Thursday, January 29, 2015

It's Time To Stop Pussyfooting About Islam

Thomas Friedman is right; so is Bill Maher and Sam Harris. There's something within the religion of Islam that runs counter to the values of a pluralistic society and is inimical to the very freedoms liberals claim to champion most and it's high time for them to wake up and stop being hypocrites.

This is what Friedman recently wrote in The New York Times:

"When you don’t call things by their real name, you always get in trouble. And this [Obama] administration, so fearful of being accused of Islamaphobia, is refusing to make any link to radical Islam from the recent explosions of violence against civilians (most of them Muslims) by Boko Haram in Nigeria, by the Taliban in Pakistan, by Al Qaeda in Paris and by jihadists in Yemen and Iraq. We’ve entered the theater of the absurd."

On Bill Maher's Real Time show on HBO, Maher and author Sam Stein got into a fierce back and forth with Ben Affleck over the faith with Stein calling Islam "the mother load of bad ideas."

"The crucial point of confusion is that we have been sold this meme of Islamaphobia where every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry toward Muslims as people and that is intellectually ridiculous."

It's also intellectually dishonest. Let's cut to the chase. Progressives can't have it both ways. We can't vehemently defend the right of women to earn equal pay for equal work and to have control of their own bodies while at the same time turning a blind eye to the atrocities that are committed against them on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis in the Islamic world. It isn't just hypocritical; it's obscene. We can't defend the right of free speech yet ignore the very sad and salient point that those who criticize the prophet Muhammad are considered heretics who must be put to death. It has been more than twenty-five years since Salman Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses and to this day the fatwa on his life remains in place. In a 2005 oped piece in The Times, he wrote:

"What is needed is a move beyond tradition, nothing less than a reform movement to bring the core concepts of Islam into the modern age, a Muslim Reformation to combat not only the jihadist ideologues but also the dusty, stifling seminaries of the traditionalists, throwing open the windows to let in much-needed fresh air. (…) It is high time, for starters, that Muslims were able to study the revelation of their religion as an event inside history, not supernaturally above it. (…) Broad-mindedness is related to tolerance; open-mindedness is the sibling of peace."

Islam's basic problem is not unlike the one that both Judaism and Christianity went through in their early days. Those who challenged the established orthodoxy of either faith took their lives into their own hands. A woman cold be stoned for the "crime" of being an adulteress. Indeed the crucifixion of Jesus came about because he was perceived to be a heretic by the religious leaders of his time. The Spanish Inquisition, one could argue, was simply the precursor to the current practice in many Islamic countries. Those who did not convert to Christianity were put to death.

Today few if any Jews take seriously the book of Leviticus. And Christianity, since the days of the Protestant Reformation, has become a far more tolerant and far less insular religion. Scholars are free to argue various points on scripture without the threat of reprisal. And while many conservative Christians continue to hold ignorant and unbiblical views, to the best of my knowledge none of them have flown a plane into a skyscraper or attacked a shopping mall.

At my own Bible study, I have often butted heads with some of my fellow believers, most notably on whether certain verses in the Bible - particularly those in Genesis that deal with how old the Earth is - should be taken literally. While the discussion has been passionate, not once have I ever left the group fearing for my life.

This is simply not the case throughout most of the Islamic world. To the vast majority of Muslims, the Koran is the divine revelation of God to his prophet Muhammad. The consequences for those who question any part of it are considerable. In Pakistan, for instance, a judge was forced to flee the country after he sentenced a man to death for the crime of murdering someone who had publicly questioned the country's blasphemy law. In Saudi Arabia, a blogger was sentenced to ten years in prison and one thousand lashes for simply promoting the concept of free speech.

Some would argue that these examples are the exception to the rule. I beg to differ. Yes, I agree that not all Muslims are violent or support atrocities like the terrorist attack recently carried out in Paris. And I'll also stipulate that the vast majority of them were appalled by the 9/11 attacks. But the 800 pound gorilla in the room that most of the faith's apologists - namely liberals - refuse to acknowledge is that the very precepts of Islam require its adherents to hold the kind of extremist views that are at the very heart of the problem and have become the springboard for groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda.

It is not Islamophobic to criticize Islam, nor is criticizing it analogous to calling a Jew shifty or an African American lazy as Ben Affleck alluded to. There is no truth in the assertion that Jews are shifty or that blacks are lazy and to infer as much is the very definition of racism. There is, however, much truth to the assertion that Islam, in its present form, is an extremely volatile and insular religion that posses a serious threat to the security of most of the free world.

It is the height of naivety to dismiss the events unfolding in the Middle East as simply the byproduct of a few rotten apples. As Bill Maher aptly put it, “When there’s this many bad apples, there’s something wrong with the orchard.”

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Obama's Long Game

Forget for a moment the lofty proposals the President laid out in his State of the Union address - none of which have an ice cube's chance in hell of becoming law. Forget also his overly optimistic view of events unfolding in the Middle East that had even his supporters shaking their heads and wondering if he may have accidentally gotten too close to one of those Colorado pot shops.

This wasn't about policy initiatives or ISIS or even this year. For all intents and purposes 2015 is toast. With the exception of a trade agreement that Republicans will be all too willing to give him, it will be a herculean task to get anything north of a ham sandwich through this Congress that he won't veto. And frankly, I have my doubts about the ham sandwich.

Let's face it: Republicans loathe him and have ever since he was elected in 2008. For the last six years they've made it their life's mission to obstruct him at every turn and for the last four of those years they've been quite successful. What's different is that for the first time in his presidency he finally gets this. Want proof? Look no further than the bitch slap he laid on them when after they applauded his statement that he had no more campaigns to run, he snidely countered, "I know 'cause I won both of 'em."


For most of his presidency, Obama has been the adult in the room, seeking consensus and tolerating just about every imaginable barb and sling thrown at him, some beyond the pale. And what did it get him? Two staggering midterm losses, that's what. Virtually every major policy accomplishment he has had occurred in his first two years in office. Since then he has been fighting on his opponents' turf. His only victory - apart from winning reelection in 2012 - was the self-inflicted wound Republicans suffered when they shut the government down trying to keep his healthcare law from being implemented. But that was like shooting fish in a barrel. Opportunities like that don't grow on trees, even against a party as inept as the GOP.

And while Obama did his level-headed best to find common ground, his base stewed. Last November, they voiced their displeasure by staying home. Result? Bye, bye Senate. The message couldn't have been clearer. You want our vote, give us something to vote for. Credit Obama this much: he took the hint.

Ever since that shellacking he's been on the offensive. Far from behaving like the cowed president the GOP had hoped for, he's been assertive and throwing around his weight. Even before Mitch McConnell had the chance to begin his tenure as majority leader, Obama had signed an executive order on immigration, reached an accord with China on greenhouse emissions and announced an end to the Cuban embargo.

Last Tuesday, he used the bulk of his State of the Union address to serve notice to the GOP that he was done being the nice guy. He couldn't have been plainer: Work with me and together we can accomplish some things. Send me bills I don't like and my veto pen is going to get a work out.

But more than that, he laid out the Democratic strategy going into 2016. He redefined what the issues are going to be. No more austerity and supply-side drivel. The core issue for the next two years is going to be the middle class, the middle class, the middle class. He's done playing on his opponents' turf by their rules. From now on, it's my ball, my court, my rules.

I like this Obama much more than the old Obama. He's got his dander up.  Good for him. It's about damn time.  Know who else likes this new and improved Obama more? The public. His approval numbers since last November have steadily risen. He's now polling around 48 percent, just a notch below where it was when he won reelection in 2012. People like it when their leaders lead.

Don't think for a moment that Republicans haven't noticed the turnaround. They're acting like kids who just discovered their parents came home earlier than expected. After pretending the middle class didn't even exist, all of sudden they can't say middle class enough. Even Thurston Howell III - aka Mitt Romney - has gotten on the band wagon. That's right, Mr. 47 percent video himself is practically in tears over the plight of this "beloved" group.

It should be real interesting - not to mention hysterical - listening to Republicans articulate a vision to help a class they've been fucking for the better part of the last three decades. I can hardly wait for dear old Mitt, or Paul Ryan or Jeb or Rand Paul to explain how giving away trillions of dollars to the wealthiest people on the planet who already don't pay their fair share will somehow magically trickle down and revive the down trodden, especially when that con game has been played twice before and to scathing reviews.

Even without Obama going all Shaft on their asses, it was becoming clear that the GOP was running out of steam on the old "blame Obama for the shitty economy" line. Fact is, the economy isn't all that bad. Unemployment is at the lowest it's been in a decade, the Dow has tripled in value since '09 and the economy is growing at its fastest rate since the '90s. Face it, if they couldn't sell doom and gloom in 2012, they sure as hell weren't going to sell it in 2016. The problem with rooting for the fire is that sooner or later the fire gets put out. Oh, and the plan B story about "yes, the economy is doing better but Obama had nothing to do with it," wasn't going anywhere either. People may be stupid, but they're not THAT stupid. Even those who had honest disagreements with Obama on strategy clearly saw a party about as interested in helping revive the economy as a straight man wanting to attend a showing of La Cage aux Folles.

If Obama and the Democrats don't screw this up and once more fumble the ball at the one yard line, they can set the stage for another successful run at the White House, possibly take back the Senate and make inroads in the House. It all comes down to resolve. Can Harry Reid reign in the remaining Blue Dogs in his caucus and keep them from siding with McConnell and the majority? The Keystone Pipeline will be the first litmus test. It will undoubtedly pass and make its way to Obama's desk. But when he vetoes it, will his party back him or will they help to override him? If it's the former, Democrats have a chance; if it's the latter, it's game, set and match.

Think about it: if Democrats can't stand up to something as phony and transparent as a pipeline that promises 35 permanent jobs, how the hell are they going to hold fort on bigger issues like women's rights and the environment? And then there's the GOP master plan to turn the U.S. into a larger version of Kansas. If John Boehner and McConnell ever get the chance to replicate on a national level what Sam Brownback is doing on a state level, you can kiss what's left of the middle class in this country goodbye for a LONG, LONG time.

This is the moment Democrats and, more importantly, progressives have been dreaming about for more than six years. They finally have a president who doesn't have to worry about running for office again, who has finally found his voice and who is willing and able to lead his party forward.  They also have the right issues on their side. Whoever the nominee is - be it Hillary or Elizabeth Warren or whoever - they will have a considerable advantage going into the next election. The right issues, a recovering economy and, hopefully, an energized base will go a long way towards assuring victory.

Now is the time for boldness, not caution. I wrote a while back that Obama's biggest accomplishment in his first two years in office was making sure Republicans didn't destroy the economy. His goal for the last two years will be to make sure they don't get another crack at it. Well, you can add one vary important caveat to that last part.

That is ASSUMING his own party doesn't get in his way.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Hey GOP, It's Obama's Recovery

Well isn't it nice that Republicans are finally acknowledging that the economy is recovering. It only took them about six years. Of course, the credit for this recovery, according to the GOP, comes from their policies and has nothing to do with President Obama. Indeed, the economy improved in spite of Obama, not because of him, they say.

I wasn't aware that standing on the sidewalk, looking up at a burning building, cheering for the fire and then blaming the fire department for not putting it out fast enough was an actual policy, but then I wouldn't have believed that a party which ostensibly said "No" for six years could actually win an election, let alone two.

To sum up, 58 straight months of private sector job growth, unemployment down to 5.6 percent and GDP growth at 5 percent in the third quarter of last year. Pretty impressive and considerably better than Mitt Romney in 2012 promised he'd deliver by the end of his first term. In fact, it could be argued that were it not for the Sequester that Republicans managed to extort from Obama during the 2011 near debt-ceiling default, the recovery would've been even more robust.

How bad is the Republican argument? Without exception, every prediction they made about the economy and how to deal with it has been proven false. First they said the stock market would crash. The Dow is now at the highest it's been in its history. They said unemployment would remain high; its now at its lowest rate in a decade. They said we would have hyper inflation thanks to Fed policies; inflation has fluctuated between 1.4 and 2.1 percent for the last two years. Both the stimulus and auto bailout were a waste of tax payer money.  As far as the stimulus goes, while it may not have been as effective as many would've liked, it nonetheless provided badly needed relief for states - some of them Red - whose budgets were hemorrhaging in the throws of the recession. Without it, the economy might well have fallen off the cliff. Regarding the auto bailout, virtually every economist - liberal AND conservative - has concluded that without it, the auto industry as we know it would not exist. Indeed hundreds of thousands of jobs would have been lost and hundreds of thousands more would never have been created.

When you look at where Europe is, thanks to its love affair with austerity, the U.S. economy by comparison is the envy of the world and the lion's share of the credit belongs to Obama and his policies. That Republicans would even dare to take any credit for this recovery is both comical and offensive. As I mentioned in an earlier piece, Democrats need to push back hard against this meme before it, like every other GOP lie, begins to gain traction.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Does Hillary Have a Bill Problem? Not Nearly as Much as Jeb Has a George Problem

While the country waits for Hillary Clinton to shit or get off the pot, a recent piece by David Frum in the Atlantic raises a potential dilemma for the prohibitive Democratic front runner. That dilemma is her husband.

Frum points out, and correctly so, that if Jeb Bush manages to win the Republican nomination, Democrats "won't let voters forget" that his brother was at the helm when the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression started. And the moment they do that Republicans will be only to happy to point out that the seeds of that crisis were planted during the Clinton years when Glass-Steagall was repealed and regulations that prevented federally insured banks from trading derivatives were either eased or lifted altogether.

There's some truth to this. The Titanic sinking was the greatest maritime disaster of all time. And while most historians rightly focus on the negligent way in which the liner was navigated, the genesis of the disaster actually began a decade earlier when the British Board of Trade opted not to require steamship companies to carry enough lifeboats for all on board. Had the Board revised its regulations, 1,500 people would likely not have frozen to death in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic that fateful night.

But Frum conveniently overlooks the other glaring shortcomings of the Bush presidency: such as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the huge tax cuts that turned a $300 billion surplus into a $1.4 trillion deficit. And then there's the approval rating of both men. Bush remains extremely unpopular while Bill is still admired by many. I'm not saying Bill will get a pass; there are a great many people on both ends of the political spectrum that are fed up with the cozy relationship between Washington and Wall Street. And then there's that Monsanto connection. That's a scab just waiting to be picked. But when push comes to shove, I'll bet the mortgage George will have a whole lot more skeletons in his closet than Bill.

And that means in the handicap department, Jeb's got a huge lead over Hillary.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Memo To Dems: Be Proactive Not Reactive

Now that they control both Houses of Congress, Republicans are going to do everything they can over the next two years to advance their agenda. Elections do have consequences and, as the minority party, Democrats are going to have to make the best of them. And that means not sitting around licking their wounds.

If they're smart, they will take their President's lead. Since November, Obama has signed an executive order on immigration, reached an accord with China to limit greenhouse emissions and started the process of normalizing relations with Cuba. He's also threatened to veto a Keystone pipeline deal should it pass. Not bad for two months.

Here's a few suggestions for Democrats:

Don't copy the Republican playbook. Over the last six years, the GOP was basically the party of No. They acted as obstructionists and brought Washington to a virtual standstill. I'm not suggesting that they sing along with Mitch, mind you, but they have to pick their battles carefully. What they can ill afford going into the next presidential election is for Republicans to brand them as the obstructionists. That would play right into their hands and place Hillary Clinton or whoever the nominee is into an untenable position. Say no when appropriate, but when the opportunity presents itself, be amenable to some of the less objectionable legislation.

Case in point, the trade agreement that Obama struck while in China. Progressives don't like it one bit, but centrist Democrats and many Republicans do. If I were Harry Reid, I'd push my caucus to sign on to this deal. It's more than just a bone to throw Senate Republicans; it's an opportunity to prove to the electorate that they're willing to play ball. And it chips away at the argument that the GOP has been making for the last six years that Democrats don't care about business and jobs.

And speaking of jobs, Democrats should spend the next few months building a narrative of how good the economy has been doing under their stewardship and how many jobs have been created since Obama took office. No doubt Republicans will attempt to take credit for the latest GDP growth, as Grover Norquist has already done. It is vital that Democrats counter this ridiculous propaganda with real data. Historically, this has been very difficult for both the Party and the Administration to do, but do it they must. It would be the political blunder of the century if, after standing on the sidelines and cheering on the fire, Republicans managed to get any credit for putting it out. This cannot be allowed to happen.

And, finally, Democrats must define what it is they stand for. There's no doubt the base was disheartened last November and showed it by staying home. Articulating a vision for the country that speaks to this base is vital for success in 2016 and beyond. Know your strengths and avoid the typical infighting that has plagued the other Party. Unlike the GOP, the Democratic base is growing. It would bode well for the Party to remember that. Any thoughts of throwing the base under the bus to appease the few remaining Blue Dogs would be electoral suicide. It's simple math: when both party's bases turn out, Democrats have a decided edge.

So, there it is, Dems, your road map to victory. Follow it and good things can happen; ignore it and you do so at your own risk.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Can Jeb Win in 2016?

With all the hoopla about whether or not Hillary Clinton will run for president, another political dynasty is about to see the third member of its family climb into the presidential ring. Jeb Bush is just days, if not hours away from announcing he will seek the Republican nomination. The big question many are asking is whether he can survive what will undoubtedly be the most grueling test he or any GOP candidate will endure.

Let's face it, the last two GOP presidential nominees were damaged goods by the time they began their general election campaigns. If history is any indication, the third time will not be a charm. That's because the primary process of the Republican Party forces its candidates so far over to the right that it is impossible for them to pivot back to the center in the remaining two months before the general election.

In 2008, John McCain, bowing to pressure from the base, chose Sarah Palin as his running rate, rather than Joe Lieberman, who many thought would've made a far better choice. He was trounced in the general. Likewise, in 2012, Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan in an effort to appease the base, instead of someone like Florida senator Marco Rubio or Ohio senator Rob Portman, either of whom might've delivered their respective state in the general. Like McCain four years earlier, Romney was routed.

Both losses were attributed by the Republican base to a lack of conviction. The problem they said was that neither McCain nor Romney were real conservatives. What the GOP needed was for an authentic conservative, a true disciple, to inspire the electorate and lead the Party to victory.

Yes, the old "we weren't conservative enough" mantra, that's it. Only Jeb isn't buying into the program. He has publicly rejected that conventional unwisdom, saying that any nominee has to be willing to "lose the primary to win the general." I'll say this for him, he's the first Republican in about a decade who's had the guts to call a spade a spade. He's Mitt Romney only with a spine and a soul.

But can he really pull it off? Can Jeb Bush manage to make it through the circus that has become the Republican primaries? Somehow, I doubt it. The fact is there are way too many wingnuts in the Party whose perception of the country is so warped and distorted, Reagan would have a difficult time winning the nomination.

But let's for a moment forget all that. Let's say Jeb can somehow convince enough of the inmates to vote for him. Okay, he gets trounced in Iowa. No surprise there; in fact, that's good news. Turns out, winning Iowa doesn't help GOP candidates all that much. The real prize is New Hampshire. I think Jeb has a real shot in that state. Then he goes down to South Carolina and, like Iowa, gets his ass handed to him. He wins Florida and is competitive in enough of the other states to make it close. Indeed, with many of the other candidates cancelling themselves out vying for the most batshit crazy vote, it's conceivable that Bush could swoop in and pick off a good number of the more winnable primaries. It wouldn't shock me at all to see a brokered convention. And you know anything can happen at a brokered convention.

So, Jeb wins the nod. But can he win the general? In a word, yes.

Yes, his last name is Bush and he's the brother of the worst president in modern history - sorry Tea Party, it's not Barack Obama. That's a huge burden to overcome. But consider these points.

1. Jeb isn't George. Anyone who has spent even a few minutes in the company of both men will instantly be able to tell the difference. One is thoughtful, informed and competent; the other was the 43rd president of the United States.

2. Despite the Party affiliation, Jeb is not a hard-line conservative. Yes, he played an integral role in getting his brother over the hump in 2000 while governor of Florida, but on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being extreme hard right, he's about a 6 or a 7 at best. He's more like his father than his brother, and in a country deeply polarized by partisan politics, that could resonate with voters.

3. His views on immigration and education are more mainstream than any Republican candidate in over a decade. So mainstream in fact, he could pull many moderates who've grown wary of how far to the right the Party has drifted back over to the GOP.

4. He will have a boatload of money at his disposal. If you thought the Clintons were loaded, the Bushes are REALLY loaded. If the fortunes of both families were ships, the Clintons would be the Queen Mary and the Bushes would be the Exxon Valdez. Not counting soft money, Jeb would have a sizable leg up on Hillary. With soft money, it wouldn't even be close. The ratio could easily be 3 to 1. Think money can't play a role with two candidates so well known? Tell that to Charlie Crist, who went into the last two weeks of his election bid with a small lead over Rick Scott. Then the money really poured into Scott's campaign and Crist lost. In a close general election, money could well be the determining factor.

So, yes, Jeb Bush could win. Assuming he wins the Republican nomination, he could beat Hillary or Warren or whoever the Democratic nominee is. He could become the 45th president of the United States. And, with a Republican-controlled Congress, would be in a position to roll back many of the progressive gains of the last six years. Not to mention getting to appoint at least one or two Supreme Court justices.

All that could happen. Is it likely? No. Thankfully the odds of him emerging as the nominee are slim. But consider this: eight years ago the prospects of a black president also seemed highly unlikely. Is it really all that difficult to conceive of a third Bush presidency?

Stranger things have happened.