Friday, June 26, 2015

Three Watershed Moments, One Week

Let's cut to the chase. This was a bad week for conservatives. First, the Confederate flag, the symbol of slavery and oppression for millions of African Americans, is at long last starting to come down in several southern states; second, the Supreme Court upheld the tax subsidies in states that didn't set up their own exchanges, thus preserving Obamacare; and lastly, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right, throwing out all state-imposed bans against it.

Where is a racist, myopic homophobe to go these days? Let's break down each of these historic moments in the order of how they happened.

The Confederate flag. All I can say is it's about time this blight on the nation fell. Flying this flag is no different than raising a swastika banner in the middle of Jerusalem. Not only is it a vile and painful reminder of the subjugation of an entire race of people, it glorified a traitorous revolt against the United States that had to be brutally put down at a terrible cost. The Civil War stands as this nation's costliest and bloodiest war, and for the South to continue its romanticizing of this symbol was and is an abomination. But, more importantly, it's an affront to what the country supposedly stands for and was founded on.

But encouraged though I am that this flag's status as a symbol is slowly coming to an end, I remain skeptical that this will lead to any real breakthrough in the thinking that permeates much of the South. The underlying problem in this region goes much deeper than a mere flag. Until the attitudes of the majority of the population begin to change, I fear that nothing substantive will come of this. For instance, when these states abandon their voter suppression laws and embrace the reality of a diverse and multi-ethnic culture, then, and only then, will I start to believe that the South is finally ready to join the 21st century.  

King v. Burwell. The surprise here wasn't the what - I had a hunch it would be a 6-3 victory for the Administration - but rather the how. In his majority opinion Chief Justice John Roberts not only upheld the tax subsidies in states that elected not to set up their own exchanges, he took off the table the last vestige of hope conservatives might've had to reverse this outcome: administrative interpretation.

Roberts basically wrote that the law was unambiguous in its language. To put it in layman's terms, the statute always intended for everyone to be eligible for tax subsidies, regardless of whether they got them through a state-run or federally-run exchange. Any unbiased reading of the law would arrive at the same conclusion.

What the ruling ostensibly does is bar a potential future Republican president from reinterpreting what the statute means and directing the I.R.S. to deny the subsidies. Here, Roberts is quite clear:

"Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them." That's the legal equivalent of a bitch slap, folks.

While I don't for a moment believe we are done hearing from the wingnuts on the Right on this issue, for now at least both the Administration and those of us who aren't unhinged can breath a sigh of relief. Obamacare dodged yet another bullet from its foes and, thanks once again to Roberts, it lives to fight another day.

Gay Marriage. To be honest, I wasn't nearly as optimistic about this one as I was with King. Even with Justice Kennedy's past support for gay rights, I didn't think the Court would have the stomach to do the right thing on such a volatile subject. Well, bravo to Kennedy for stepping up to the plate and casting the correct and deciding vote. Good for him and good for America.

This isn't just a triumph for the gay community; it's a victory for freedom everywhere. If these words of Jesus - "what you do for the least of these, you did for me" - have any meaning, then certainly those who have suffered humiliating insults and discrimination at the hands of a majority of Americans who could never walk in their sandals serve as a textbook example.

Now they can lift up their heads with pride and live the life they were meant to without having to hide in the closet. They can marry their partners and enjoy all the legal benefits that go along with that marriage. Perhaps of all the landmark decisions that have come down from the Supreme Court, this is the most meaningful, because it acknowledges a staggering reality that can no longer be denied, either morally and, now, legally: That we are all God's children and no one is above another.

Some will denounce this decision as judicial activism. Let them. Their words will fall into the dump heap of history. The fact is we are a more perfect union today because of this decision than we were before it and that is a good thing.

So there you have it. Three watershed moments in one week. The first from a tragedy, the second a concession to common sense, and the third a victory for human rights. Rarely do we have a week like this. Let's take a minute to enjoy it while it lasts.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Mitt Romney's Rare Moment of Candor

Did you miss it? To tell you the truth I almost missed it myself. In case you were curious, former Massachusetts governor and 2012 Republican presidential nominee had a rare moment of candor. He had the audacity to tweet that South Carolina should take down its confederate flag because "it is a symbol of racial hatred."

For those of you who haven't fallen over and fainted, that was not a misprint. Old Thurston Howell III actually went off the reservation and decided to try something he hasn't had to do in quite some time: speak open and honestly about a very serious topic and, even better, went rogue in doing so.

Not surprisingly, the far Right went ballistic. Seems the bubble people don't like it when you veer too far towards the center, or as it's known in the real world, the right-hand margin. They've convinced themselves that this was an attack on Christianity and that racism played no role whatsoever, so it wasn't all that surprising that Romney's remarks would set off a shit storm.

What is surprising is that Romney, of all people, would be the one to actually make them. After all, this is not the poster child for intestinal fortitude. His presidential campaign was a textbook example of how not to run a campaign. He was the political equivalent of that old joke about the weather in Florida. If you don't like it, wait five minutes and it'll change. He was so insincere, he could make Hillary Clinton sound like Mahatma Gandhi.

It does make you spin your head and wonder, where was this Mitt Romney when the GOP needed him most? I said it as early as 2011, Romney had the creds to take Barack Obama in the election. He had run and won a centrist campaign for governor in one of the bluest states in the known universe. He implemented a healthcare law that became the boiler plate for the Affordable Care Act. He was in an unique position to say to the country, "Hey, I've done this before. I can do it again."

But, instead, he allowed himself to be pulled so far to the right, he never recovered. He picked the worst possible running mate he could've in Paul Ryan. All Ryan did was further polarize an already out of touch campaign. The smart play would've been Rob Portman of Ohio, a senator who could've helped him lock up that state. There was no way in hell Ryan was going to deliver Wisconsin for him. Hell, Ryan couldn't even deliver his own district for him.

Imagine for a moment if instead of the platform Romney was forced to run on, he had come out and said the following: "I was a successful governor in a blue state working with both Republicans and Democrats. I successfully implemented a healthcare law in that state and I can fix what's wrong with Obamacare and make it work. I'll introduce real tax reform that will reward the middle class instead of punishing it. I'll work with both labor and business to get this economy moving forward. Both parties will have a seat at my table and I will be open to ideas on how to lead our country from both sides of the political spectrum. And I'll push for true immigration reform that fixes the current broken system we now have."

I hate to admit it, but that Mitt Romney might've won. Of course, the bubble people will tell you they would've revolted against such a platform and likely stayed home, thus ensuring an Obama landslide. There's only two problems with that mindset: One, I don't buy it for a minute. I think the Republican base would've voted for a coffee pot over Obama; that's how much they hated him. Two, in case you didn't read the returns, Obama won by more than 5 million votes. Last time I checked, that constitutes a landslide.

Face it, the Obama campaign really didn't have to work very hard to convince the voters to vote Democrat. For the most part they relied on the Romney campaign to open its mouth and let the cameras and mics do most of the heavy lifting. With the exception of his Denver debate performance, Romney did pretty much as he was told. He touted the conservative mantra to a tee and got his ass handed to him by the electorate.

But if the GOP is really serious about winning in 2016, they should take heed of this rare moment when one of its fallen foot soldiers summed up just enough integrity to speak the truth to a party that long ago stopped listening for it in the first place.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Biggest Sin of All Is the Sin of Indifference

We are told that it is wrong to politicize the tragic shootings in a South Carolina church; that this is nothing more than a random act of violence by a deeply disturbed individual. It is suggested by some people with a straight face that if the pastor of this church had only allowed his congregation to carry concealed guns in the building then no one except the shooter would've died. Still others blame it on the moral decay of our society and that guns have nothing to do with it. And finally, others maintain that race played no role whatsoever in this shooting. They insist, again with a straight fcae, that because the shooting took place in a church, it was an attack on Christianity.


A random act of violence? America has had more "random" acts of violence than any other industrialized country in the world. In fact it leads the Milky Way Galaxy in gun-related homicides.

Deeply disturbed individual? Yes, he is, but he is hardly alone. As President Obama adroitly observed just last year after another senseless shooting, "The U.S. doesn't have a monopoly on crazy people." Every country in the world has its share of mentally ill patients.

Concealed guns in a church? Why not? The whole country, it seems, has been turned into the O.K. Corral. Why not churches? The fact is that according to a study by the Violence Policy Center, the number of people who use guns for self defense has been "negligible" so far as a means of deterrence is concerned.

Moral decay of our society? Right, let's blame it on the secularized, pluralistic world we now live in. If only people prayed more then these things wouldn't happen. Except something like this did happen inside a church where people were praying. Explain that if you can. And also explain how this is somehow a judgment from God. I heard the same shit from supposedly Christian people after 9/11.

Race played no role? No role except that the shooter was pictured wearing a jacket that had the flags of two Apartheid countries in Africa stamped on it and had made numerous racist comments to friends. Also this shooting took place in a state that still proudly flies the Confederate flag outside its statehouse. So much for race not playing a role. This guy didn't walk into a Walmart. He clearly knew what he was doing and who he was doing it to.

An attack on Christianity? I suppose then that the Newtown and Columbine shootings were attacks on schools. Just like the Aurora shooting was an attack on theaters, and the Washington Navy Yard shooting an attack on the military. Oh, please! The guy deliberately chose a BLACK prayer group in a BLACK church in South Carolina, not the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City, Utah.

But, you know what? That's not my problem with all this. It no longer surprises me that there are people who will never be able to connect the dots and see the forest for the trees. Either they're lost in their own ignorance or they're just flat out racists. At this point it doesn't matter. I could give a shit.

No, my real problem is with the millions and millions of people who reacted with shock and horror at the news and then a couple of days later, returned to their otherwise drab and routine lives. Their indifference and apathy has allowed this cancer to metastasize in the body of our country for way too long. Children are shot to death at a school, brave servicemen and women are killed at a military base, and now 9 churchgoers are murdered at a prayer meeting. How many times do we have to say, "How many more lives will be sacrificed?" before the majority of this country gets off its collective ass and says, "ENOUGH?"

The polls say that a majority of people favor sensible gun regulation. You could've fooled me. When 20 six-year olds are shot to death in a school in Connecticut and we still can't pass a god-damned gun bill, that is a disgrace. Like so many other tragedies involving guns, our outrage over the incident quickly faded away like the plethora of bad TV programs we gorge ourselves on night in and night out. We have more channels to watch than time to watch them.

Yet when it comes to voting, the statistics are dreadful. Only 57 percent of registered voters bothered to vote in 2012. In 2014, that percentage plummeted to 36 percent; the lowest since World War II. I'm certain if there was a marathon of some popular TV show on the air, millions of us would somehow find the time to tune in.

Our priorities as a nation are screwed up. We have abdicated our responsibility as citizens and allowed this country to be seized by special interest groups who are free to do whatever the hell they feel like. The NRA has turned this country into a shooting gallery and we have stood by and watched them do it. We mocked the moron who walked into a Chipotle in Texas looking like Rambo, yet did we do anything to stop him? Of course not. We were too busy tweeting about the latest movie we saw - Avengers, was it? - or making arrangements to have some buddies over for a barbecue - you bring the wings, I got the dogs and burgers - or watching yet another "reality" show on our new flat-screen TV. Even while writing this piece I can't tell you how many times I flipped through the cable channels looking for anything to distract me. Did you know that according to the Weather Channel, if you're in New York, this weekend is going to absolutely suck?

Like that Pink Floyd song, we have become comfortably numb. Our empathy goes hand in hand with our attention span, which, last time I checked, was just north of a gnat. Part of this can be blamed on how complex our lives have become; the world has changed a great deal over the last few decades. The rest, quite frankly, is just due to plain old laziness. Americans just don't give enough of a shit about the things that really matter. Someone gets shot, that's terrible; take away our internet service, and it's the end of the world. I can't remember a time when I didn't see people texting on their smart phones at restaurants or the workplace. Texting has now become one of the primary causes of driving fatalities in this country. What we won't do to avoid what's right in front of us.

Freud would've had a field day with this society. We are about as close to a textbook definition of the id as any generation that has ever lived. And you thought the '70s was the "Me" decade. They ain't got nothing on us. Think about it for a moment. We're cooking our planet, killing ourselves left and right, destroying what's left of the middle class and witnessing the eroding of an infrastructure and education system that was once the envy of the world. But what do we worry about? A fake war on Christmas and defending the rights of Neanderthals to turn the country into the wild, wild west.

We scream to high heaven about our rights, yet seldom, if ever, speak about our obligations. We say we hate our government, yet we keep electing the same idiots to represent us. We are perpetual victims looking for someone to blame, while never once daring to look in the mirror. To quote the immortal words of Cassius, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."

There's that famous scene from the movie Network, where anchor Howard Beale implores his viewers to shout out, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" The stunt worked. Millions of people complied, but like most stunts, it didn't last long; just long enough to boost the ratings up for a few nights. Then the cold reality set in. Nothing had changed. All that happened was that a whole lot of people let off some steam and temporarily felt better.

That isn't good enough this time. Shouting at the top of our lungs won't cut it anymore. Words without actions are meaningless. As the old saying goes, if nothing changes, nothing changes. You may not like the current occupant of the White House, but he was right when he said, "We are the change we're looking for."

The truth is we've always had the power to change the world in which we live. What we've lacked is the will to carry it through. We've been content to let others do the heavy lifting. It's time we got up off our asses and carried some of the load. This won't be easy. Taking back a country that we gave up on never is. It's sort of like trying to catch your car after someone took off in it with your keys in the ignition.

There will always be people who hate enough to kill and they will certainly succeed from time to time. But they cannot prevail if we don't let them. As Edmund Burke once said, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

It is high time we stopped doing nothing; high time we stopped being backseat drivers. If indeed there is a God, as we say there is, he will most certainly hold us accountable for those sins we have not reconciled. And the greatest of those sins will be the sin of indifference.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

What Happens If the Supreme Court Strikes Down the Federal Exchange Subsidies

In a couple of weeks, the Supreme Court will announce its decision in King v. Burwell. At stake are the subsidies for millions of people who bought their insurance policies in states that chose not to set up state exchanges. If the Court rules for the plaintiffs, those subsidies will be struck down; if it rules for the Administration, then they will survive.

And while the conventional wisdom among legal scholars is that either Chief Justice Roberts or Justice Kennedy or both will side with the liberal wing of the Court, the question must be asked, what if both end up siding with the three conservatives? Here's what happens in that unlikely event:

  • 7.5 million subsidies in 34 states would be invalid. 
  • Healthcare costs in all of those states would begin to spiral upward as people drop coverage rather than pay the higher rates.
  • The damage would not be limited to just those 34 states. Over time, insurers would pass on their higher costs to consumers in the remaining states, meaning overall rates would climb far more than they currently are.
  • The political fallout to both parties would be considerable as the insured would be rightly outraged at the lack of leadership.

Regarding the last point, make no mistake about it. Both parties will be held accountable by the voters and with good reason. Whether your sympathies are with the Administration or not, the fact remains that the Affordable Care Act was a disaster from the moment it was hatched. It barely passed the Senate and only as a funding bill. The House was unable to make the changes it needed to make - such as modifying or eliminating the employer mandate - because Democrats didn't have the 60 seats needed to survive another up and down vote.

The House bill, which had a public option, would've been a much better law had it passed the Senate, but Democrats couldn't cobble together the 60 votes they needed to get it through. To make matters worse, President Obama did a lousy job working with leaders of his own party and boxed himself into a corner by accepting a flawed law that even a majority of his own party doesn't like. None of this nonsense would be happening now if he had listened to progressives who wanted a single payer system.

But the GOP has plenty of blood on its hands. For the last seven years they have stood on the sidelines and done nothing but scream death panels and socialism. They have not come to the table with any substantive solutions for a healthcare system that is among the world's costliest and least efficient. The U.S. spends more than 17 percent of its GDP on healthcare and Republicans must bear the lion's share of the blame for that.

Until Obama embraced the idea of a mandated private insurance plan, conservatives were all for it. In 2006, Mitt Romney, while governor of Massachusetts, signed into law a bill that would become the template for Obamacare. And in 2007 a bipartisan bill sponsored by Bob Bennett (R-Utah) and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) called for a federal mandate to purchase private health insurance, but failed to get enough votes to pass.

In 1994, then Senate minority leader Bob Dole approached then President Bill Clinton and told him he could get the votes needed to pass an individual mandate healthcare law if he could persuade his wife Hillary to abandoned her healthcare bill, dubbed back then as Hillarycare. Clinton passed on the opportunity and a few months later the GOP took both houses of Congress.

Even the Heritage Foundation, as far back as 1989, promoted the idea of individual mandated insurance:

Many states now require passengers in automobiles to wear seatbelt for their own protection. Many others require anybody driving a car to have liability insurance. But neither the federal government nor any state requires all households to protect themselves from the potentially catastrophic costs of a serious accident or illness. Under the Heritage plan, there would be such a requirement.
This mandate is based on two important principles. First, that healthcare protection is a responsibility of individuals, not businesses. Thus to the extent that anybody should be required to provide coverage to a family, the household mandate assumes that it is the family that carries the first responsibility. Second, it assumes that there is an implicit contract between households and society, based on the notion that health insurance is not like other forms of insurance protection. If a young man wrecks his Porsche and has not had the foresight to obtain insurance, we may commiserate but society feels no obligation to repair his car. But healthcare is different. If a man is struck down by a heart attack in the street, Americans will care for him whether or not he has insurance. If we find that he has spent his money on other things rather than insurance, we may be angry but we will not deny him services - even if it means more prudent citizens end up paying the tab. 
A mandate on individuals recognizes this implicit contract. Society does feel a moral obligation to insure that its citizens do not suffer from the unavailability of healthcare. But on the other hand, each household has the obligation, to the extent it is able, to avoid placing demands on society by protecting itself.

If the Supreme Court forces the hand of Congress by tossing the federal subsidies, both parties will have the burden AND responsibility of fixing the problem. Hiding behind blind ideology or stubbornness will not sit well with the electorate.

Mark my words, the voters will take out their frustrations on any member of Congress who doesn't come to the table with a viable, workable solution. And they won't give a rat's ass whether that member of Congress has a D or an R next to their name.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

House Democrats Coming Apart At the Seams

While everyone in the media is fixated on the growing clown car of GOP presidential candidates, across the aisle, the Democrats are in the middle of an all-out civil war that would make the Hatfield-McCoy feud look like a misunderstanding over dinner reservations.

With his Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal all but reduced to a pile of ashes, President Obama has two major problems on his hands. 1. The bulk of his party has abandoned him; and 2. His party is for all intents and purposes leaderless. The first problem is nothing new. For most of his six and a half years in office, he's been a president without a party anyway. The Right despised him because he was a socialist overlord bent on the destruction of mankind, and the Left was disillusioned with him because he was a corporatist sellout. Spoiler alert: it's the latter. Talk about the ultimate paradox.

It's the second problem, though, that both he and every single Democrat should be deeply concerned about. With a presidential election less than 17 months away, this is not the time for infighting. This isn't just some fissure forming, it's the fucking Grand Canyon and unless cooler heads prevail soon, the odds of a Republican calling 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home in 2017 will rise dramatically.

The crux of this latest crisis is the TPP. Unlike other progressive causes like gay marriage, voting rights and income inequality, the TPP deal is not as simple as some would make it out to be. The sentiment against it has its roots in the now infamous NAFTA deal, which we now know was a disaster for American workers. It was rightly assailed by the Left. And one can certainly understand the urgency by progressives not to repeat history.

But this is not 1994 and, no matter how much progressives insist, the TPP isn't NAFTA. The agreement, first signed by five countries in 2005, would reduce tariffs and remove barriers to international trade between member countries. While liberals are naturally concerned that joining the TPP could imperil American jobs, there's no evidence that those jobs would miraculously reappear if the U.S. stayed out of the pact. The sad and painful truth is that with or without joining the TPP, certain sectors hit hardest by global competition will never fully recover. The longer the Left holds onto the fantasy that it can roll back the clock 50 years, the more it deludes itself and needlessly prolongs the hope of those who cling to a promise no politician can deliver on.

Nancy Pelosi and the progressive caucus badly misplayed their hand here. So determined were they to deny Obama his trade deal, they succeeded is killing the Trade Adjustment Assistance bill, which would've helped those workers negatively impacted by free trade. How's that for irony? Adding insult to injury, Republicans later passed the TPP WITHOUT the trade assistance bill. Fortunately for Democrats, the House bill won't become law because the Senate package has both bills in it.

Funny, usually it's House Republicans who screw the pooch. This time, all the credit goes to the Democrats. Anyway you slice it, this was a clusterfuck for them. New York representative Steve Israel put it best: "The past two hours hasn't been our finest two hours."

Ya think, Steve?

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Shrinking Center and Why It Matters in 2016

You hear it all the time. One third of the country always votes Republican, one third always votes Democrat and the remaining third is up for grabs. Yours truly has said it more times than he cares to admit. The inference couldn't be clearer. The Center ends up deciding elections. And while there may be some truth to that, it's becoming painfully apparent that the Center, as we know it, isn't as large as it used to be. As the country becomes more and more polarized, the percentage of likely voters "up for grabs" is shrinking. It wouldn't surprise me if it comprises less than 10 percent of the total electorate.

A close look at the last four elections reveals some rather startling statistics. Despite losing the Center in all of them, Democrats managed a split. In the two elections they won, their base was the primary reason. In the two elections they lost, their base was MIA. Remember Mitt Romney's ill-fated 2012 campaign? The prevailing sentiment was that the reason he lost was his failure to pivot to the center. Well, as we now know, he won the Center. He lost because Barack Obama was able to get his base out to the polls. He ended up winning by 5 million votes.

The conclusion was as obvious as the nose on your face. When the Democratic base showed up, Democrats won; when it stayed home, the GOP won. The Center was a non factor. And if history is any indicator, 2016 won't be any different. Want proof? Look no further than Hillary Clinton's campaign. Since declaring, she has staked out every conceivable progressive position. Be it minimum wage, gay rights, voting rights, women's rights, immigration reform, she is doing her best to appease the left wing of her party.

Some would say she is doing this primarily because she is being pushed by Elizabeth Warren (who isn't running) and Bernie Sanders (who is). There is certainly some truth to this. If you'll recall, back in '08, Obama was the fresh, young face that progressives flocked to and Hillary balked at the suggestion that she needed to move to the left in order to secure the nomination. Instead, she ran towards the center and Obama beat her.

Know this about the Clintons: they are political animals. They adapt and survive. If anything, the country has moved further to the left over the last eight years. Hillary, like her husband, can read a road map. And right now that road map is most definitely charting a course due left. She also knows how to interpret voter demographics. The Democratic Party is a diverse and multi-cultural party that is growing. By contrast, the Republican Party is, as Howard Fineman put it, a monochrome party that is almost exclusively white and shrinking. Hillary would be a fool to court a Center that for all intents and purposes is non-extistant and politically irrelevant.

The 2016 election will come down to this. If Hillary Clinton can hold onto the Obama coalition - or at least most of it - she will win. If she can't, she will lose. It will not matter one iota how many moderates she woos or how inclusive her positions become. It comes down to sheer numbers. The Democrats have a huge electoral advantage over the GOP.  Everybody knows this. But, as we saw all too clearly in 2010 and 2014, having an advantage in numbers only means something if they're counted as votes.

Hillary must not make the same mistake her party made in those two elections. She must reject the provincial wisdom of the pundits and Blue Dogs like Joe Manchin who want her to run a centrist campaign. She must do just the opposite. Go left. In fact, go hard left. Force the Republicans to defend their myopic, sexist, homophobic, 19th century views. Let's talk about our crumbling infrastructure, poverty, income inequality, the dwindling middle class and the growing rift between the haves and the have-nots.

Will she win the hearts and minds of the Center? Probably not. She will, however, give her base one helluva reason not to sit this one out. And that's all that counts. The truth is Hillary's base is bigger than Jeb's or Rand's or whomever the GOP nominee will be.

In the end, it's her election to lose.