for the shutdown. And, as their poll numbers continue to sink faster than the Titanic, it is beginning to dawn on most of them that they aren't going to get their way. Despite the bravado by Tea Party groups who are responsible for this shutdown and default flirtation, Obama is NOT caving as expected.

Indeed, just the opposite appears to be happening. It is the GOP that is caving. Over in the House, Republicans are now scrambling for a solution to the problem they created. More and more of them seem willing to take on the extremists in their caucus and end the siege. Over in the Senate, the less extreme - we used to refer to them as moderate - Republicans are busy putting together their own bill which they hope will reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling. So far their efforts have fallen short, but at least some of them have seen the light.

In fact, the change in tone among Republicans has been remarkable to watch. In less than a week, the GOP has gone from confidently defiant to disconsolate. They are now in full retreat. Gone is any hope of either repealing or delaying Obamacare. Now the objective is to extricate themselves from this nightmare before they completely destroy themselves and the country.

Meanwhile, Obama, the man who caved in 2011, remains steadfast. He has made it abundantly clear to Republicans that he will not negotiate with a gun to his head. He's learned his lesson from that infamous deal and has decided this time to let Harry Reid do most of the heavy lifting.

The plan appears to be working. Republicans are divided and fighting amongst themselves. Many of them are furious at the Tea Party, especially Ted Cruz, who was the provocateur in this fight and now has disappeared altogether except for the odd fundraiser or two. Long established conservative funding groups - many of them affiliated with Wall Street - have called for an end to the debt-ceiling crisis, citing the dangers of a default. Talk about tigers eating their young.

But if Republicans are truly looking for someone to direct their anger at, all they need do is look in the mirror. In 2010, they hitched their wagons to a movement that made no bones about what their intent was. Openly, Tea Party candidates boasted they would either get their way or shut down the government. Anyone who feigns shock and ignorance by the recent turn of events was either not paying attention or complicit in the game plan.

While no one knows exactly how this will play out, one thing is certain: There's a new sheriff in town; and his name isn't Reggie Hammond.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Boehner In A Box

In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Mr. Spock enlists Captain Kirk's help in a mission to help the Klingons whose moon has suffered severe damage due to a massive explosion. Without help, the Klingon empire will collapse and their home world will be unable to sustain life.

Spock: Jim, there is an historic opportunity here.
Kirk: Don't believe them; don't trust them.
Spock: They're dying.
Kirk: Let them die.

Take away the facial makeup and the special effects and the GOP and the Klingon empire might as well be kissing cousins.  Funny how things turn out. Only a couple of years ago, thanks to the Tea Party, the Republicans were riding a wave as high as the Japanese tsunami. Now, thanks to that very same Tea Party, their approval numbers are at an all-time low. Worse, President Obama's approval numbers are rising. They are imploding and desperate for a way out of their predicament. Who will save them?

Unfortunately for John Boehner, there is no Mr. Spock to ride to the rescue this time around. Barack Obama and Harry Reid have him neatly boxed in. And, unless I've missed something, neither of them seem willing to let him out.

Boehner's latest scheme to release one of his two hostages - the debt ceiling - is nothing but a rouse. Both he and his "leadership" know full well that a default would be catastrophic for the nation. And just in case they don't, a number of their supporters have made it abundantly clear in the most simplest of terms. Strange how the most intransigent of politicians suddenly become amenable when the facts of life are "explained" to them.

To recap, Boehner is proposing a six week extension of the debt limit in return for a promise by Obama and Senate Democrats to agree to go to conference to "iron out" their differences. This was the same "offer" Boehner made to Reid two hours before the government shutdown took place. Naturally, of course, the shutdown remains in effect while the two sides hash out an agreement, which could mean Thanksgiving.

But, wait, it gets even better. According to The Daily Kos, there is a provision in the bill that, if passed, would severely limit the Treasury Department's ability to use "extraordinary measures to avoid default" through manipulation of certain funds and pensions. These steps buy precious time "while Congress debates terms for raising the debt ceiling."

Assuming there are enough Republican votes to pass it - Extremely Doubtful - Reid has said it is dead on arrival in the Senate. Instead, he is seeking to introduce his own legislation which would raise the debt ceiling through the end of 2014. The plan is to get six Republicans to join in and, thus, prevent a filibuster. If it passes, Boehner will once more have a decision to make: allow a straight up and down vote on the floor or continue allowing the Tea Party faction to hold his caucus and the nation hostage.

Either way, he's screwed.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Tip of the Hat

This month's Tip comes a bit early, courtesy of blog favorite David Frum. Frankly, after reading it, I'm convinced more than ever that if the Republican Party has any hope of winning a national election now or in the future, it desperately needs to heed the words contained below.

Of all the points / habits Frum raises in the piece, it is the 6th - Politics as war - that bears closest attention. It might be the most salient observation of the GOP's malady to date.

Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Political Parties

by David Frum Oct 8, 2013 5:45 AM EDT

When it comes to major policy battles, since 2009 the GOP is 0-3. Before it fails again, David Frum offers up seven ways the party is shooting itself in the foot.

Republicans have lost three major fights since 2009. They seem likely soon to lose a fourth—and all in the same way. The three previous losses (in case you’re feeling forgetful) were, in order:

Supporters cheer as former Republican presidential candidate, businessman Herman Cain, speaks during a Unity Rally Sunday Aug. 26, 2012

(1) The fight over Obamacare. Result: the most ambitious new social insurance program since Medicare, financed—unlike Medicare—by redistributive new taxes on investment and high incomes.

(2) The 2012 election. Result: Despite the worst economy since the Great Depression, the reelection of President Obama, Democratic retention of the Senate, and 1.4 million more votes cast for House Democrats than for House Republicans.

(3) The fight over the “fiscal cliff” at the end of 2012. Result: In order to preserve some of the Bush tax cuts, Republicans for the first time since 1991 left their finger prints on a tax increase for upper income groups.

Now comes fight (4), the fight over the government shutdown and the debt ceiling. This one isn’t lost yet. But unless Republicans are prepared to push the country into the catastrophe of national bankruptcy sometime around October 17, it’s hard to see how this one does not end in a Republican retreat, clutching whatever forlorn fig leaf they can negotiate from President Obama.

Behind all four defeats can be seen the same seven mistakes: what you might call the seven habits of highly ineffective political parties. Let’s call the roll:

Habit 1: Maximalist goals.

There’s a lot about Obamacare for a Republican not to like. But to demand Obamacare’s outright repeal (which is what “defunding” amounts to) barely 10 months after decisively losing an election in which Obamacare occupied a central place—well, that’s shooting for the moon. we’ve seen equivalent moon shots again and again since 2009. During the original Obamacare legislation, Republicans took the position: no, no, not one inch. During the election of 2012, Republicans were not content merely to replace one president with another. They also campaigned on the most radical platform the party since 1964. They wanted the biggest possible mandate. Instead they got whomped.

Habit 2: Apocalyptic visions.

Republicans have insisted on maximal goals because they fear they face a truly apocalyptic moment: an irrevocable fork in the road, with one path leading to socialist tyranny, the other to the restoration of the constitutional republic. There sometimes are such moments in history of nations. This is not one. If the United States has remained a constitutional republic despite a government guarantee of health care for people over 65, it will remain a constitutional republic with a government guarantee of health care for people under 65. Obamacare will cost money the country doesn’t have, and that poses a serious fiscal problem. But it’s not as serious a fiscal problem as is posed by the existing programs, Medicare and Medicaid, which cover the people it costs most to cover. It’s not a problem so serious as to justify panic.

Yet panic has gripped the Republican rank-and-file since 2009—and instead of allaying panic, Republican leaders have aggravated and exploited it, to the point where the leaders are compelled to behave in ways they know to be irrational. In his speech to the “Bull Moose” convention of 1912, Teddy Roosevelt declared, “We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord!” It’s a great line, but it’s not a mindset that leads to successful legislative outcomes.

Habit 3: Irrational animus.

Barack Obama was never likely to be popular with the Republican base. It's not just that he's black. He’s first president in 76 years with a foreign parent—and unlike Hulda Hoover, Barack Obama Sr. never even naturalized. While Obama is not the first president to hold two degrees from elite universities—Bill Clinton and George W. Bush did as well—his Ivy predecessors at least disguised their education with a down-home style of speech. Join this cultural inheritance to liberal politics, and of course you have a formula for conflict. But effective parties make conflict work for them. Hate leads to rage, and rage makes you stupid. Republicans have convinced themselves both that President Obama is a revolutionary radical hell-bent upon destroying America as we know it and that he's so feckless and weak-willed that he'll always yield to pressure. It's that contradictory, angry assessment that has brought the GOP to a place where it must either abjectly surrender or force a national default. Calmer analysis would have achieved better results.

Habit 4: Collapse of leadership.

The Republicans have always been the more disciplined of America’s two political parities, and today they still are. But whereas before, discipline used to flow from elected leadership down, today it flows from factional leadership up. An aide to Sen. Mike Lee told the National Review: “The minority of the minority is going to run things until our leadership gets some backbone.” The Lee aide was specifically referring to the Republican minority in the Senate, but the language has broader implication. According to Robert LaCosta, a well-sourced reporter at NRO: “What we’re seeing is the collapse of institutional Republican power ... The outside groups don’t always move votes directly but they create an atmosphere of fear among the members [of Congress].” Large organizations are inherently vulnerable to capture by tightly organized militant tendencies. This is how a great political party was impelled to base a presidential campaign on the Ryan plan—a plan that has now replaced the 1983 manifesto of the British Labour Party as “the longest suicide note in history.” It’s the job of leadership to remember, in the words of Edmund Burke, “Because half-a-dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field.” That job is tragically going undone in today’s GOP.

Habit 5: Self-reinforcing media.

The actor Hugh Grant once bitterly characterized his PR team as “the people I pay to lie to me.” Politicians do not always need to tell the truth, but they always need to hear it. Yet hearing the truth has become harder and harder for Republicans. It takes a very unusual spin artist to remember that what he or she is saying isn’t actually true. Non-politicians say what they believe. Politicians sooner or later arrive at the point where they believe what they say. They have become prisoners of their own artificial reality, with no easy access to the larger truths outside. This entombment in their own artificial reality was revealed to the entire TV-watching world in Karl Rove’s Fox News election night outburst against the Ohio 2012 ballot results. It was the same entombment that blinded Republicans to the most likely outcome of their no-compromise stance on Obamacare—and now again today to the most likely outcome of the government shutdown/debt ceiling fight they started.

Habit 6: Politics as war.

The business of America is business, as Calvin Coolidge said. American politics has been businesslike too. They understand that the business of the nation is ultimately settled by a small roomful of tired people negotiating their differences in the small hours of the morning: everybody gets something, nobody gets everything. It’s a grubby business, unavoidably, and most of the time, Americans understand that. They build statues to Martin Luther King. They elect Lyndon Johnson.

From time to time in American politics, differences arise that are too wide to negotiate. Slavery versus no slavery. Prohibition versus drink. Pro-life versus pro-choice. Professional politicians usually keep their distance from absolutist movements. As George Washington Plunkitt observed, “The politicians have got to stand together this way or there wouldn’t be any political parties in a short time.” That line was meant as a joke, but it contains truth. Professional politicians are disagreement managers. Since 2009, however, the GOP has given unprecedented scope to those who for their own ideological, financial, or psychological reasons refuse to allow disagreements to be managed—and instead relentlessly push toward the kind of ultimate crises the country so nearly escaped in 2011 and teeters again on the verge of today.

Habit 7: Despair.

The great British conservative historian Hugh Trevor Roper scoffed at the Marxist claim that history runs in one direction only. “When radicals scream that victory is indubitably theirs, sensible conservatives knock them on the nose. It is only very feeble conservatives who take such words as true and run round crying for the last sacraments.” The great conservative poet T.S. Eliot explained that there are no lost causes, because there are no won causes. How many ways can one express that idea? So long as there is life, there is hope; everything old is new again; etc. etc. etc.

The trouble with these assurances, however, is that they contain an implicit moral that politics is very hard work. Free-market economics—so discredited in the 1940s—returned to favor in the 1970s because of tireless research by brilliant economists. The excesses of the 2000s have undone that success, and now it will take serious thinking, and some necessary reforms, to repair the damage. It’s a tempting shortcut to throw up one’s hands and say, “I’ve seen the best of it. The future holds only darkness.” It’s especially tempting for a party that disproportionately draws its support from older voters. The fact is that for those of us over 50, the future offers us as individuals only decline leading to extinction. It’s natural to believe that what happens to us must happen to the world around us. Who wants to hear that things will become much, much better for humanity shortly after we ourselves shuffle off the scene? Yet of all mental errors, despair is the most dangerous to a democracy. The “politics of cultural despair” lead to authoritarianism and worse, as the German historian Fritz Stern warned in his history of that same title.

The man who has no hope will make the most irrevocable errors—and unnecessarily plunging the United States into the first national bankruptcy since the 1780s would be about as irrevocable as an error as history contains.


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Leadership Vacuum in the GOP

They say nature abhors a vacuum. If that's true, when it comes to the Republican Party, nature must be violently ill by now. I've never seen a major political party so rudderless, so inept and so bereft of even a semblance of leadership.  It's one thing to go out on a ledge; it's quite another to leap off it without a parachute.

For the past three years we've seen the GOP morph into a modern-day equivalent of an anarchist convention. At times it was amusing, others just frustrating, and still others, well, I guess pitiful is the best word I can come up with. But now, with just over a week to go before a debt-ceiling default, this isn't funny or frustrating or pitiful; this is flat out frightening. A majority of the minority party seem intent on doing irrevocable harm to the nation's - and perhaps the world's - economy unless the president agrees to their extortion demands.

We are about to enter into unchartered waters where only an insane person would dare go. But then insanity is what we are talking about here, pure and simple. To put it in context, roughly 80 House Republicans have taken over the asylum and are not only holding the country hostage, but members of their own party as well.  The House leadership, those entrusted with making the decisions that govern the chamber, have decided to lay down their arms and join forces with the lunatics. And the few "moderate" voices left in the party who know this is a fool's errand have elected to remain silent out of fear of retribution. This isn't the Republican Party anymore; it's the Sopranos.

The more I think about Speaker John Boehner, the more he minds me of the sheriff in the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. He's become an empty vessel, a "yes" man for the ring leaders. Deep down he knows this stunt will never work, but he's so weak and spineless, he can't bring himself to do what he knows is right.

For the first time since he assumed the mantel, the bullies have offered him a seat at the big-boys' table to break bread with them. It must've felt good not being picked on for once. Three years of being called a RINO and sellout can take their toll on a man, especially one as emotionally sensitive as Boehner. It matters not that he isn't really one of them, he's going along for the ride anyway.

The problem with the spineless, however, is that they can never stand up to the bullies. The truth is that Boehner has been the worst Speaker of the House quite possibly since the founding of the Republic. Under normal circumstances that wouldn't be a problem, but this isn't a normal circumstance; it's a crisis of historic proportions. Now, more than ever, the lower chamber needs a leader who can manage his caucus, not one who is managed by it.

Whatever else you may think about Nancy Pelosi, this would never have happened on her watch. When she was Speaker she ran her caucus, not the other way around. During the healthcare reform debate a majority of House Democrats wanted and passed a bill with a public option. They were incensed when the Senate stripped it out. Undaunted, Pelosi did the only thing possible; she convinced her caucus to bite down and swallow hard. They weren't going to get the bill they wanted, but something was better than nothing. She virtually willed that bill to passage and Barack Obama signed it into law. Can you imagine John Boehner pulling off that feat of magic? The question in itself is comical.

Real leaders lead; they don't cower. The 111th Congress was one of the most productive in history. By comparison, the 112th and 113th Congress was and is one of the least. This is not a coincidence. It comes down to the Speaker. Under John Boehner, the House of Representatives has become a laughing stock. He has enabled the Tea Party faction to drive agendas that have zero chance of becoming law and grounded the entire legislative branch to a virtual standstill.  41 times Boehner has permitted the House to pass a repeal of Obamacare. 41 times it failed to get past the Senate.

Now he has allowed this very same faction to drive the country all the way to precipice. This is no longer about his reputation. That's pretty much a done deal. The stakes are far greater this time around. Unless he comes to his senses and blinks, a world-wide recession could be his legacy.

John Boehner is no ideologue. He knows what would happen if the United States defaulted on its debt. That's what makes this so tragic. The only thing worse than an arsonist is the guy who sells him the gasoline.

Monday, October 7, 2013

T-Minus 10 days and Counting

Sometimes it feels as though I'm reporting on the goings on of a really bad soap opera. A little over two years ago, the nation came precariously close to defaulting on its debt. Tragedy was averted in the nick of time. In 10 days the U.S. will reach its debt limit. Once more, Republicans are holding the good faith and credit of the country hostage.

If you think that a shutdown (or as Fox News calls it, a slimdown) is bad, the ramifications of an actual default are incalculable. Complicating matters is the fact that many Republicans - specifically Tea Party Republicans - are convinced that defaulting is no big deal. The Treasury, they argue, takes in more than enough to make payments on the debt interest and other essential government functions. What's the big deal if some departments go unfunded, especially if they happen to be departments they don't like in the first place?

The ignorance of these law makers is astounding. They believe that raising the debt ceiling is no different than passing a budget that calls for more spending. If the government takes in $400 billion less in revenue than it spends, that would mean a deficit of $400 billion. So, naturally, the assumption is that raising the debt ceiling merely encourages Congress to spend more money than it has. If we simply balanced the federal budget the way homeowners are required to balance their personal budgets, there would be no need for a debt limit increase at all.

To make matters worse, a majority of Americans don't quite understand what the debt ceiling is either. To many of them it is complicated and abstract. They get budgets, but concepts like world-wide recession and global meltdown are treated like some bizarre sci-fi movie that depicts the end of the world: thrilling, but hardly believable.  Of course the fact that both of these crises are occurring in the same month isn't helping. If anything, it makes it all the more confusing.

One can hardly fault the average citizen for failing to grasp the severity of the crisis. After all, while the nation has gone through 17 government shutdowns, it has never defaulted on its debt. There's no precedent to fall back on; no, "Oh, I know what that's like" flashback moment. And for good reason. No one has been crazy enough to actually find out what would happen if the United States defaulted on its debt.

Until now, that is.

Just so we're clear. The debt ceiling has nothing whatsoever to do with future spending. What it is is a guarantee or promise by the federal government to honor debt that Congress has already authorized. So why does it have to be raised at all if all we're talking about is current debt? Why does the treasury need to raise it's borrowing limit by a trillion or two trillion dollars? Here's where it gets a little convoluted.

Let's say that you know you need to have $4,000 per month for household expenditures. These are expenditures that must be met if you expect to stay in your house. But you can't just tell your bank to transfer monies from your savings account to your checking account. Why? Because, technically the money isn't there, at least not all of it. You need authorization to borrow that amount. Without it, those bills that you know are due will not be paid. You have not incurred additional debt, you have simply run out of cash on hand to pay existing debt. The bank, in essence, is not authorizing more spending; it's simply authorizing payment of the bills that are coming due.

Now imagine a scenario where that bank doesn't grant the authorization to "honor" that existing debt. Other banks and lending institutions find out about it. Your word becomes worthless and all of a sudden the interest rates on your mortgage, car loan and credit cards begin to go up. Some of those loans might even get called, which could produce a cascade effect, inevitably leading to bankruptcy and financial ruin. Even if you manage to make partial payments on some of your debt, as some have suggested is a possibility, you have done irrevocable damage to your reputation; damage that may never be fully repaired.

That's the debt ceiling in a nut shell. U.S. treasury bonds, which have historically been the safest bet for investors, could plummet in value should we default. Global markets would undoubtedly tank and interest rates will go up. How much, nobody knows. But this much is certain: it will not be very pleasant. We could find ourselves right back where we were in the winter of 2009 when the DOW Jones lost half its value and the U.S. entered the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

The clock is ticking. October 17th is D-day. Billions of people will be negatively impacted if Congress doesn't act responsibly. Hoping for sanity to prevail isn't much to hang your hat on when you consider the people driving the bus seem intent on taking it over the cliff. After all, we're talking about a group that still thinks global warming is a hoax.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Art of Negotiating

To hear Harry Reid tell it, Republicans are having a tough time taking “yes” for an answer. While that may be true, the reason for that is because Democrats have historically had a hard time saying “no.”

By agreeing to sequester spending levels in the CR – levels, mind you, that were significantly lower than many of them wanted and the President himself called for – Senate Democrats ceded valuable leverage in what has turned out to be a nasty and protracted government shutdown.

Yes, GOP demands that Obamacare be defunded or delayed are doomed to failure; everyone knows this, including many Republicans. The problem for the Democrats is that, in order to arrive at an end to the shutdown and the raising of the debt ceiling, Democrats will probably have to agree to yet more fiscal concessions. Maybe not immediately, but certainly down the road.

Don’t be surprised if Obama and Reid borrow a page from the Cuban missile crisis. As we all know, in return for Khrushchev pulling his missiles from Cuba, Kennedy privately agreed to pull U.S. missiles from Turkey. If Boehner agrees to let a clean CR get an up and down vote and allows a debt ceiling increase through, say, the end of 2014, he would privately get assurances of additional spending cuts in the next budget, maybe even the Keystone pipeline.

In other words, by being the adults in the room and seeking a middle ground they thought everyone could live with, Democrats have shot themselves in the foot once more. They will end up preserving the President’s healthcare law intact, but it will come with a price tag elsewhere. So much for being the nice and reasonable guy.

Yes, Boehner is a terrible Speaker who has boxed himself into a corner, and, yes, the Republican Party has gone completely off the rails. But, mark my words, before this fiasco is over, he and his band of merry men will end up getting something out of this. They always manage to. And, for that, Democrats can only blame themselves.  

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Shades of 1995-96? Maybe Not.

The last time this happened was 1995-96. Then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich thought it would be a good idea to test then President Bill Clinton's resolve over budget negotiations. It turned out to be a bad idea; one Gingrich would rue. The result was a two-part government shutdown that lasted a total of 28 days and cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars.

Today, many pundits are comparing that shutdown with the current one and searching for parallels. Is this a case of déjà vu all over again? Will history repeat itself?  Will the GOP pay a price? Will cooler heads prevail? To be honest, I'm not so sure.

For one thing, this isn't 1996. Yes, back then Bill Clinton wasn't doing so hot in the polls and Republicans were on the ascendency. They had just won majorities in both houses of Congress in the '94 midterms and enjoyed high favorability ratings in the polls. Most pundits thought Clinton would bear the brunt of the blame for the shutdown. The reality was quite different. Clinton ended up winning a landslide reelection over Bob Dole and Gingrich would go on to lose his speakership.

Fast forward to today and the numbers are quite revealing. While Barack Obama has a negative job approval rating, by contrast Congressional Republicans have an approval rating that is hovering around 10 percent. Only used-car salesmen and pedophiles score lower. By all accounts that should translate to good news if you're a Democratic strategist. Some have even hinted that the GOP's inability to reign in the Tea Party could cost it its majority in the House. Based on the polling numbers, a case can certainly be made for a sea change.

But here's where things start to go awry. In 1996, the Right, as we knew it, consisted of Rush Limbaugh and William F. Buckley. There was no Fox News and most of the AM radio dial still thought it was a good idea to play music. The internet? That was still years away. The Wall Street Journal was a well-respected newspaper with award-winning columnists. Oh, and the main-stream media knew how to do its job. The reason Gingrich paid a price for his stupidity was because the public was properly made aware of what the facts were. The GOP couldn't spin its way out of the hole it had dug.

Today, the Right is well organized. While Limbaugh is still the crowned prince of clowns, he has a lot of help in the auspices of Mark Levin, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, etc... The entire AM radio dial has become a cesspool of right-wing hate and bile.  And Fox News has become a 24 hour a day strong arm for the Republican Party. The main-stream media, by comparison, has grown complacent and inept. They have earned the nickname, lame-stream media.

The rise of the Tea Party, funded by the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson and dozens like them, has created a double-edged sword for the GOP. On the one hand, it was responsible for the enormous gains the party made during the 2010 midterms. On the other, like Frankenstein's monster, it has now become uncontrollable and accountable to no one.

Thanks to gerrymandering, Tea Party representatives in the House enjoy virtual immunity from the most outlandish and reprehensible behavior imaginable. Shutting down the government is not only permissible, it's outwardly encouraged, even applauded, by their constituents.  For months leading up to the 2010 midterms, Tea Party candidates openly boasted that they would shut down the government if their demands were not met. This past summer, at dozens of town-hall  meetings, these very same representatives promised to do whatever they could to defund Obamacare, even if it meant a shutdown. Today they are delivering on their promises. They and not the establishment Republicans are running the party. John Boehner is Speaker in name only. You almost feel sorry for the guy. Almost.

Nobody who's been following this growing cancer should be in the least bit surprised. This moment has been approaching for three years; now it is finally here. If reports are accurate that the House is planning on tying the CR and debt-ceiling negotiations together that might well be the perfect storm.

It is still too early to tell how all this will play out. At present there appears to be a growing number of "moderate" Republicans who have expressed dissatisfaction with how House leadership has handled this situation. But their numbers are small and their influence apparently smaller still. It is unlikely they will be able to persuade Boehner to blink and allow a clean CR onto the floor.

More and more, it's starting to look like we are in for another brush with destiny. Two years ago we dodged a bullet. This time, I fear, these fools will actually succeed in pulling the trigger.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Eleven False Claims By Republicans About Obamacare and the Shutdown

So we're in a shutdown. No one knows how long it will last: one day, two days, a week, longer, who knows? The irony is that, while the government is closed, the Affordable Care Act, due to the fact that it is exempt from discretionary spending, is actually up and running. All the huffing and puffing by the GOP couldn't stop that.

An awful lot of claims have been and will continue to be made by Republicans as they attempt to deflect the blame away from them, so I thought I would go through each of the main points, one by one.

But first, a shout out to Peter King (R-NY) who called out his party's insane march over the cliff. King was visibly upset by the antics of Ted Cruz and the Tea Party House Republicans. “It’s going nowhere, there’s no end game.  It’s bad for the congress, it's bad for the government, bad for the country. I can’t be party to this anymore.”

This is not the first time King has butted heads with House Republicans. After Superstorm Sandy ravaged New York, he ripped John Boehner and House leadership over their failure to authorize relief funds. King is not alone in his frustration, but unfortunately he's one of the few brave souls who have vocalized it. Kudos to him for making a stand.

Now to the main claims in this dispute:

Claim 1: Democrats aren't willing to compromise.

Fact: In order to agree to a compromise, both sides have to put something of value on the table. The GOP position is that they want Obama and Senate Democrats to accept major changes to the healthcare law in exchange for allowing the government to stay open. They have not put anything substantive on the table. The CR that passed the Senate kept spending at Sequester levels, below where many Democrats wanted. That's not a compromise; it's extortion.

Claim 2: President Obama won't negotiate with Republicans. It's his way or the highway.

Fact: It was Boehner and House Republicans who decided after the 2011 debt-ceiling fiasco to cut off direct negotiation with the White House. In fact, the fiscal cliff deal was hammered out by Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden. Boehner couldn't even get his own caucus to deliver the votes for his Plan-B.

Claim 3: Obamacare is responsible for millions of full-time workers getting bumped to part-time jobs.

Fact: The move of some full-time workers to part-time began in 2009 and is indicative of a weak recovery with low demand. Economists like Paul Krugman have called for more aggressive action to boost demand. The reason employers are opting to go with part-time workers is because they can't justify the hit to their books. As the economy continues to improve, more full-time employees will be hired. There is no evidence that the ACA rollout has any connection to this problem.

Claim 4: Republicans don't want a shutdown.

Fact: A simple trip to youtube will expose this lie. Countless Tea Party Republicans are seen boasting about shutting down the government to thunderous applause. Spare me!

Claim 5: The President has already delayed key elements of his healthcare law. What's the big deal with a one-year delay on his individual mandate?

Fact: The "key" element that Republicans are saying Obama delayed was the employer mandate, which he didn't officially delayed. He simply said the Administration wouldn't enforce it until 2015. At best, it affects roughly 1 percent of employees overall, since an overwhelming majority of them work for companies which already offer healthcare coverage. It is hardly a key element. In fact Ezra Klein in The Washington Post has called for the employer mandate to be repealed.

Claim 6: Obamacare is a "trainwreck" that isn't ready to be launched and therefore should be delayed, defunded or repealed.

Fact: While there are certainly issues with the law that need to be addressed, the law is far from being a trainwreck. In fact, it resembles most legislative endeavors. Rough around the edges and in need of some tweeking. Dismantling it is not necessary or called for. The real concern for Republicans isn't that it's a trainwreck; it's that it just might work. In that event, it's game, set and match for them and they know it. Hence, the frantic obsession with repeal.

Claim 7: Since both sides can't agree to a CR that keeps the government open, a conference committee is the best way to arrive at a compromise.

Fact: For several years all Democrats heard from Republicans was that they hadn't passed a budget. Then in March of this year, the Senate passed one and requested a conference between them and the House to iron out differences between the two. They were denied by Boehner and Senate Republicans who didn't want a compromise. In all, the GOP blocked Democratic attempts to go to conference 18 times.

The simple truth is that the Tea Party faction has been obsessed with the Ryan budget, which actually calls for spending that is below Sequester levels, far from what Democrats were seeking and what a conference committee would've come up with. All of a sudden House Republicans want a conference? And naturally the "compromise" they are seeking will include some kind of concession on Obamacare with no reciprocal concession on spending levels. A true compromise involves both sides giving a little; not a unilateral demand issued at the point of a gun. Harry Reid would've been a fool to accept such terms.

Claim 8: Most people favor repealing Obamacare.

Fact: Not one poll confirms this claim. While the individual mandate remains unpopular, most do not support repealing the law. In fact, a CBS/NY Times poll showed that 56 percent of respondents favor fixing the law so it works vs. 38 percent who favor defunding it.

Claim 9: Repealing the tax on medical devices has wide-spread support among Republicans and Democrats and should be done.

Fact: While it is certainly true that the tax is unpopular, it also provides badly needed revenue to help make the law revenue neutral. If it is repealed, Congress will have to come up with another way to offset it. Fat chance that happening. This tax should be properly dealt with in a budget committee, not on the eve of a government shutdown.

Claim 10: Obama will negotiate with the President of Iran, but not with House Republicans.

Fact: Maybe that's because Obama isn't being dictated to by Iran. If anything, the reason for the recent overture by the Iranian President is because the tough sanctions against his country are beginning to take their toll and he knows full well that it is pointless for Iran to continue to hold onto its hardline positions any longer. It's called leverage and Obama is using it rather effectively, I might add. If anything, Boehner and company should be taking notes.

Claim 11: Both sides are equally to blame here.

Fact: While there are certainly times when it is appropriate to say a pox on both your houses, this isn't one of them. Both sides are not equally wrong. One side has agreed to spending levels below where their caucus would like them and the other has brought about a government shutdown because it couldn't get the President to give up his key legislative accomplishment. Jon Stewart summed it up best when he said, "This is when someone is driving to work and there's a car coming directly at them in their lane. That's not a game of chicken; that's an asshole causing a head-on collision."