Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Jim Webb Factor

Jacob Heilbrunn has a piece in The New York Times that suggests the biggest threat to Hillary Clinton getting the Democratic nomination in 2016 won't come from Elizabeth Warren, but from Jim Webb. The former Virginia senator and Vietnam War hero has been one of the loudest critics of America's foreign policy in the Middle East. His opposition to the Iraq War is eerily similar to that of another outspoken critic of the War, Barack Obama, who upended what many thought was going to be a Clinton coronation.

While she [Clinton] can pretty much split the difference with any primary opponents on economic policy, the divisions over foreign affairs could be a lot harder to paper over for Mrs. Clinton, who has been tacking to the right on Iran, Syria and Russia in anticipation of Republican assaults during the general election.

Though Heilbrunn correctly points out that Webb is still a "very long shot," it should be noted that at this point in the '08 campaign, a lot of pundits were saying the same thing about Obama. Don't tell me lightning can't strike twice in the same place. The push by some for a Webb candidacy is based on the premise that if he wins the nomination, he could lure some white southerners away from the GOP and back towards the Democratic Party.

Allow me to throw some cold water on that premise. While it is true that southern whites have, for the most part, abandoned the Democratic Party, that isn't necessarily a stumbling block to holding onto the White House. Michael Tomasky wrote a piece in the Daily Beast speaking to this very issue. His point? With the exception of Florida, Democrats don't need a single southern state to win a presidential election. He's right. In both 2008 and 2012, Obama won without carrying a single state in the deep South. The GOP took every state from Texas to South Carolina and got trounced both times.

If there's one lesson that Democrats should take away from the 2014 midterms, it is that the day of the Blue Dog or centrist Democrat may be coming to an end. With the defeats of both Mary Landrieu and Mark Pryor this past November, the transformation that began in the mid-1960s after the signing of the Civil Rights Act is now complete. Republicans now own the South and will for quite some time. When Lyndon Johnson said the South was lost for a generation, few knew it would prove to be the understatement of the century.

That Democrats should want to take back some of the ground they ceded over the last fifty years is laudable but ultimately academic. Jim Webb isn't going to be their great white hope in Dixie no matter what he says or does. In fact, far from being a deliverer, his nomination, should he get it, might well prove to be far more costly for the Party than it realizes.

Here's why. When you look at the the Democratic base, white men represent, by far, its smallest percentage. Women, African Americans, Hispanics and Asians comprise the overwhelming majority of it. All four of those demographic groups as a percentage of the electorate are growing. By comparison, white men as a percentage of the electorate are shrinking. How important is this? Consider that in 2012, Obama lost the white vote by 20 points, yet still beat Mitt Romney by more than five million votes.

The Obama coalition, as it has come to be known, consists primarily of the fastest growing voter groups in the country. From a purely business model perspective, Democrats are increasing their market share of the vote, while Republicans, who continue to pander mainly to white men, are seeing their market share of the vote dwindle. A decade ago, maybe two, Jim Webb might've made a pretty good Democratic candidate; hell, thirty years ago, he would've made a pretty damn good Republican one. Today, what he represents is mainly the past. Most of the base of the current Democratic Party will not connect with him and, worse, some could be turned off by him. Despite his dovish foreign policy bonafides, which could resonate with a few on the far Left, he doesn't bring a single thing to the table that another more viable candidate couldn't bring in droves. He's not Hillary Clinton, he's Bill Clinton. And while Bill is still very popular, the Party has since moved on. It belongs now to the Warrens, the Sanders and the Castro brothers.

If Hillary Clinton does indeed run, and if she ends up winning the nomination, she would do well to move not to her center, which is her basic instinct, but to her left. Jim Webb will appeal to those who wish for a return to a time that, for the most part, was more imaginary than real; who still insist that sucking up to people who already have a predisposition to vote against them is the key to success at the polls. Ask Kay Hagen how that worked out.

No, the next Democratic nominee must resist the urge to retreat backwards into the past and instead have the courage to look forward into the future. We already have one party in this country trapped in a time warp. No sense in having two.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Cheer Up, Dems, Things Could Be Worse

Let's face it. Democrats have some huge problems on their hands. A burgeoning civil war that reared its ugly head most recently during the "CRomnibus" bill fiasco is a case in point. Seems the progressive wing of the Party, led by their reluctant warrior, Elizabeth Warren, has gotten its dander up and is determined to take a more assertive role in policy making.  The centrists, fearful of losing yet more ground in swing states, will no doubt push back hard against any move to the left. The Party's fortunes will be determined largely by which flank comes out on top.

But even with all the fractures and internal bickering, I still like the prospects of the Democrats emerging unified and resolute over those of the Republicans. Be honest, who would you rather be, Harry Reid or Mitch McConnell? You needn't be a rocket scientist to answer that question. While Reid will spend the next two years threading a needle between progressives and centrists, McConnell will have his hands full trying to keep the inmates from burning down the asylum. Dean Wormer didn't have as much trouble with Delta Tau Chi as McConnell is about to have with this band of merry misfits.

Witness the stunt pulled by Ted Cruz as exhibit number one. Last Saturday, Republicans thought they had successfully stopped Harry Reid from jamming through President Obama's judicial and cabinet nominees. And then Captain Video gummed up the works.

Obsessed with Obama's executive order on immigration, Cruz, along with his cohort Mike Lee (aka, Lou Costello), called for an immediate "point of order" vote to stop the President. The strategy backfired badly. Not only didn't the vote pass - it went down in flames - it had the unintended consequence of allowing Reid to take advantage of a procedural maneuver to keep the Senate in session into the weekend to not only pass the budget, but to get a majority of Obama's judicial and cabinet nominees approved, including Vivek Murthy, the now new Surgeon General who had the temerity to infer that guns were deadly.

The real prize, however, was the number of judicial nominees Obama was able to get through the lame duck. Thanks to Dumb and Dumber, Reid got a dozen approved, bringing the number of district and circuit judges appointed this year to 89. In all Obama has had a total of 305 judicial nominees approved in the first six years in office, well ahead of his previous two predecessors at this point in their presidencies.

Yet another example of the GOP's dysfunction came courtesy of Marco Rubio, who publicly criticized the President's decision to lift the embargo against Cuba and begin the process of normalization. Experts have long held that the decades-old embargo was an abject failure. The only people it was hurting were the Cuban people. Fidel Castro and his brother were doing just fine.

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results than the United States' policy towards Cuba was a textbook example. Credit Obama for finally admitting what every straight-thinking person already knew. Unfortunately for the senator from Florida, the term straight thinking doesn't appear anywhere in his dictionary. But hypocrisy does. In what amounts to the rankest form of pandering to a voter demographic that is rapidly shrinking, Rubio vowed that Congress will never lift the ban. Apparently, Rubio is unaware that while Obama can't technically lift the trade embargo, he can, without Congressional approval "defang" it through executive action. *

These two examples underscore the dilemma that Mitch McConnell and the Republicans face over the next two years; indeed for the foreseeable future. Yes, they cleaned the Democrats' clock in November, just like they did in 2010. But the problem that persists for them is that mathematically their road to victory in presidential years is paved with potholes. If you take a close look at the electoral map, Democrats have a much easier path to the White House than Republicans. Why? Because with the exception of Texas, the most populated states in the country are blue states. That means that a Republican candidate has to win almost all of the purple states just to have a shot at the presidency.

That's pretty much what happened in the 2012 election. That year, there were, legitimately, seven swing or purple states: Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa and Colorado. Assuming all the other states went as predicted - which they did - Obama already held a 247 - 191 electoral edge going in; an enormous advantage no matter how you slice it. To win the White House, Mitt Romney had to capture Florida, then lose no more than two of the remaining six swing states. If he'd lost Florida, even running the table wouldn't have saved him. Talk about a handicap.

The irony here is that the very thing that seems to fuel Republican victories in midterm elections, ends up costing them dearly in presidential elections. In short, their base is their own worst enemy. It's the ultimate Catch-22, and one which, at least for the immediate future, has no solution in sight.

So, cheer up, Dems, things could be worse. You could be Republicans.

* An earlier version of this piece stated that President Obama didn't need Congressional approval to lift the trade embargo. That wasn't quite true. What he can do is issue an executive order to ease restrictions, thus taking the teeth out of it.  The correction was made.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Two Wrongs


What many feared might happen has finally happened. In an apparent act of vengeance, two New York City police officers were shot to death in Brooklyn while they sat in their patrol car. The shooter, reportedly from a gang in Baltimore that promised retribution for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, took his own life before he could be apprehended.

This was not the way to handle this. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, violence begetting violence. This solves nothing. This shooting has not only claimed two innocent lives, it may well have dashed any hopes that the Garner case might get a new grand jury. Worse, it could well ignite this tinder box of a city that has been on edge for almost a month.

It may be tempting for some to pronounce this incident as poetic justice. It isn't. Whatever your thoughts on the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, there was no proof of premeditation in either case. What happened in Brooklyn today was about as premeditated as it gets.  One homicidal maniac set himself up as judge, jury and executioner. Even if Brown and Garner had been murdered, it still wouldn't justify this shooting. Two wrongs never make a right. Period!

All of this could've been avoided had two prosecutors simply done their respective jobs. Robert McCulloch, the prosecutor in the Brown case, has admitted he allowed testimony from witnesses he knew were lying. Not only is he guilty of suborning perjury, his negligence is partly to blame for the racial tension that has gripped the nation. The blood of these two officers is as much on his hands as it is on the shooter's.

I wrote after the Garner decision that I honestly didn't know where we went from here. Now I really don't know. I fear this will only continue to escalate. I pray that I'm wrong, but this much I know: America desperately needs to have that discussion on race it has been putting off for centuries.

Now is as good a time as any.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Elizabeth Warren's Moment In the Sun

I'll be honest, Elizabeth Warren's speech was awe inspiring. I had goosebumps watching her on the floor of the Senate. Visions of Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" danced through my head. Her truth was so self-evident, her passion so real, it gave me hope that one day, this toxic waste dump of a city might actually resurrect itself and reclaim its heritage.

Of course I'm waxing poetically here. We both know what really happens in Washington. Jimmy Stewart doesn't really prevail; Claude Rains doesn't really waltz onto the Senate floor and confess his crime; and life never really imitates art. That's why it's called art. In Hollywood, the hero is exonerated and the villain defeated. Batman triumphs over Bain. The audience wouldn't have it any other way. In real life, however, Bain nukes Gotham. There is no Batman to save it; there never was.

But, for just that moment, Elizabeth Warren wasn't having any of it. She had had enough and she made a decision to stand up and speak her mind. Like Peter Finch in the movie "Network," she was mad as hell and she wasn't going to take it anymore. So she challenged not only Wall Street, but her own party leaders, who, thanks to her, now have a lot of egg on their faces and a whole lot of 'splainin' to do.

Know who else has a lot of 'splainin to do, and quickly? Hillary Clinton, that's who. Not only did Elizabeth Warren read out Democratic leadership, she boxed in her party's prohibitive front runner for the presidential nomination. Warren may or may not run for president in 2016, but, unless you've been living under a rock or on another planet in a distant galaxy, the only way Hillary doesn't run is if an alien spaceship abducts her. The question isn't if but when she will announce her candidacy.

But before she makes that announcement, you can bet the ranch she will be asked what she thinks about Warren's speech. And her answer will go along way towards determining whether or not she will go down as the next Al Gore. Assuming Jeb Bush tosses his hat into the ring for the GOP and actually manages to win the nomination - a long shot, I know - we could have a repeat of 2000. And we all know how that turned out.

Make no mistake about it, Hillary and the Democrats have a huge problem on their hands. There is a disconnect between the Party and the base and it reared its ugly head in the 2014 midterms. It's convenient to shrug off, as many pundits have mistakenly done, the election results as your typical midterm swoon. Democratic voters stay home, Republican voters turn out. In presidential elections, Dems turn out in droves. It's always been that way.

Except this year, there was a monkey wrench thrown in the works. While Democrats were getting trounced at the polls, progressive initiatives like raising the minimum wage were passing, some of them in Red states. What does that tell you? What it tells me is that the country is moving to the left, in spite of what the wingnuts on the right keep insisting.  And while most Democrats were desperately trying to pivot to the center, the base that has historically propelled them into power has grown increasingly disenchanted.

This disenchantment did not spring up overnight. It began during the Clinton years. The ascendancy of Bill Clinton is a political paradox of sorts. While he captured the center, many on the left felt betrayed. For a long time they swallowed their wounded pride, buoyed by the fact that he beat the GOP, not once but twice. Not since FDR had a Democrat won back to back presidential races.

But Al Gore was the first casualty of the Left's indifference. In what should've been a cake walk, Gore lost a very tight election to George Bush in 2000. Four years later, John Kerry lost another close race. The latter left a lot of people scratching their heads. By 2004, the Iraq War was becoming unpopular, as was Bush. The election was there for the taking, but Kerry was unable to drive enough Democratic voters to the polls.

Barack Obama was supposed to be the progressives' savior. The Messiah, as many sadly called him. But almost from the start, Obama governed more like Clinton than FDR. The half-measured stimulus that Paul Krugman correctly predicted would be insufficient to jump-start the economy; the hybrid, bastardized healthcare law that nobody likes and few defend; all were evidence of a man who couldn't find his moral compass and who all too often threw his base under the bus. He might've been the smartest man in the room, but he often came off looking smug and detached.

By any and all accounts, Obama should've been a one-term president. The economy was improving but still sluggish. The mood of the electorate was hardly reassuring. Had it not been for the fact that he was running against a party that could fuck up a sunset, Mitt Romney might very well have won in 2012. The sad an undeniable truth is that for the last six years, the Democratic formula for success has been to sit back and wait for Republicans to implode. That strategy worked brilliantly until this year. This time the GOP didn't fall on their sword. This time they pushed the ball over the goal line. And they did it against a Democratic Party that didn't so much as put up a fight. If anything, Democrats ran away from who they were and played right into the waiting arms of their opponents.

For most of the last six years, the talk around Washington has been about the civil war raging within the GOP between establishment Republicans and the Tea Party.  Few paid any attention to the growing rift within the Democratic Party between progressives and centrists. Elizabeth Warren's speech has given voice to progressives within the Party that have felt abandoned and betrayed for years. They finally have their champion, even if it's a reluctant one.

And if Hillary Clinton knows what's good for her, she will commit that speech to memory, word for word, and do whatever it takes to win them over. It won't be easy. She's never been their favorite. She's a hawk and a corporatist, two huge strikes against her from the start. And then there's her husband. Bill's signing of the repeal of Glass-Steagall was a stupendous blunder and indirectly played a role in the '08 financial meltdown. Warren went out of her way to cite it. If push comes to shove, Hillary may have no choice but to throw him under the bus. The worst possible scenario would be for her to win the nomination only to lose the general because the base stayed home.

Then there's the Party itself. It drastically needs a course correction. The fissure that this budget deal has created will undoubtedly lead to a crack as the remaining Blue Dogs attempt to push the Party even further to the right. If Democrats have any hope of recapturing the Senate in 2016, they must resist this push at all costs.

And finally, there's Obama. Less than a month removed from what many progressives were calling his boldest stand since taking office, he has seemingly retreated back to the safety of his old pragmatic ways. He took the lead in the budget negotiations and pressured many Democrats in the House to vote for it, angering Nancy Pelosi and most of her caucus in the process. While it was laudable and somewhat encouraging to see Republicans and Democrats come to the table and agree on something, the way in which this bill got cobbled together left a bad taste in everyone's mouth. And the way in which Wall Street managed to strike down a key provision in Dodd-Frank was frightening.

For months I have been insisting that people like Elizabeth Warren have no chance of winning a general election. I'm not so certain anymore. Voters are fed up with crony capitalism and crooked politicians. Warren may just be the perfect tonic for what ails the country; the one ray of sunshine that can pierce through the gray clouds that shroud it. If nothing else, she has provided a road map for her party.

It would behoove them to follow it.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014


Alright, maybe you didn't think Michael Brown was the poster child for black oppression. Maybe you think Darren Wilson had a reasonable belief that his life was in jeopardy and was justified in shooting Brown to death. I happen to disagree. The fact is we really don't know what happened that August night in Ferguson, Missouri. And thanks to Robert McCulloch, we will most likely never know.

But we do have actual video evidence of Eric Garner being strangled to death by Daniel Pantaleo. And yet, astonishingly, a grand jury decided not to indict Pantaleo for manslaughter. How can that be? How can there not be at least 12 grand jurors out of 23 who were able to see what every person with half a brain clearly saw?

The mind boggles.

This was not a he said / she said. There was no exculpatory evidence that muddied up the waters. This was a young man being placed in a chokehold by a police officer for committing the heinous crime of selling illegal cigarettes. Running a red light or rolling a stop sign carries a harsher penalty. The medical examiner concluded it was homicide. The NYPD banned the use of chokeholds more than a decade ago. And yet, despite all that, a cop walks free while another life is snuffed out.

Please spare me the usual, "Why did he resist?" bullshit. I don't want to hear it. And, yes, stop playing that ridiculous Chris Rock video "How not to get your ass kicked by the police." You do know he's playing you, right? Or are you that stupid? What part of "get a white friend" didn't you get, bright eyes? If you're sincerely interested in what Chris Rock really thinks, his tweet summed it up perfectly: "This one was on film."

Still laughing? I didn't think so. That's because there's nothing to laugh at, except perhaps the criminal justice system. Once more it has thoroughly failed to do its job. A 12-year old boy is gunned down in Cleveland; a young man is choked to death in Staten Island. Both are captured on video. The common denominator in both is the skin color of the victim and the occupation of the killer.

Yes, there are a lot of good cops out there. The vast majority of them observe the law and respect the communities they serve. And, no doubt, many of them are appalled by this decision. But, let's face it, a certain percentage of them no more belong in a uniform than I do teaching physics. A bad cop with a badge and a gun is a tragedy waiting to happen. And America has seen way too many of these tragedies.

I honestly do not know where we go from here. When something so obvious as this is dismissed, what justice can there be? I do not know what it feels like to be an African American male in this country. I have never been stopped in a mall or pulled over while driving for no other reason than the color of my skin. And any white man who even attempts to "identify" with the plight of the black man is a fool.

But, speaking strictly as a white man, I am deeply embarrassed by the events that have unfolded in the last ten days; indeed the events that have unfolded over the last six years. Prosecutors behaving like defense attorneys, grand juries failing to use the common sense God gave them, states enacting voter suppression laws. I have never seen this nation as polarized as it is right now. When a certain segment of the population loses hope, where can they turn?

Ask yourself this question and try to be as honest as possible: If you were a black man or woman, would you ever trust a cop or a jury again? Would you? Be honest. I know I wouldn't. Hell, I'm white and I'm not that fond of cops.

No matter what happens in the future - whether the Justice Department brings civil rights charges against Pantaleo or not - this decision will be a stain, not just on New York, but the whole country, as well. And, like most stains, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to remove.