Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Voting rights

Below is a video of Mitt Romney answering a woman's question about the Justice Department's challenge to a voter id statute in South Carolina. He asks the well-heeled crowd if there is anyone over 18 who does not have a photo id, and of course no hands go up. How much of a burden can it be then, to ask for such a simple little thing to be allowed to vote? You can't drive or get on a plane without a photo id. Why should you be allowed to vote? There is a sub-text here, suggesting that anyone who can't be bothered to comply with such a trivial little requirement probably doesn't even deserve to vote, but that is not stated. What is stated is the need to prevent people from voting multiple times. How can we not take action to prevent such abuses?

Practically every word Romney says about voter id laws in this video is false. It is false to suggest that this issue is just a matter of opinion between people of Romney's views and people of Eric Holder's views. It is not. It is a legal issue. It is false to claim as Romney does that picture ids can easily be obtained for free at the polling place. Romney pulls that idea right out of his hat. It is false to argue that photo id laws are needed to prevent people from voting multiple times. That is a non-existent problem in this country. And it is false to assert that photo id laws will not trouble anyone, because it has been documented that they have the effect of discouraging significant numbers of eligible voters from casting a ballot.

Here are some of the legal issues that candidates like Mitt Romney are deliberately ignoring: Eric Holder is under an obligation to enforce the Federal Voting Rights Act. States that are subject to the pre-clearance requirements of the Voting Rights Act--i.e., those states that for literally hundreds of years engaged in systematically preventing black people from voting--must submit proposed changes in their election procedures to the Justice Department for review to determine whether they might have the effect of disenfranchising minorities. Pursuant to the legal requirements of the Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department last week rejected South Carolina's newly-enacted voter id law, based on evidence that minority voters are 20% more likely to lack a photo id than white voters. Thus, the voter id requirement will likely have the effect of hindering voters who are legally entitled to cast a ballot, and this effect will unquestionably fall more heavily on black people than white people.

South Carolina was required to justify these new requirements in order to obtain approval, and it is noteworthy, according to the article linked above, that their submission to the Justice Department failed to include any evidence or examples of fraud that were not already adequately addressed by existing procedures.  So Romney is actually saying is that if he were president, he would instruct attorneys at the Justice Department to ignore the requirements of the Voting Rights Act, and approve South Carolina's new restrictions on the ability to vote, even if those restrictions disproportionately affect minority voters, and even if South Carolina is unable to offer any evidence justifying those restrictions. At the very least, he is pre-judging an issue that he knows next to nothing about, and unfairly disparaging Justice Department attorneys who are only trying to enforce the law.

This is a legal issue, but is being treated as a political issue by candidates eager to play on the fears of some segments of the electorate that we are being overrun with voters who are not qualified to vote, or voters attempting to cast multiple ballots. Actual cases of such fraud, despite heroic efforts to find them, are practically non-existent. The real problem we have in this country is not voter fraud. The real problem we have is low voter turnout. The thing we need to be doing is making efforts to encourage a larger percentage of eligible voters to participate; not making it more difficult for eligible voters to cast a ballot.


The year in 60 seconds, as assembled by Reuters.

We certainly live in interesting times.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Personal responsibility

Conservative candidates like to talk about self-reliance, hard work and personal responsibility. I thought I would look up some quotes from Newt Gingrich on these subjects.  Here are a few, from a site called boycottliberalism:

   "Without personal responsibility there cannot be freedom. It is just that simple."

   “Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did.”

   "By blaming everything on “society,” contemporary liberals are really trying to escape the personal responsibility that comes with being an American."

   "Precisely because our rights are endowed by our Creator, the individual burden of responsibility borne by each citizen is greater than in any other country. This is why our new-found sense of entitlement and of victimization is exactly wrong – and so corrosive to the American spirit."

 Today, we learned that Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign failed to collect enough valid signatures to qualify for the Virginia primary ballot. We would expect some recognition of personal responsibility on Gingrich's part. Instead, from the campaign's facebook page, this is what Newt's campaign had to say:

   "This was not due to a lack of effort by our volunteers, but the cumbersome process in Virginia."

The campaign director went on to compare this setback to Pearl Harbor. Seriously, Pearl Harbor? Was this some kind of sneak attack by the State of Virginia? Were the ballot requirements imposed in an unfair, secret manner? Was the campaign unaware of the requirements? 

I did not find any recognition by the campaign that they made a mistake or did not work hard enough. I found no acceptance of personal responsibility. Personal responsibility and hard work are for others, it seems. Not for the Newt Gingrich campaign of 2012. Their campaign is so novel, it seems, that they should not be expected to comply with the rules that apply to others. The phrase, "new-found sense of entitlement and of victimization," comes to mind. Isn't that what Newt himself said was wrong with America today?

My prediction: Gingrich's campaign is over. Any doubts that he was just going through the motions should be dispelled by this latest episode. Newt is on a book tour; not a presidential campaign. (I'd also like to remind the media not to get so enamored of the latest polls that they forget about all the hard work and organization it takes to round up actual votes in caucuses and primaries. We should take seriously only the campaigns with the staff, the volunteers, the enthusiasm, and the level of commitment it takes to win.)

P.S. Rick Perry failed to qualify in Virginia also. Remember Rick Perry?

(Photo from Creative Loafing)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Democrats finally master tax cut politics.

Today President Obama succeeded in neutralizing the Republicans' greatest weapon--their claim that they are always for reducing taxes, while the Democrats are always for raising taxes. President Reagan taught the Republican Party back in 1981 that they score more political points by bragging about cutting taxes, than by balancing the budget. When Democrats promised in the 1980's to raise taxes again, they got nowhere politically. And when the elder George Bush broke his famous promise to impose no new taxes, he was never forgiven by much of the Republican Party, and was defeated for re-election. Bill Clinton bucked this trend and somehow got away with raising taxes, probably because of the robust economy during his presidency, and also perhaps because he paid lip service to the Republican ideology of shrinking government. Then the younger Bush, who was personally scarred by watching what happened when his father raised taxes, made it his administration's first priority to put in place even more irresponsible tax cuts than Reagan ever dreamed of, accompanied by giant new federal programs that were not paid for. It became pretty difficult to justify those policies after they led to the worst recession in our time in 2008.

You might have thought that the public would be receptive to another Clinton-like tax increase after Obama took office. But Obama's team decided that the last thing our disastrously weak economy needed was a tax increase, and instead proposed even more tax cuts. The only tax increase they were willing to allow would fall on people making over $250,000 per year. If these policies were intended as a political trap, the Republicans fell right into it. At the end of last year, Senate Republicans filibustered against an extension of the Bush tax cuts for the middle class only, forcing all of the Bush tax cuts to be extended for two years if the Democrats wanted to maintain them for the middle class. People were starting to get the idea that the Republicans were more interested in protecting the wealthy and powerful than they were in anything else.

But now we can see that the Democrats' most brilliant move in last year's showdown was getting a one year reduction in payroll taxes. That set up another showdown this year, when this time it was the Obama tax cuts that were set to expire at the end of this year. Since these were the Democrats' cuts, the Republicans fell into opposition to extending them, and the Democrats could play the Republicans' game of last year to much better effect. Suddenly it was the Democrats demanding an extension of some very popular tax cuts, while the Republicans were stalling. What we learned during this battle over extending the payroll tax cut holiday was that while the Republicans care very deeply about reducing the marginal tax rate for the very wealthy, they don't care so much about payroll taxes, which are paid by ordinary working people. First they insisted that these payroll tax cuts be paid for (and not by offsetting tax increases for the wealthy). Funny how you never heard about how the Bush tax cuts which predominantly benefit the wealthy, need to be paid for. Then the Republicans demanded additional concessions, like speedy action on an oil pipeline. This week President Obama called their bluff, and the House Republican leadership caved.

It could be that the administration's ultimate strategy is to get Americans to recognize, first, that people don't really want to reduce the federal budget all that much once they realize that eliminating the deficit by spending cuts alone would mean drastic reductions in defense and Medicare and a lot of other programs that people need and want. Second, people are starting to get the idea that if we want to reduce the deficit and also reduce inequality, we are ultimately going to have to raise some taxes. But unlike the Clinton-era tax increases, this time the American people will be demanding that we raise most of that revenue from those most able to afford it. These demands are already getting more vocal, and should increase during next year's election campaign. Republicans may no longer have a credible answer to these demands, now that they have proven just how reluctant they were to preserve tax breaks when those breaks mainly benefited the middle class.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Newt Gingrich urges voters to support Obama.

Here is Newt Gingrich telling a gay voter in Iowa that if marriage equality is of highest importance to him, he should support Obama for re-election:

Shortly after this encounter, I picture an elderly person telling Gingrich that protecting her Medicare benefits is of utmost concern. Gingrich would have to respond, "You should probably support Obama too." Then a student could have shouted out that he was worried about the high cost of education. Gingrich would say, "I guess you'd better support Obama."

Next a serviceman might have come up and told Gingrich he was glad to be home from Iraq. Gingrich would have no choice but to shrug, "I guess you're supporting Obama." And someone else in the crowd could argue that while the previous administration had cost us about a trillion dollars in foreign wars, Obama was managing one foreign policy triumph after another with minimal use of force. Gingrich would tell that person he should support Obama too.

Somebody else might have pointed out that Obama was trying to extend the payroll tax reduction, while House Republicans have been blocking that measure. Gingrich must respond that if middle class tax relief is anyone's priority, they had better vote for Obama also. Then someone could have yelled out that we should be raising taxes on the top 1%, not on the middle class. Gingrich would have to yell back that if people think that, they should probably support Obama.

Then I can imagine Gingrich looking around for his remaining supporters, and finding the place empty.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

House Fail

President Obama on the refusal of the House Republican leadership to bring up the compromise bill to extend the payroll tax cut for a vote:

Is it any wonder that Congress's approval ratings are hitting record lows, while the President's approval is steadily climbing? Hey, Speaker Boehner, just bring it up for a vote already; then you can go home for the holidays and think about how to do a better job of running the House next year.

New Jersey?

  This holiday season, watch out for internet rumors!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Consider the Alternatives.

A plea to President Obama's fair weather supporters: consider the alternatives. Before you start ranting about how the administration's decision to require a prescription for teenagers who want to buy the new morning-after pill represents a heinous betrayal of women's rights, show at least a modicum of understanding of the huge number of voters who probably think that is not such an onerous requirement. And think about how the opposition might have played a different decision. Imagine the outraged campaign commercials warning voters of our country's moral decline: to think we would allow abortion pills to be sold over the counter--like aspirin--to twelve year olds! Of course, a great case can be made for doing just that, but it is a case that is never going to convince a large segment of voters.

And for those claiming it is the last straw that the administration went along with an amendment to the defense authorization act that might allow indefinite detention by the military of terrorism suspects, consider that the alternative would have required vetoing funding for the entire Department of Defense. How much understanding would the average American voter have for an administration that de-funded the troops? Let's also remember that there was no stand-alone bill allowing indefinite detentions. And while the provision in the NDAA that allows for military detentions in some circumstances may be somewhat troubling, it might not warrant the hysteria or screams of betrayal we have heard from some quarters. Especially when you consider the alternative.

Finally, for those bemoaning the administration's "cave" on the Keystone XL pipeline, can we please remember that it was Republicans in Congress who inserted a provision attempting to accelerate the approval process for the pipeline into the bill extending the payroll tax reduction? Even the most ardent environmentalist might hesitate for just a second before vetoing a bill that promises tax relief for about 100 million Americans. Those who take the trouble to study the facts should also note that this attempt to force earlier pipeline approval may very well backfire, as the State Department has already publicly announced that they will not be rushed. More likely, the bill was designed to force the administration to kill the pipeline before the election, instead of allowing it to wait until after the election. That means the Republicans may actually succeed in killing the very project they say they favor. Their motives are transparent: to make a political issue of killing this pipeline. Robert Redford understands this. Others should take the time to appreciate the alternatives.

None of these decisions are simple. All of them require balancing powerful competing interests. None of them allow the president complete freedom of action, in disregard of the political power of his opponents. Those for whom one set of issues is paramount--whether it is women's rights, or the human rights of prisoners of war, or the environment--should at least try to understand those competing concerns, and realities.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Prospects for World Peace

According to yesterday's LA Times story, Lakers Coach Mike Brown has decided to shift World Peace from the starting lineup to the second string. The article notes that the coach is "giving World Peace a chance . . . to come off the bench." I feel that some protest is warranted.

What kind of message does it send to bench World Peace? We have reason to be disappointed in such a conventional strategy of turning to World Peace only after exhausting the aggressive efforts of the Lakers' starters. Think about how much excitement the team could create if they instead activated World Peace at the beginning of each game.

Wouldn't we prefer to see the Lakers fully embrace World Peace by placing World Peace at the forefront of their strategy this season, instead of holding World Peace in abeyance? Wouldn't we rather hear the announcer herald the arrival of World Peace at the outset of every game, rather than bringing World Peace in as an afterthought? Don't we want to encourage fans to think of World Peace first, rather than calling for World Peace only after other resources are tired?

We all want World Peace to succeed. Fans should be urging the Lakers to exploit the full potential of World Peace. Of course we understand that the Lakers have to consider what World Peace can do to help the team, but they should also be thinking of what the team can do for World Peace. We have reason to worry now, at the start of this new season, whether the team will truly stand up for World Peace, or whether it will only turn to World Peace on rare occasions.

שבת שלום

Light Bulbs

A light bulb went on in my own head when I read in this morning's LA Times (the paper edition) that the spending bill passed by the House yesterday includes a provision blocking enforcement of new energy efficiency rules for light bulbs, meaning that we will be able to use old fashioned, wasteful incandescent bulbs for a few extra years. What struck me was the article's mention that the federal government policy of phasing out inefficient light bulbs was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2007. Remember it was George W. Bush who acknowledged that our country is addicted to oil, and who actually took some steps, however tentative, to wean us from our addiction and to increase energy efficiency.

What stories like this bring home is that today's Congressional Republicans are not really so much in rebellion against President Obama and the Democrats. One reason that our country's politics have become so polarized is that the new Republican Party has repudiated policies that they themselves advocated only a few years ago. One of President Bush's signature initiatives was to expand the federal role in education. Today's Republican candidates want to abolish the entire Department of Education. President Bush dramatically expanded the reach of Medicare to include a prescription drug benefit. Today's Republicans want to turn Medicare into a block grant program that will force an increasing share of medical costs onto beneficiaries. President Bush pursued an interventionist foreign policy. Many of today's Republicans want us to retreat from global involvement.

It was these Bush initiatives--particularly the Medicare expansion and foreign wars, and thirdly his infamous tax cuts--that caused a gigantic expansion in the federal deficit. And even today, most of the federal deficit is the result of these Bush policies. (The other major contributor to the deficit is the recession itself, which has reduced government revenues, and triggered automatic spending increases for such entitlements as food stamps and unemployment benefits.) Therefore, when Republicans in Congress today rail against excessive government spending and the deficit, they are really in rebellion against Bush policies more than Obama's.

But back to light bulbs. By taking such an extreme stance against a common sense measure to increase energy efficiency and spur the market to create more advanced energy solutions, what kind of message are Congressional Republicans sending? It's more than denying global warming. It's more than disregard of the environment. It is hostility to government regulation to the point that we are defending wastefulness and inefficiency in private industry and home consumption. It is standing up for the right of Americans to pay higher electric bills. It is disregard of science and technology to the point where we become fearful of change and innovation. My guess is that even Thomas Edison, who perfected the incandescent lamp in 1879, would be disgusted with modern politicians' efforts to cling to such an outmoded technology.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Welcome home

Monday, December 12, 2011


Here is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell being interviewed by Chris Wallace, explaining how the Republicans are not just out to defend rich people. In fact, McConnell said, "we make sure millionaires don’t get unemployment, don’t get food stamps. . . . It doesn’t do anything for millionaires, in fact, it goes after them on the benefits side."

How reassuring that the Republicans do not want to be seen solely as the defenders of the rich. To prove it, they want to cut back on eligibility for food stamps and unemployment benefits for both the rich and the poor. All those rich people who were planning to apply for food stamps can think twice about their plans now. They will get no sympathy from the Republican Party!

Or as Anatole France said over a hundred years ago: "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread."  It's good to know that the Republican Party still stands for that kind of equality.

(Thanks to Think Progress, for catching the McConnell clip.)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Overheard at Romney HQ

High level staffers are said to be working through the weekend to dream up strategies to counteract the fallout from Mitt Romney's disastrous $10,000 bet with Rick Perry during Saturday night's GOP presidential debate.

Here are some of the ideas that might have been overheard at Romney headquarters:

"Maybe he meant to say $10. Or maybe the sound system picked it up wrong. I mean, what kind of person would offer a $10,000 bet?"

"Hello, isn't that exactly the problem?"

"Well, maybe we'll just have to make some kind of joke out of it. We could run some campaign ads offering a whole series of $10,000 bets. We could bet on which branch of government Rick Perry will mix up next, or whether Newt Gingrich's marriage would last his full first term as president, or how many times Michele Bachmann will use the word 'Obamacare' during the next debate."

"Great idea. And if Romney loses enough of those bets, he would be a regular guy just like most Americans."

"Uh, I hate to tell you how many $10,000 bets Mitt would have to lose to sink down to regular guy level. He is worth over $200 million, so he could afford to lose more than 20,000 bets like that. I don't think there is time before Iowa votes."

"How about if we just run ads explaining that Romney is willing to throw away large amounts of his personal fortune to help average Americans like poor Rick Perry?"

"Or maybe we should explain that $10,000 to Mitt Romney would be the equivalent of about five bucks to an average American. It would have been insulting for Romney to offer a $5 or even a $100 bet. That would be like pennies to most of us."

"Maybe we could say that Romney supports personal responsibility and just wanted to illustrate his belief that Americans should only gamble what they can easily afford to lose. In his case, he wouldn't even notice $10,000."

"Maybe we should just say he was joking."

"Or we could say he was drunk, the way Rick Perry looked at that dinner speech a few weeks ago."

"We're going to say a former missionary was drunk?"

"Good point. Maybe we'd better not say anything and just hope the whole thing blows over."

"Yeah, but how are we going to prevent another dumb statement like that one? Maybe we have to put Mitt on an allowance so he knows the value of money to the average American."

"Now you're talking. Let's make him ride around in a beat up pickup truck or something like that."

"Didn't we already try that? And remember how phony he looks whenever he wears jeans to try to look like  a regular guy? People spot that a mile away."

"Then maybe we should be spreading the information that all the other GOP candidates have lots of dough also."

"That might work for some of them, but not somebody like Santorum."

"Don't worry, we don't need to spread any rumors about Santorum. Just tell people to look him up on google."

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Headless Agency

How can any member of Congress justify passing a statute creating a new consumer agency, and then refuse to allow a vote to confirm the appointed head of that agency? It would be one thing if the opponents of Richard Cordray's appointment to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau opposed confirmation on the ground that he is unqualified, or even that they disagree with some of his views. Instead, the opposition is based on the ground that Senate Republicans don't like the agency that Congress created. According to Steve Benen's column on the Senate's blocking of the Cordray appointment, which he called part of the normalization of extortion politics:
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) checked with the Senate Historian’s office this week, and found that this is the first time in history that a party has blocked a qualified nominee solely because it does not like the existence of the agency the nominee was selected to lead.
Is this really the kind of historical precedent the Senate Republicans want to be known for? As the president explained in his news conference (video below), if these Senators want to modify the Act creating the new consumer agency, they can introduce a bill. Don't hold up the nomination of the head of the agency Congress created. It's illegitimate. It's anti-democratic. It's irresponsible. It's shameful for the minority to abuse its power in this way.

(Also a nice response from the president about whether he could be considered an appeaser: Ask the top Al Qaeda leaders who have been taken off the field, including Osama bin Laden, about that. And then he hesitates a second, remembering, oh yeah, they're dead. You can't ask them. So ask whomever is left out there.)

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Gingrich promises a return to hate and fear.

Today, this week's Republican front-runner, Newt Gingrich announced that he would nominate John Bolton as Secretary of State. Here is the clip:

This is absolutely fantastic news if you are one of those people who is disgusted with the current administration's efforts to make our country more respected around the world. Favorable opinions of the United States continue to rise markedly in numerous countries, according to polls, in stark contrast to the Bush years. Obviously, it bothers a segment of the American electorate to see huge throngs of foreigners cheering the American president; to know that millions of people around the world admire the United States as a beacon of freedom and democracy. Evidently some people would prefer to see crowds throwing rocks or bombs at American embassies, or throwing shoes at the president. Why people would want that, I can't explain. But for those who are anxious to see a return to those days, Newt Gingrich is surely your man. By appointing someone like John Bolton as Secretary of State, he can virtually guarantee that people around the world will start hating us again.

After all, John Bolton is the guy who said "there's no such thing as the United Nations," and then acted surprised that the Senate would not confirm his appointment as UN ambassador. The guy who said, "I don't do carrots." The guy who lost the support of his own former boss, Colin Powell, and who was criticized by employees at the State Department for his abusive manner. And who currently takes every opportunity to take to the airwaves to undermine President Obama's foreign policy leadership.

If you want to return to the days when Americans were hated everywhere they went, from Europe to South America, you would want John Bolton in charge of the State Department. If you despise the very idea of international diplomacy and cooperation, yesterday's announcements presents another reason to support Newt Gingrich. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011



Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Republican Platform

After the goings-on in Congress the last several weeks, it is hard to see how Republicans have any remaining credibility on their core promises of cutting taxes, reducing the deficit, or creating jobs. By refusing to continue the payroll tax cut enacted last year, Republicans proved that the only tax cuts they care about are for those in the top brackets or for corporations or for capital gains. Last year they filibustered the Democrats' attempt to extend the Bush tax cuts for the middle class only, insisting that all the Bush tax cuts must be extended, even for individuals earning in excess of $250,000.  They did not demand that any of the Bush tax cuts be paid for, not when they were enacted almost ten years ago, and not since then. This year, however, they have demanded that payroll tax cuts, which of course mainly benefit only those making about $100,00 annually or less, must be offset by spending cuts. Thus they have made a mockery of their claim that cutting taxes pays for itself. They have also revealed that their interest in cutting taxes does not reach very far down the income scale.

If cutting taxes for most Americans is not a priority, that must be because reducing the deficit is a higher priority, right? Wrong. On the deficit, Republicans on the super-committee torpedoed any potential deal by insisting that revenue increases could not be part of any compromise. Congressional Republicans are also looking for ways to avoid the automatic cuts in defense spending that they agreed to as part of this past summer's agreement to raise the debt ceiling. That means cutting the deficit is not the top priority. And cutting government spending is not the top priority either, if that includes defense spending.

If cutting taxes, and cutting the deficit, and cutting government spending are not priorities, that must be because stimulating the economy is the priority, right? Once again, wrong. Republicans in Congress have done absolutely nothing to increase employment. In fact, what they advocate most vociferously is firing more public employees. The main thing that has been depressing job creation figures, month after month, has been reductions in public sector employment, mostly at the state and local level. It is impossible to reduce unemployment while you are busy firing as many public sector employees as you possibly can. It is like pouring water back into a boat while somebody else is bailing it out. The private sector cannot even absorb the existing unemployed fast enough, and obviously cannot absorb the additional teachers, construction workers, and many thousands of other employees being laid off as a result of government spending cutbacks.

So what are the real Republican priorities? Helping the wealthy keep more of their money, obviously. They cop to that. Shrinking social programs such as Medicare. The Ryan budget plan they all voted for does that. And perhaps, as about half the population now believes, trying to stall the economic recovery so they can benefit in the next election. So let's have some honesty in next year's election campaigns. Republicans might as well give up the pretense that they are most interested in cutting taxes, reducing the deficit and improving the economy. The public now understands that Republicans are in fact running on a platform of helping the rich get richer, cutting benefits for the poor and middle class, and refusing to cooperate in any way with the other party so that they can blame the Democrats for anything that goes wrong. Being forced to run on ideas like that, it's no wonder the Republican presidential field is in disarray.