Wednesday, September 24, 2014

What's Really Wrong with America's Political System

Last year I wrote a piece titled "Progressives 'R' Nuts." It was in response to another piece I'd written about Ralph Nader that wasn't well received by the rank and file. Hmm, I wonder why. To sump up, I blamed him for the 2000 election results that saddled the nation with George Bush. The fact is that had Nader not been on the Florida ballot, Al Gore would've won the presidency. Period.  Don't tell me about how lousy a candidate Gore was. Lousy candidates have won elections before. Not surprisingly, I was the recipient of a few choice, shall we say, colorful metaphors. I was unapologetic to say the least and I held nothing back in my retort.

I am tired of the McGoverns, the Mondales, the Dukakises and the Kerrys. There is no solace in losing, especially when winning is right there in front of you. So you don't like the NSA program. Fine. Go out and vote for a candidate who says they will stop it, and then when that candidate loses, you'll have to contend with the Republican who will not only continue that same dreaded program, but role back civil rights for minorities, scrap head start, end Medicare and Medicaid once and for all and destroy every other liberal initiative imaginable. Think the voting rights gut job was bad? You ain't seen nothin' yet. And, just think, you made it all possible by "voting your conscience."

I was right then and I'm still right now. Progressives, I said, "could screw up a sunset." I pointed out that Nader received 5 percent of the popular vote in 2000. Given that Barack Obama only won the popular vote in the last election by 4 percent, that was pretty damn significant. Can you imagine if Nader had run in 2012 and gotten the same percentage of the vote? Mitt Romney sure can.

I refuse to mince words here. Yes, the Tea Party frightens me. It should frighten the hell out of any one with half a brain, but its ascendency to power should serve as a warning to all of us that unbridled passion can have dire consequences if not checked by rational and sober reasoning. But while the Tea Party may frighten me, most progressives flat out infuriate me. It's one thing to be bat-shit crazy, which the Tea Party is; it's quite another to be delusional.

That's right, I said delusional. For all the high-minded talk about their values and principles, the bulk of the progressive movement in America is hopelessly lost in a land of make believe. I still remember how high and mighty many of them were when they heard Ben Nelson wasn't running for reelection in Nebraska. Finally, they said, a real Democrat would represent the Cornhusker state. They can't wrap their heads around the fact that not everyone in America is a progressive. Winning is simply a matter of finding the right person to articulate their message and bring it home. Once the voters are properly informed as to the real issues of the day, the choice should be clear. And, naturally, when they lose, it's the messenger's fault. It's always the messenger's fault. Like the title of that Elton John album said, "Don't shoot me, I'm only the piano player." Oh, Nelson's seat? It eventually went to a Republican. So much for finding a real Democrat.

The irony apparently hasn't dawned on them that while they are expounding their views on gay marriage, equal pay, global warming, reproductive rights, education, the minimum wage, civil rights and crony capitalism, at the opposite end of the political spectrum their counterparts are busily extolling their own views on states' rights, voter fraud, big government, over taxation, tyranny and the like. This whole "take our country back" meme is nothing more than a direct response to an ever-increasing cultural demographic shift within the country that many of them deeply resent and are terrified of.

This dichotomy sets up a rather unusual dilemma in that both movements have a habit of canceling each other out. One of the reasons for this is voter apathy. As scary as it might seem, a very small percentage of likely voters even know what the key issues are, much less care about what differentiates them. Most of the blame for this apathy rightly goes to a main-stream media that long ago abandoned its responsibility as a disseminator of truth and is now but a remnant of a once proud and vaunted fourth estate.

But the bigger reason for this canceling out has to do with the movements themselves. They are simply too entrenched in their own ideology to permit for the possibility that the other side might have a point or two to make. For instance, is it not possible that someone could believe in gay rights and global warming, yet still be concerned about the growth of big government and over taxation? I know I am. But then I would be considered a turncoat by most progressives the way moderate Republicans are thought of as RINOs by most conservatives. If you think I'm wrong, try reading some of the comments Thomas Friedman and David Frum get when they write a column. You'd think their real names were Benedict Arnold and Robert Ford.

During Bill Clinton's second term he was eviscerated by progressives for the welfare reform bill that he signed into law in 1996. Yes, the law was flawed, but progressives still don't get it that Republicans held both houses of Congress. Clinton had little choice but to agree to the measure. Like a future president would later say, "Elections have consequences."

A while back I wrote an oped in which I referenced two Forbes pieces. One reader took me to task for citing a business magazine in a progressive blog. What, I can only read the Daily Kos and Mother Jones? Never mind that I was merely using Forbes' pro-business bias to backup my own claim that supply-side economics doesn't work. Have we really gotten that out of touch with reality that we can't even see the other side of the playing field? For the record, I make it a point to read as many points of view as I can. When it comes to politics, I follow the Michael Corleone school of thought: Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.

When I look at the country as a hold, I see clear divisions. It's obvious America is a polarized nation. Never in our history has the blue been as blue or the red as red. But as divided as we are, there are still a few small pockets where blue and red combine to form purple. They are called swing states for lack of a better term. Things aren't quite so black and white in these places. Democratic voters aren't that progressive and Republican voters aren't necessarily beholden to the Tea Party.

The best example of this was last year's gubernatorial race in Virginia where Terry McAuliffe narrowly defeated Tea Party candidate Ken Cuccinelli. Progressives were not fond of McAuliffe and wanted a better (i.e., more progressive) candidate who they felt would've won by a far greater percentage. The Tea Party, not surprisingly, maintained that the reason for Cuccinelli's loss was that the base never got behind him. The real reason, though, was a majority of the state's voters simply opted for the moderate over the extremist.

The lesson of Virginia could not be clearer. Voters don't want ideology, they want solutions. Candidates who are perceived as willing to find common ground are far more likely to prevail. Witness what's going on in this year's midterms. Despite President Obama's low approval numbers, Democrats are holding their own in many Senate races. The reason for this is that the GOP is polling even lower. In Kansas, for example, Independent Greg Orman is ahead of incumbent Republican Pat Roberts. In North Carolina, Democrat incumbent Kay Hagen has widened her lead over her Republican challenger Thom Tillis. The bulk of the remaining tossup states are still up for grabs. Rather than the wave election they were expecting, Republicans are once again trying to avoid snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Now it's important to drive home an important fact. The reason for the GOP's dismal polling numbers has nothing to do with the electorate rejecting conservative principles, anymore than the reason for Democratic victories has to do with their acceptance of progressive ones. In fact, I always find it amusing when Republicans brag about all those Reagan Democrats that voted for the Gipper in 1980 and '84. They were ostensibly the same voters Democrats touted as Clinton Republicans in '92 and '96. In other words, they were moderates.

The great truth in American politics is that the middle, not the peripheral, drives the country, especially in national elections. Parties that forget that simple rule, almost always lose. Remember George Bush's passionate conservatism pledge? Yeah, I know it was bullshit, but it worked, didn't it? Bet you won't find that in the Tea Party manual.

That's why it astounds me to hear progressives borrowing a page from that same manual to sound the trumpets for passionate, yet unelectable candidates. I have stated repeatedly my admiration for Elizabeth Warren, but maintain steadfastly that, were she to be the Democratic nominee in 2016, the Republicans would instantly become the prohibitive favorites to win the White House. I say prohibitive, because the GOP could still fumble the ball at the one-yard line.

Progressives have had a hard on for Hillary Clinton for years. It goes back to her days with Rose law firm, which has defended the likes of Monsanto, Tyson and Walmart, among the most notorious generic engineering companies in the world.  While president, her husband Bill weakened regulations against the entire industry. Earlier this year, Hillary spoke at a biotech conference where she expressed her support for GMOs and Big Agriculture. This drew the ire of groups like the Organic Consumers Association. Google Monsanto, Rose law firm and Hillary Clinton and you will find a plethora of sites, most of which are very progressive and decidedly anti Hillary.

In New York, Andrew Cuomo is, likewise, despised by the Left. Zephyr Teachout, a law professor at Fordham University, challenged him in the Democratic primary, only to lose. Unlike the Tea Party-controlled GOP, establishment Democrats usually prevail in their primary challenges. But the fact that progressives would actually run the risk of possibly losing an otherwise safe state house, speaks volumes about their lack of judgment.  At present, Cuomo holds a commanding 28 point lead over Republican Rob Astorino. If you think elephants have a long memory, they ain't got nothing on donkeys.

I've spoken at great length about bubbles in the past. While the Right's bubble is far larger than the Left's, the fact remains that bubbles are primarily responsible for the cancer that has metastasized throughout the body politic of this country. Far from helping their causes, the intransigent nature of these movements ends up being detrimental to their success. Their pursuit of purity and their unwillingness to compromise has had the impact of turning off many voters.

It's a fact that Democrats have been the beneficiaries of some of the most inept, extremist candidates the Republican Party has fielded since the days of Barry Goldwater. And while I would never put Elizabeth Warren in the same category as Ted Cruz, the dynamics behind the popularity of both within their respective bases is frighteningly similar. Both are thought of as anti-establishment hopefuls who can transcend all that is wrong with American politics. The fact that only one of them is actually fit to be in the Senate while the other looks like an extra from a Three Stooges short is beside the point. Maybe Warren would be able to articulate her vision for the country better than Cruz and win, or maybe she would be seen as the flip side of the same rotten coin and lose. The problem with pissing contests is that sometimes the splatter lands on you.

In states like Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa and Colorado - the crucial swing states that determine presidential elections - most voters would have a difficult, if not impossible, time parsing through all the minutia of an intense and complicated campaign. Imagine the fate of the nation resting on the roll of the dice. Would you take those odds? I sure as hell wouldn't. Most progressives would and that's the problem.

Look, I get it, the American political system is a mess and there is a real hunger out there for someone to come along and clean it up. But let's assume, for a moment, that Ralph Nader had actually won the 2000 election; or perhaps Ross Perot in '92; or maybe John Anderson in '80. Does anybody truly believe any of these people could've fixed the inherent problems in the system? I sincerely doubt it. More than likely, they would've been corrupted by the powerful and vested interests that actually do run the country. Witness how Barack Obama - the "Yes We Can" candidate - was blocked at almost every turn, some by members of his own party. Yes we can quickly turned into no way in hell.

I have no illusions about the world. It is what it is. And, contrary to what you may have picked up from reading this, I am no cynic; I'm a realist. In an otherwise relativistic world, there are no absolute or inviolable ideals. No one gets everything on their shopping list. More often than not we learn to settle.  Compromising and deal making are not an anathema; it's how Washington used to work, at least before the days of the Tea Party. I scratch your back you scratch mine is pretty much the lay of the land everywhere on the planet. Nothing gets done without some quid pro quo. It's time we got back to those days. Unless, of course, you think that all the Founders did was stand around making grand speeches and posing for paintings.

If Hillary Clinton is the best the Dems put up in 2016, progressives best play will be to bite down hard and swallow.  The same can be said for Andrew Cuomo and any other less than perfect choice in 2014. The alternative is to sit home and then bitch about what happened afterwards while the rest of the country ends up suffering. Again! Besides, without a total overhaul of the way in which campaigns are financed, the prospects for real change will remain out of reach and certainly beyond the purview of any one individual to address.

It's been a long time since I believed in heroes. Today if I want to see one, I go to the movies, not my local polling center.  Like the singer-songwriter James McMurtry once sang, "I've put away childish things."

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

What If Senate Control Comes Down To Kansas?

The latest RCP Senate polling now projects Republicans with 50 seats next year and Democrats with 49, The 50th seat? Well if the polling holds, that seat would be filled by Greg Orman, the Independent from Kansas who, thanks to Democrat Chad Taylor dropping out, is now the favorite to defeat Republican Pat Roberts. Secretary of State Kris Kobach can keep Taylor on the ballot all he wants, he can't compel the people of Kansas to vote for him.

Democrats are naturally all giddy at the prospects of knocking off a Red state and possibly depriving the GOP of gaining control of the Senate for the third election year in a row. There's just one teensy weensy problem. No one knows which party Greg Orman will caucus with should he win. It might be that Orman will be so put off by the attack ads that Roberts is running against him that he will caucus with the Democrats out of spite. It's also possible that Orman will caucus with the Republicans, which would give the GOP ostensibly a 51 seat majority.

Orman isn't letting on which way he'll go, which, in a state as red as Kansas, is probably a pretty good strategy. He says he'll caucus with whichever party holds the majority, but almost all the projections I've seen over the last week or so, are pointing to a tie at best for the Democrats. Like it or not, Orman is going to end up breaking someone's heart this fall.

The smart money is on Orman leaning blue. Like Angus King of Maine, he would be far more effective as a senator in a party that would welcome his voice. He would also be in a far better position to get what he wants from Harry Reid than he would from Mitch McConnell. [Spoiler alert, I'm predicting ole Mitch holds his seat in November, but then you probably already figured that out by reading the polls in Kentucky.]

Of course, the opposite could also be true. Despite all the independent talk, Orman is what some people used to refer to as old-school Republican; you know from the days when the GOP wasn't filled with escapees from an insane asylum. If you look closely at his positions, they more closely align with the Republican Party of, say, 15 years ago than today's Democratic Party.

He could conclude, and not without some justification, that his voice would be far more effective in helping lead the Republican Party back to its center-right roots, especially if his vote could be the all-important tie-breaker. I know it's hard for some to remember, but there was a time when people like Bob Dole were considered the heart and soul of the GOP. But that was before the rise of the Tea Party and before people like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul became the new kids on the block. One cannot overstate enough the growing fissure between both wings of this party; it's one of the primary reasons why Sam Brownback is trailing in the polls. Disaffected moderate Republicans are abandoning him for Democrat Paul Davis.

All of this makes for what will likely go down as the most suspenseful Senate election in recent memory. And to think, only a couple of weeks ago, Kansas wasn't even on the board.

This November, it could well become ground zero.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Straight From the Horse's Mouth

It's one thing when your opponents criticize you; it's quite another when the criticism is coming from your side of the aisle. Over the last couple of months two articles have appeared in Forbes that tore into the two most potent myths that the Right still clings to like a baby to a bottle: 1. tax cuts pay for themselves and 2. Ronald Reagan was the greatest president of all time.

Let's start with the first. In Kansas, Sam Brownback, the incumbent governor, is in hot water. Seems dear ole Sam has been strolling down the old yellow-brick road of supply-side economics and, surprise, surprise, it isn't working any better now than it did when Ronald Reagan trotted it out for a look see.

According to the Forbes' piece, in 2012, Kansas "cut individual tax rates by 25 percent and repealed the tax on sole proprietorships and other 'pass-through' businesses." The following year, it passed another round of tax cuts, which over five years will lower the top rate to 3.9 percent. As a result of these tax cuts, revenues fell dramatically. "Individual income taxes fell from $2.9 billion to $2.2 billion and all income tax collections plummeted from $3.3 billion to $2.6 billion, a drop of more than 20 percent."

In other words, just like the first failed attempt in the '80s, instead of revenues increasing, the tax cuts, as many predicted, led to decreasing revenues. To offset the mounting deficits, the state was forced to impose draconian budget cuts. This only made things worse. Not only hasn't the economy taken off, job growth in the state has "lagged behind the U.S. economy. While more small businesses were formed, many of them were merely individuals taking advantage of the newly tax-free status of those firms by redefining themselves as businesses."

But while the above stats certainly put to bed the ridiculous notion that trickle-down economics works, the pièce de résistance for me was the closing paragraph:
One can argue whether cutting taxes is a good thing. One can argue about whether government is too big. One can even argue about whether low taxes increase business activity. But one cannot credibly argue that tax cuts increase revenue or even pay for themselves. They didn’t for Ronald Reagan. They don’t for Sam Brownback. They won’t for the next politician who tries—whether he (or she) is in Washington, D.C. or in some state capital.
And then there's the second Forbes piece. For years all we've heard from the Right is that Barack Obama is the worst president of all time. Want to know who they think is the greatest? Yep, the Gipper, himself. Saint Ronald Reagan, the man for whom they worship at the alter. Not even George Washington is held in such regard.

Well do you know what Forbes had the nerve to say? After carefully reviewing ALL the data over the last six years, it concluded that on jobs, growth and investing, Obama out performed Ronald Reagan in all three. That's right, the heir apparent to Karl Marx, himself, outdid ole Captain Capitalism. Some socialist!

On jobs, unemployment in Obama's sixth year is 6.1 percent. Under Reagan, it was 7.1 percent. Indeed, Reagan didn't achieve Obama's current rate until his seventh year in office. To make matters worse for Reagan is the forecast that projects unemployment to likely fall to 5.4 percent by next summer, a rate Reagan never achieved at any point during his presidency.

On growth and investment, Obama's first 67 months in office have been far more successful than Reagan's. There have been "63 straight months of economic expansion, and 25 consecutive months of manufacturing expansion." The S&P 500 has been higher under Obama than it was under Reagan. And while investors certainly prospered under Reagan, they're prospering even more under Obama.

And, like the above piece, the closing paragraph sums things up rather nicely:
Economically, President Obama’s administration has outperformed President Reagan’s in all commonly watched categories.  Simultaneously the current administration has reduced the deficit, which skyrocketed under Reagan.  Additionally, Obama has reduced federal employment, which grew under Reagan (especially when including military personnel,) and truly delivered a “smaller government.”  Additionally, the current administration has kept inflation low, even during extreme international upheaval, failure of foreign economies (Greece) and a dramatic slowdown in the European economy.
Why did I choose to highlight the two Forbes' articles, when virtually every other news outlet from the Washington Post to the New York Times to the Huffington Post to the Daily Kos to the fortune cookies at your local Chinese restaurant have been saying pretty much the same thing all along? Because it's important to note that a large component of the Right's argument stems from an irrational belief that every main-stream publication out there is somehow all part of a giant liberal cabal that seeks to distort the facts and rewrite history.

Well, the Right can't say that about Forbes. While certainly a conservative publication, Forbes is not ideologically driven. That means they know how to use a calculator and aren't beholden to any particular agenda. And, I'll admit it, it was a whole lot more fun reading the truth from Forbes than it would've been from Huff-Po.

Funny thing about facts. While they're often open to interpretation and misrepresentation (and sometimes even outright dismissal), they don't lie. Inevitably, one way or another, they have the final word.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

What Do I Stand For?

One of the few readers of the blog posed that question to me. To be fair, it's a good question. Since I have so few readers of the blog, much less those who take the time to comment, I feel obliged to respond.

Before I answer it, though, I just want to say up front I'm a Mets' fan. How is that relevant? Were it not for a fielding error by Bill Buckner, I would be rooting for a team that hasn't won a World Series in over four decades. The hockey team I root for has won exactly one championship in 74 years. I know all too well what it's like to be disappointed and that feeling informs my opinion on a variety of matters, one of them being politics.

I have nothing against principles. They ultimately define us. But one of the things I have painfully learned in my almost twenty years in sales is that those who hold onto their pride and refuse to compromise often go home empty handed. Like it or not, a little give and take is what separates successful salespeople from the unemployed. I have a saying: a little bit of something is better than a whole lot of nothing.

I love statistics. It was the only math course in college I excelled at; to be honest, it was the only math course I passed in college. Wins and losses, batting average, on base percentage, earned run average, that sort of thing. All baseball related.

Once I delved into politics, I started applying some of that statistical acumen. I began to notice some trends, even at an early age. Though Democrats controlled Congress, they were routinely losing the White House. With the exception of Jimmy Carter in 1976, they had lost every presidential election from 1968 through 1988. That's five out of six. Not a very good percentage. And one could argue that had Jerry Ford not pardoned Richard Nixon, it might well have been six out of six. That thought was frightening.

How was this possible? As a progressive, I was deeply concerned about this trend. I knew my side had all the correct positions, but that didn't seem to matter. Every four years, our candidate would get beat. It was like watching a movie about the Titanic. You knew the ending, but you couldn't help but hold out hope. Maybe this time the ship will miss the iceberg, I'd say to myself. But, alas, that wasn't the case.

A lot has been said about how presidential candidates win. Do they hold onto their values come hell or high water or do they pivot towards the center and moderate them? I knew full well, having seen Ronald Reagan a number of times, that he was a conservative. Not only a conservative, but a Barry Goldwater conservative. He won the Republican nomination by running to his right. But Reagan was an actor; not a terribly good one, but good enough to fool millions of people into voting for him twice. He ran on that old, tried and true theme, restoring America's greatness.

Maybe, in retrospect, he would've won no matter who the Democrats ran against him. Carter looked like a man who had just finished ten rounds with Mohammed Ali. He must've aged ten years during his one term in office. It also didn't help matters that Ted Kennedy challenged him in a bitterly-fought primary in 1980.

But I steadfastly maintain that Walter Mondale was a lousy choice for the Dems in '84. Contrary to popular perception, Reagan was vulnerable that year. The economy was not doing as well as he and his party had hoped for. A considerably better candidate could have beaten him. But even if you still think that Reagan was unstoppable, explain how George H. W. Bush won by such a wide margin.

Again, the Democrats nominated someone from their breadbasket - the Northeast - that a good percentage of the country couldn't relate to. If you can't beat a candidate with no ideas and a VP who is brainless, how inept do you have to be?

The message I got out of the '80s was simple: ideals mean nothing if you don't win. Bill Clinton changed all that. He won; in fact, he won twice. Not since the days of FDR and Truman had a Democrat done that. Clinton was hated by the Right and mistrusted by the Left. He was willing to strike deals with his opponents, often at the expense of his base, who, let's face it, he threw under the bus on more than one occasion. He practically invented the term pragmatic progressive; though to be fair, Clinton was hardly a progressive.

Al Gore was, I admit, a lousy candidate. He had all the emotion of a pet rock, and I hated his wife, Tipper. The kiss the two of them shared at the Democratic convention still makes my skin crawl to this day. But he should've won in 2000. Not every presidential election is a landslide. Some come down to the wire. There was no way in hell Ralph Nader was going to win the presidency. He knew it and his supporters knew it. Group after group begged him to drop out of the race, but he steadfastly refused. I submit, and will hold to my dying day, that those who voted for him knew all too well what they were doing and they will have to live with the consequences of that decision for the rest of their lives.

If you are a reasonably intelligent person and you sincerely believe that the history of this nation wouldn't be considerably different with a President Al Gore at the helm, you can stop reading now. You're as dumb as the guy who eventually got the job. And you're also as much to blame for the mess that guy made as he was; a mess that will take decades to clean up.

So, with all that in mind, let me answer the above question.

What do I stand for? I stand for common sense; I stand for competence; I love ideals but despise idealists. I stand for results (yes, winning and losing counts, in politics as well as in sports). I don't believe that terms like principle and salesmanship are mutually exclusive. To that extent, I stand for candidates that can communicate their principles to a cross-section of the country. As any first-year marketing student would tell you, it isn't so much what you say, but how you say it. Good ideas may be good ideas, but they will never see the light of day if you can't sell them.

When I say I have no interest in returning to the '80s, I am speaking about that wing of the Democratic Party that refused to let go of the '60s. I was too young to remember Bobby Kennedy. Maybe he would've made a great president, maybe not. But the truth is he was assassinated and Nixon won. Sometimes you have to know when to move on.

There are two reasons why the Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections: 1. they've moved to the center; and 2. the GOP has moved off the page. You don't look that gift horse in the mouth by borrowing a page out of your opponents playbook. When I hear well-meaning people drool over potential candidates that may have wonderful ideas, but can't effectively close the deal, I cringe. There is no E for effort in politics. There never has been.

I am not jaded, but neither am I naive. It would be wonderful if the country were up for a real discussion about real issues that demanded real solutions. The country isn't and hasn't been for quite some time. Good people have tried and lost, many times to bad people with nefarious intentions. My two favorite people in the Senate are Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. If you sincerely believe that either of them could win a presidential election, you need to get out more.

There is simply too much at stake to play games. I have seen the Tea Party's vision for this country. It sends shivers up and down my spine. There are no perfect candidates out there who check every box on the board. For the record, I am not in love with Hillary Clinton. If I had my druthers, I would prefer another candidate - assuming she even decides to run. But I would gladly take her, warts and all, to Rand Paul or Ted Cruz. Bush was stupid; these guys are certifiable. And make no mistake about it, that is the ONLY choice before the country. As Bill Maher correctly observed, "Over the last few years the Democrats have moved to the right and the Right has moved into a mental hospital."

It may seem as though I'm choosing between the lesser of two evils. If that is how you see it, then so be it. Guilty as charged. But I will sleep a whole lot better knowing that a flawed - SANE - centrist is running the country over the alternative.

Bill Buckner be damned!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Why Andrew Cuomo Will NOT Be the Next Eric Cantor

Did you hear that Andrew Cuomo is facing a primary challenge next week? No?  To be honest, neither did I. Apparently, from what I gather, neither have the majority of New York Democratic voters. Know who else hasn't heard about the challenge? Real Clear Politics, that's who. Yep, the number one source for polling for both the midterms and the 2016 presidential election - did you know Hillary Clinton is ahead of Chris Christie by 7 points in North Carolina, but only by a point over Mike Huckabee? - has not one mention of a Democratic primary in New York. I looked and I looked and I couldn't find it.

So who is Andrew Cuomo's primary challenger? None other than Zephyr Teachout, a law professor at Fordham University. And she has the backing of "millions of New Yorkers" and "the base of the Democratic Party." She's also received several endorsements, like the one by Jeffrey Sachs of the Huffington Post, who wrote in an op-ed piece,

I am asking New Yorkers and New York Democrats to stand together to demand honesty and change. If we elect Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu, they and we will begin to fix New York. Working together, we can achieve better schools, renewable energy, and a fairer tax code. We can achieve a return to the great NY tradition of progressive leadership in the steps of Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Fiorella LaGuardia. Those leaders built the hydroelectric power, the bridges, the airports, and the parks we still use today. It's now our chance, by supporting new leadership and honest politics to build our legacy, not corruption. We can fix our problems.

Spoiler alert: Jeffrey Sachs apparently thinks Zephyr Teachout will be the next Fiorella LaGuardia. I hope she's up to reading all those children's stories over the radio. Frankly, I'd settle for anyone who could make LaGuardia airport run smoothly.

On a serious note, the main thrust of Teachout's campaign centers on one issue: Common Core. She thinks it's been a brutal disaster. Know what? She's right. From what I've seen - and I'll admit I haven't studied it too much, at least not without a bottle of Excedrin - it's about as popular as a case of food poisoning on a cruise ship.

But is that enough to unseat an incumbent governor who is leading his Republican opponent by a healthy margin? No. To listen to Teachout and her supporters, you'd think Cuomo was Boss Tweed or something. He isn't.

But then that's not what's really bothering Teachout, Sachs and all those feisty progressives out there who have their panties in a bunch. What gets in their craw is the fact that Cuomo doesn't sing and dance like they do. He beds down with the enemy to pass legislation (Heavens to Murgatroyd!); his tax policies are aimed at attracting businesses to come to New York, instead of the other way around. He's no supply-sider but he gets it that taxes in New York are too high. He's pro gay rights and passed a gun law that puts common sense restrictions on what types of guns and ammo can be purchased and by whom. He's what most of us commonly refer to as a centrist, but what the Left calls a sellout.

That's what this whole challenge is about. Teddy Roosevelt and FDR are just window dressing. The Left got all weak in the knees when Bill de Blasio won a landslide election for New York mayor last year and now they want their guy (er, girl) in Albany. Never mind that de Blasio's win was an outlier and came about primarily due to a staggering low voter turnout; never mind that no one knows whether Teachout could actually win the general against Rob Astorino. Never mind all that, principles are all that matter when you're a progressive. Like the rest of us are just empty vessels.

Fortunately for New York, Andrew Cuomo will not be the next Eric Cantor. You'll recall the former Republican majority leader of the House was defeated in a primary by a candidate, David Brat, who was even further to the right than he was. There's a price to be paid in GOP land when you piss off the base; it's called getting your ass kicked. Eric Cantor is now a private citizen and the Virginia 7th district is now up for grabs. That's what happens when you don't think things through clearly and rationally; you end up cutting off your nose to spite your face.

This is why I can't stand progressives. I agree with their policies, but I strongly question their sanity. To this day, most of them still don't think it was a mistake voting for Ralph Nader in 2000. Bush and Gore were basically one in the same, right? Two wars, trillions of dollars in debt later and they are as obstinate as ever. It's a good thing for the rest of us that there are no Laura Ingrahams or Rush Limbaughs in our ranks who are capable of rallying the troops. The best we have is Rachel Maddow. Sorry, Rachel, you're no Rush.

Progressives need to stop flirting with disaster. It's one thing to admire Elizabeth Warren; it's quite another to think she could win the presidency. She can't. It's high time the Left comes to grips with a staggering reality: with the exception of a few geographic regions (the Northeast and the West coast) most of the country is somewhere between left of center and right of center. The Bill de Blasios and Zephyr Teachouts aren't well liked, much less electable outside of those regions. For all the talk about how terrible (e.g., middle-of-the-road) a candidate Terry McAuliffe was in last year's gubernatorial race in Virginia, the truth is had progressives gotten the candidate they wanted, Ken Cuccinelli would've won. Like it or not, it is the McAuliffes, the Cuomos and the Clintons of the Party that have the best shot at defeating the extremism of the GOP. As I have said on more than one occasion, elections are won in the center, not the flanks.

Maybe you're not crazy about Hillary Clinton. Great, find me an other Democrat who carries Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Colorado and Iowa. Hillary can win them all. I doubt Warren would be competitive in but a few.

Look, I lived through the '80s. I saw the Democrats get their butts kicked three times. I have, believe me, no wish to return to those days.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Is the Republican Wave Finally Starting to Recede?

In a word, yes!

Everywhere you look, voters are beginning to turn on the party they swept into power in 2010. After a stunning wave election that year gave Republicans partial control of Congress, along with several key state Houses, the air has been slowing escaping from the GOP balloon. They failed to win the Senate that year, then followed up that performance by getting trounced in 2012.

As if that wasn't bad enough, witness what's going on in this year's Senate races, which I wrote about in my last piece. What should've been a slam dunk is starting to more closely resemble a lame attempt at a layup. As things stand now, it's anybody's guess as to which party will hold the majority in 2015. In the House, most pollsters are predicting only modest gains for Republicans. In fairness, though, most of this is owed to the fact that, thanks to gerrymandering, there are very few tossup districts left in the country. That makes it very hard for either party to gain ground, especially in a midterm election.

But, while most of the country focuses on Congress, the real news is coming from the states, particularly those states with Republican governors. You want evidence that the electorate has just about had it with the Grand Old Party, then take a gander at these little tasty tidbits.

In Wisconsin, Republican Scott Walker is trailing his Democratic opponent, Mary Burke, by 4 points according to the latest polling. The RCP average has him down overall by one point. Even Rasmussen has him only ahead by a point. While some have focused on the investigation into Walker's ties with outside groups, the main reason he is behind in his race is Wisconsin's dismal economy. The state currently ranks 46th in new business creation. Not quite what the cheeseheads had in mind when they elected him four years ago.

Speaking of sinking economies, Kansas' is in free fall. Massive tax cuts over the last three years have led to declining tax revenues and, what's worse, a stunning lack of job creation; the exact opposite of what Sam Brownback predicted would happened when he won the governorship back in 2010. As a result, he is trailing his Democratic challenger, Paul Davis, by 8 points in the latest polling. And while the RCP average only has him down 2.8 percent, part of that average comes from a July poll showing him ahead 12 points. Absent that, this race is starting to look like a rout.

In Pennsylvania, Republican incumbent Tom Corbett is about as popular as a Penguins' fan on Broad Street. Democrat Tom Wolf is comfortably ahead of him by 15 points. In Arizona, Fred DuVal and Doug Ducey are tied according the latest poll by Rasmussen. As I said before, when Rasmussen shows a Democrat tied or ahead of a Republican in any race, something's up. And in Florida, land of sunshine and drive-by shootings, Republican Rick Scott is barely clinging to a 1.7 point lead over former governor Charlie Crist.

I could go on and on about the list of Republican governors who are on the ropes - Nathan Deal up by only 2 points in Georgia and Paul (bat-shit crazy) LaPage trailing in Maine - but you get the picture. The GOP has its hands full defending its winnings in that 2010 wave year.

Now, to be fair, several Democrats are in trouble in their gubernatorial races. Among them are Dannel Malloy in Connecticut and Pat Quinn in Illinois. As things stand now, it would take a miracle for either of them to win reelection.

But there is a significant difference between the two races in Connecticut and Illinois, as well as the one in Hawaii that also favors the GOP and the races in states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida. No one seriously believes that Connecticut, Illinois or Hawaii are in danger of voting Republican in 2016. But Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida, along with Virginia which turned blue last year if you recall, are all swing states, crucial in a presidential election. Throw in Georgia and Arizona, two states that are likely to become purple within the next couple of years, and you have the makings of a genuine clusterfuck for Republicans.

And now to add insult to a possible serious injury, if Democrats gain control of these states, they can begin to undo all the gerrymandering the GOP put in place after the 2010 midterms. In other words, adios House majority. Imagine a President Hillary Clinton with both chambers of Congress in Democratic hands in 2017. While that might be a dream come true for you and me, it's a nightmare incarnate for conservatives, especially Tea Party conservatives, who only four years ago thought they would win back their country and restore it to whatever the fuck they thought it was.

Of course, it's still a little early to crow. Almost anything can happen in two months. Just this week, Democrat Chad Taylor pulled out of his race for senator in Kansas, supposedly giving Independent Greg Orman an advantage over incumbent Republican Pat Roberts. The GOP is contesting his withdrawal and the Kansas secretary of state has said Taylor's name will remain on the ballot. How this race winds up no one can tell.

But one thing is sure. 2014 is NOT going to be a wave election year. If the GOP is going to prevail, it will do so by its finger tips.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Midterm Stretch Drive

It's coming down to the wire for the 2014 midterms. Two months to go till we find out who gets control of the Senate in 2015. If you've heard me say it's too close to call before, that's because it is and has been for some time. And yet, despite what appears to be a favorable political environment - Obama's low approval ratings, general voter unrest - the GOP is having one helluva time closing the deal. Four races - two in red states and two in purple - will decide the outcome.

Let's start with the bad news for Democrats: West Virginia, Montana and South Dakota, barring a miracle from above - are going to flip into the R column. And, though it pains me to say it, Mitch McConnell looks like he's going to beat Alison Lundergan Grimes. He's been leading consistently now for months and all the polls show him ahead between 4 and 5 points. Take away the one poll in June that had Grimes ahead and this race wouldn't even be in the toss-up category. And while Michelle Nunn has made up considerable ground in Georgia of late, David Perdue is still the odds-on favorite to keep that seat red. It looks like Democratic hopes of picking off a Republican seat will have to wait until 2016.

The good news for Democrats is that they will likely hold Alaska, Colorado and Michigan. All of them are considered toss-up states and all are on the GOP hit list. In other races where Democrats are heavy favorites, there appear to be no unpleasant surprises on the horizon.  Illinois, Minnesota, Oregon, New Jersey and Virginia will remain blue. And, despite an outlier poll that shows Scott Brown closing the gap in New Hampshire, Jeanne Shaheen is still the likely favorite to win that state.

So, let's talk about the fab four. In North Carolina, things are looking up for Kay Hagan. Though she still trails Thom Tillis by a mere one point, the last two polls show her ahead. I have maintained throughout that, of the four races, Hagan had the best chance of surviving hers. That's because the Tar Heel state has a far greater share of Democrats than the other three states.  In Iowa, Bruce Braley and Joni Ernst are virtually deadlocked. The last three polls - one of them by Rasmussen - show the race tied. Like North Carolina, this state is crucial for Democrats. If they lose it, they will probably lose the Senate.

And now we come to the two red states: Louisiana and Arkansas. I won't mince words here. The fact that Mary Landrieu and Mark Pryor are still alive, much less within striking distance of winning these two races, should be sending chills up and down the spine of every Republican pollster. The RCP average has Landrieu trailing by only one point, but you'll never guess who has her ahead (and by 3 points no less): Rasmussen. When Rasmussen has a Democrat ahead in a red state, that's news. And Pryor, who only a couple of weeks ago looked like toast, is only behind 1.7 points. That very same conservative pollster shows him ahead by one.

Hmm, so what's happening? Why, with only two months to go, are Democrats still mathematically alive in a races that they should, by all accounts, be dead and buried in? If I told you going in that the party holding 55 seats was going to lose three of them right off the bat and was defending another 13 - some in enemy terrain - you'd have bet the ranch that at least four more would fold. Hell, I'm a progressive and I would've bet the ranch on that. A midterm election with a hostile base ready to pounce and the other base, well let's just be polite and say, unmotivated, there's no way in hell the minority party could lose. Right?

Well, it looks like hell just might be freezing over yet again for the GOP. Another golden opportunity is staring them right in the face and, like the last two elections, that opportunity could go by the boards. Why? Michael Tomasky thinks he knows why.

Even for those who don’t blame Obama for Washington’s paralysis, the mere fact of the dysfunction—the dismal relentlessness of it, the realization that it will not change—has led most people to throw in the towel to one extent or another. As for the fear, well, it’s still present, of course, and it may yet exist at a level of intensity great enough to give Republicans a Senate majority. But it could also be that the Republicans have scorched so much earth these past six years that it’s finally starting to singe their own boot heels. Thus, the Democrats’ best hope for November: that enough voters in enough key states are sicker of the Republicans than of them.

Put succinctly, even the slowest people eventually figure out that it was John Belushi who yelled food fight in the first place. You can only say "no" so many times before it catches up with you. You just can't keep harping on what you're against; sooner or later you have to start saying what you're for. And saying you're for America is NOT enough. My father is for America. So what?

Going into this election, the prevailing logic was that if the GOP could just field candidates who didn't shoot themselves in the foot like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, they would cruise to an easy win come November. As David Frum is fond of saying, it isn't the message, it's the messenger.

Don't look now, but I'm thinking that maybe it's the message too.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Gaza, ISIS and the Arab Spring

To be honest, foreign policy hasn't exactly been my forte. I'm more of a domestic policy type. Subjects like supply side economics, racial tensions and polling numbers are much higher up on my food chain than the goings on in the Middle East. With the notable exceptions of our costly and unjustified war in Iraq and the fake Benghazi scandal that Republicans keep harping on, I don't think I've written more than a piece or two on the whole region.

With that in mind, I thought I'd volunteer my nickel's worth on the three major stories that have garnered the most attention of late. They're in no particular order.

Gaza: Unlike so many of my progressive brethren, I think Israel was completely justified in launching retaliatory missile strikes into Gaza. It had every right to defend itself. Let's be clear here, Hamas knew perfectly well what it was doing when it started launching missiles into Israel. The fact that it launched those missiles from sites where many Palestinians lived, thus turning them into human shields, was appalling. Yes I know it was gut wrenching to see images of civilians lying dead in the streets, many of them burned beyond recognition, but that was the fault of Hamas, not Israel.

But while Israel was perfectly justified in launching missiles to defend itself, its decision to send troops into Gaza was a tactical blunder. It only added fuel to the fire and aided and abetted its staunchest critics who now could point to its occupying army as proof that it and not Hamas was the guilty party. This was an unforced error on the part of Benjamin Netanyahu, who has had more than his fair share of missteps, the latest being the recent land appropriation in the occupied West Bank, a move that will only inflame the passions of the Palestinian people and make the prospects of a two-state solution that much harder to bring about.

ISIS: At the risk of sounding like John McCain - please forgive me - this group poses the greatest threat not only to the Middle East, but to the West in general. If you thought al-Qaeda was bad, well these guys make them look like the Boy Scouts of America. It isn't just the beheading of an American journalist that should concern the United States, it's the fact that ISIS has made its intentions perfectly clear. It wants nothing less than a world-wide Islamic state and it will use whatever means it has at its disposal to accomplish that goal. And, unlike al-Qaeda, it is well organized, well funded and has the support of a good portion of the populations of both Iraq and Syria (where it began).

Two things, though, need to be underscored about the rise of ISIS. First, it would never have gained a foothold, at least not in Iraq, had the U.S. not toppled Saddam Hussein. The Maliki government, which rose to power in 2006 during the American occupation, all but excluded Sunnis from any role in the government, exacerbating tensions between them and the Shiites and setting the stage for the sectarian violence in the country that led to the rise of ISIS. Had Maliki's government been more inclusive, it is highly doubtful that ISIS would wield the power it now has in Iraq.

But secondly, and even more importantly, it is important to understand that much of the unrest within this region can be traced back to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. That empire, which was founded in 1453, included the territories of what later came to be known as Iraq and Syria. There is an excellent piece in The Daily Kos about the birth of Iraq that is very revealing and is worth a serious read by anybody regardless of political ideology. The parallels are striking. Suffice to say, 100 years later we still don't know much about this region.

Still, even in spite of our regional ignorance, some of the blame here must go to President Obama. His decision not to take a more active role against Assad in Syria indirectly led to the emergence of ISIS in that country. While some of his reticence was understandable given the recent history of American intervention in the region, 180 degrees from wrong is still wrong. It's true there may not have been any moderate opposition forces within Syria, but the Administration should have made a more concerted effort of finding them. While it focused mainly on Assad's chemical weapons, the elements that led to ISIS grew. Now the U.S. is in the precarious position of having to side with Assad and Iran to defeat an opponent which rose to power right under its nose.

The Arab Spring: This might be the hardest nut to crack, especially if you're a neo-con. If it's true that democracy is messy, than what's been going on in most of the Middle East resembles a toxic waste dump. But, like the above, it is important to understand that for the last century, most of this region, which included Egypt, Tunisia, Iran and Libya, were ruled by despots. The Iranian revolution of 1979 came about because the U.S. backed Shaw had brutalized his own people. It was inevitable that, sooner or later, the rest of these countries would follow suit and depose their tyrant rulers.

I submit that what's really behind all this anti Arab Spring rhetoric is the fact that all this democratization isn't going the way its critics thought it would go. After all, if you're not spending a trillion dollars forcing your vision of democracy on a country, what good are you anyway? The fact is that these countries have a right to determine their own destiny, messy or otherwise. The United States needs to know the difference between active engagement and out and out colonialism. One can employ the former without the latter.

I suspect that had we adopted that strategy decades ago, we might not be in the mess we're in today.

A Whopper of A Lie

The purchase of Canadian doughnut chain Tim Hortons by Burger King for $11 billion has created quite a stir within both flanks of the political spectrum. On the Right, the usual "oppressive tax system" drivel has been front and center; on the Left, shouts of "tax dodging," loopholes" and "patriotism" have dominated the discussion. Well permit me, if you will, to set both sides straight with a few pesky facts.

First, a lot of attention has been paid to how high the corporate tax rate in America is. At present, it is the highest in the world at 39.1 percent. By comparison, Canada's corporate tax rate is 26.3 percent. If you knew nothing more than that one statistic, you would conclude, and rightly so, that Burger King's decision made perfect sense. But, as they say in just about every TV advertisement, wait, there's more.

That 39.1 percent corporate tax rate is a nominal, or unadjusted tax rate. As anyone who has ever sat down and done his or her own taxes will tell you, it isn't your nominal tax rate that determines what you owe, it's your effective tax rate. And, for corporate America, that effective tax rate averages out to roughly 12.6 percent. That difference is the primary reason why the United States ranked 11th from the bottom among the 27 wealthiest nations in effective tax rates. Hardly oppressive.

What accounts for this difference? In a nutshell the United States has the most complicated tax system in the world, filled with loopholes big enough to drive a semi-truck through. And those loopholes are kept in place by a litany of powerful tax accountants, many of whom wrote those very same tax laws. The last thing any of them want is for the American tax system to be simplified. The formula for these accountants is quite simple: the higher the nominal rate is, the more deductions they find; the more deductions they find, the higher the fee they charge. Think about that the next time you go to H&R Block.

Second, while it may seem as though Burger King's acquisition was a classic case of corporate tax inversion, that appears not to have been the case here. For starters, Burger King's effective tax rate last year was 27.5 percent. Tim Hortons' effective tax rate was just south of 27 percent. If you think a .5 percent difference is a windfall, you obviously need a refresher course in basic mathematics. Even for a billion dollar corporation, a .5 percent differential in a tax rate is not worth the headache of potentially losing millions of customers to McDonald's or Wendy's. And make no mistake about it, Burger King is no Pfizer. I'm pretty sure the average person who walks into a CVS to get a prescription filled has no idea who manufactured the drug they are taking. You can bet the ranch they know the difference between a Whopper and a Big Mac.

Maybe that's why Burger King CEO Alex Behring wasted no time letting everyone know that their corporate headquarters will remain in Miami, though the press release also mentioned that "the new global company will be based in Canada, the largest market of the combined company." How that will effect its future tax rate, no one knows.

So what was the primary reason behind the merger. In a word, market share.

Tim Hortons is the largest fast-food chain in Canada with over 4,500 locations throughout that country and the United States. And, unlike Burger King, whose sales have slumped recently, Tim Hortons has consistently increased its market share. According to Forbes, "the company’s reported a 9% increase in net revenues year-over-year (y-o-y) in Q2 2014, while the same store sales growth was 2.6% in Canada and 5.9% in the U.S."

The breakfast sector of the fast-food market is the only sector that has shown any growth of late as anyone who has visited a Dunkin' Donuts or Starbucks has known for quite some time. Burger King did what any company faced with declining sales would do: it pounced on an opportunity to diversify its lineup and expand its share in the market place. This is different than banks who merge. In those instances, it isn't about simply increasing market share but dominating the existing market altogether.

There's little doubt that the increasing trend of corporate inversions poses a serious threat to the United States tax system. If this trend is allowed to continue, the tax burden will only be shifted to smaller-sized companies and individuals who are already paying more than their fair share to the Treasury. It should be pointed out that neither of these two groups possess the resources needed to hire fleets of savvy tax accountants. That's what Turbo Tax was invented for.

Simply lowering corporate tax rates will not stem the tide of inversions. If anything, it will continue to reward bad behavior as corporate America will now have its cake and eat it too. The only answer lies in closing many, if not all, of the loopholes that currently exist in the tax code that permit these types of inversions in the first place. Only then can we have a true discussion on tax rates.

Protestations from the Right that this will only encourage corporations to look for other as of yet unknown loopholes are specious at best. Whether the loopholes are closed or not, corporations will always look for ways to avoid paying taxes. Show me a company that doesn't take advantage of every tax loophole available to it and I'll show you a company headed for bankruptcy. Or, as Senator Bernie Sanders adroitly put it last year on Bill Maher's Real Time, "If there's a corporation paying 35 percent, they should fire their accountants."

And as far as the Left is concerned, a little less hyperventilating and a little more fact checking is in order here. The truth is Burger King has done far more harm to America's digestive system than to its tax system. There are plenty of villains out there in corporate America who have done substantial damage to the U.S. economy; companies like GE, whose effective tax rate from 2008 - 2013 was -9 percent (they actually received a $2.9 billion tax refund).  It seems to me that they should be the targets of our scorn. Between companies that flee the country to avoid paying taxes - or simply avoid paying them altogether - and companies who, through mergers and acquisitions, destroy healthy competition within a given market and then end up owning that entire market, America is fast resembling an oligarchy.

To me that is the war the Left should be waging. And it's a war the Left can win if it wants to.