Obama’s new long-game

The Thinker by Rodin

President Obama’s biggest mistake was probably roasting Donald Trump at the 2011 National Press Club dinner. It likely infuriated Trump and led to his run for the presidency some years later and the current national disaster we are experiencing from his presidency. It’s hard to say for sure, but I think if Obama hadn’t lampooned him, Trump might still be busy laundering money by selling his condos at inflated prices to foreign investors.

Obama’s second biggest mistake was probably missing the 2010 midterm wave that turned control of Congress over to Republicans. Obama did what he could do. He certainly traveled the country and campaigned for Democrats and exhorted Democrats to turn out. But they didn’t. Republicans however did turn out massively, adding 63 House seats and 6 Senate seats. Eight years later Democrats are still reeling from this election. They are now hoping for a turn of the tide this November, similar to their success in the 2006 midterms.

Arguably it was what Republicans did after the 2010 midterms was much more important than that midterm results themselves. They used the wave of enthusiastic Republicans (many Tea Party affiliated) and Democrat apathy to gain control of more state legislatures and governorships. They also set up Operation REDMAP that worked relentlessly to flip Democratic state seats using two assets that Republican have in abundance: money and mean-spirited tenacity. This allowed them to control the redistricting process in ten out of the 15 states that would be redrawing their districts as a result of the 2010 census. Then they used the power of analytics to create highly gerrymandered districts to lock in their majorities. Since this redistricting effort, Republicans have picked up seats in states where Democrats took the majority of the votes, demonstrating the fundamental unfairness of their highly partisan gerrymandering effort.

Now out of office Obama is free to do what he does best: play a long game. Which is why he and former Attorney General Eric Holder have created the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. Curiously though the NDRC goal is not to bring about Democratic gerrymandering, but to kill gerrymandering altogether. President Obama has put his finger on the nub of the real problem: gerrymandering is deeply undemocratic and must be killed to have a real democracy. What we are getting instead is bordering on autocracy.

The committee has four strategies to do this. The first is litigation, and here they have had great success. They challenged Pennsylvania’s highly gerrymandered map in court and succeeded in having it redrawn to be fairer, giving no party an unfair advantage. This will likely mean four House seats in Pennsylvania will flip in the election from Republican to Democrat, simply because of a more even playing field now. Similar efforts are underway in other states like Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina and Wisconsin. In some states there are voter initiatives to make gerrymandering illegal, taking district drawing out of the control of politicians altogether.

The second strategy is to mobilize people in this effort. Toward that end I am getting mobilized, first by donating money to their cause but potentially in other ways too. Here in Massachusetts though, our districts are generally drawn pretty fairly already.

The third strategy is reform: passing laws in states to enact fairer redistricting laws. Here they have the support of Americans who generally disdain gerrymandering, 71 percent in favor according to one poll. I’ve complained about it before, noting that its worst sin was that it removed most moderates from political offices. Moderate politicians are the key to getting government working again.

The last strategy is to elect Democrats where it helps even the playing field. Here, working with other Democratic groups, they’ve had great success in many special elections since Trump was inaugurated. When Democrats trounce Republicans in special elections in Oklahoma, you know something is up.

There is no guarantee that getting rid of gerrymandering will necessarily mean that Democrats will control Congress and state legislatures again. But gerrymandering is the root of a much larger set of problems. When there were many moderates in office, political accommodation was possible. In the past, meeting in the middle was how government got things done. It was sometimes messy, such as in earmarks for congressional districts, but it did create a political space where such accommodations were possible.

So I’m in with Obama and Holder in playing this long game. Democracy is not possible if there is no space for political accommodation. In that sense this effort is very patriotic and perhaps the ideal response to our age of fake news and our fake presidency. For democracy to flourish, we all need a realistic chance to sit at the table again. We’ve lost that.

Chemical weapons: bad. Barrel bombs: okay

The Thinker by Rodin

Of course it was only a matter of time before Trump decided to flex our nation’s military might. Predictably his actions turned out to be both scary and counterproductive and predictably it happened as his poll numbers were dropping like a stone. Thursday’s launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles against an airbase in Syria got most of the press. The attack was a response to a chemical weapons attack Tuesday on the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhun, which killed dozens of people, including children. It was these images of dead children that reportedly drove Trump to order an attack on the Syrian air base. The base is believed to have been used as a launching point by the Syrian air force for that chemical weapons attack.

What got less press but was an earlier and far more deadly U.S.-led airstrike in Mosul, Iraq that reportedly killed 272 people, an attack in magnitude far greater than Syrian president Assad inflicted on his own people in this latest chemical attack. The Mosul attack killed mostly innocent civilians. At least some of the deaths were blamed on booby-trapped houses created by the Islamic State. This attack turned out to be the deadliest one inflicted by U.S.-led forces since the Iraq War.

The attack on the air base appears to be largely for show. We sensibly informed the Russians of the impending attack so we didn’t hit any of their aircraft or kill or wound any of their personnel. The Russians unsurprisingly informed Assad and apparently it was enough time for the Syrians to get most of its aircraft out of the base. 58 of the missiles hit their targets. Despite the expenditure of a reported $100M on this attack, it must not have done much damage. The Syrian government used the base for more attacks the next day.

The Syrian government denies it of course, but it instigated this chemical weapons attack. We can infer this since only Syria has chemical weapons and the aircraft to deliver them in the area. These rare chemical weapons attack caused an almost visceral reaction. Perhaps they trigger memories of World War One, which the U.S. entered a hundred years ago last week. Chemical weapons though have limited use. They rarely kill that many people, at least outside of Nazi concentration camps. Winds can quickly mitigate their damage. In short, you can’t win a war with chemical weapons alone, as the Germans discovered in World War One. Oddly, if you have to be a casualty of war, it’s one of the quicker and more humane ways to go.

The United States doesn’t seem to have a problem with more lethal conventional and unconventional weapons. At least the use of these weapons (which kill the vast majority of civilians and combatants) hasn’t been enough to wholly engage us in these conflicts. The Trump Administration though seems willing to engage our armed forces much more than the Obama Administration. It has sent thousands of U.S. forces into Syria ostensibly to keep sets of fighters apart. Those of us with longer memories recall how actions like these led us into wider unwinnable wars, with the Vietnam War being the most prominent example. More recent news reports suggest that the Trump Administration wants to move nuclear weapons into South Korea again, to counter North Korea’s recent firings of test missiles. We have an aircraft carrier off North Korea and we are talking ominously about rekindling that conflict again, in frustration perhaps to sixty years of truce but no peace between these nations.

In the short term the press seems to be cheering this missile attack. It appears to be done mostly for show, since it did little to hobble the Syrian air force. It demonstrates that compared to the so-called “feckless” Obama Administration that we are willing to engage when bad things happen. Of course like in the aftermath of the Iraq War the question then becomes: “and then what?” Are we saying we are going to solve the Syrian conflict and end the Islamic State by putting our forces onto the ground there in serious numbers? Are we going to neuter the other forces in this endeavor? How? More importantly, how through the use of force can we change hearts and minds in that region, when it proved so ineffectual in the past? That’s the only way to create a real and lasting peace.

It’s exactly these sorts of questions that kept President Obama from getting our country more engaged in these conflicts. It’s a messy business. Perhaps if we had gotten more engaged in the collapse of Libya, Islamic radicals would not be making a mess of that country. But we’ve never been very good at nation building, especially in Muslim countries. Fifteen years later we still struggle with it in Afghanistan. Doing nothing introduces problems. Doing something does the same. Most of these conflicts if they can be solved at all can only be solved through multilateral efforts, and those rarely work out well as these interests have different objectives and criteria for success.

Trump’s actions though don’t look like they are thought out at all. Apparently the attack did almost nothing to degrade Assad’s air force and his army is intact. A few days before the attack he was praising Assad and Russia for their engagement against the Islamic State. Now some pictures of children dead from Sarin gas seem to have changed his mind, at least for the moment. Curious that the pictures of starving and dead Syrian children in places like Aleppo never had this effect. Much crueler and horrific ways to die, like the barrel bomb frequently dropped by the Syrian air force that shred through people with high speed shrapnel, don’t seem to have bothered him either. In fact, social media is full of tweets from The Donald from 2013 warning Obama not to take the very actions against Syria he is now taking.

All this shows a new administration trying to live up to an image of toughness without the requisite plan to make the changes they want. In fact they are embroiled in this mess just as much as the Obama Administration was. There is no quick way to victory in this mess. In fact, no victory in the conventional sense is even possible. It’s not that these conflicts will continue forever but they are likely to rise and ebb depending on narrow advantages on the battlefield.

It’s mostly hypocrisy. A true response to these crises might be to admit more of these war-torn refugees rather than implementing the “total and complete” ban on anyone moving from these countries that he campaigned for in his campaign. Trying to save children from Sarin gas attacks so they can spend the bulk of their lives in refugee camps living in misery and squalor is to extend suffering, not end it. Look at Palestine where sixty years of occupation has turned refugee camps into de facto cities.

Progress, such as it is, will be marginal: slowly recapturing territories with Allied forces which experience suggests will be fragile unless we can inculcate civilization and rule of law in these areas again. No fly zones in Syria would do a lot to improve things there, if we can get Russia to go along. These offer little short-term payoff and don’t get us waving our flags cheering on Team USA. It’s the latter that the Trump Administration is looking for, even though it is meaningless and ineffective at solving the actual problems. The illusion of victory through ineffectual action is apparently all that can be expected these days.

Assessing the Obama administration

The Thinker by Rodin

Nearly eight years later it’s not too soon for a final critique of the Obama administration. How you feel about the administration is probably tied toward your feelings for Obama himself, and few seem to be neutral. In spite of Donald Trump’s general election win though it’s clear from Obama’s final approval ratings that overall Americans approve of him and his administration. The last approval rating I saw had his approval rating at 54%, and it’s been above 50% for some months now. Given our highly polarized political climate, this is pretty good. This means that overall Obama would probably earn a B as president.

Americans expect their presidents to be supermen. Trump’s election proves this is still true. Indeed, it’s probably true to say Trump won by projecting this superman image. Trump has famously promised to drain the swamp. We’ll see how well he does over the next four years. It’s not hard to predict that he will fail at this. As President Obama found out, institutional forces are stronger than any president or Congress. That’s because real change is hard.

Obama though started out his term with a Democratic House and Senate. Trump will have the same privilege but not with the veto-proof Senate that Obama enjoyed. When you have this trifecta real change is possible. Obama’s success here was really due to having a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate in 2008. That’s how the Affordable Care Act got enacted into law. It almost certainly would not have happened otherwise.

The ACA is arguably his greatest domestic achievement, one that Trump and Republicans seem intent to unravel if they can. Getting it even through a Democratic congress though proved frustrating and nearly didn’t happen at all. Obama’s mistake was to stay relatively disengaged from its creation. The wheeling and dealing in Congress in its creation gave it structural deficiencies that may cause it to be repealed. It’s unclear whether if Obama had bashed some heads it would have emerged in a form that would have been more viable. It’s clear in retrospect that not having a public option was a serious flaw, as it made it harder to contain costs. Still, much of the ACA worked. It ensured twenty million Americans who hadn’t had health insurance before, mostly due to the expansion of Medicaid. For at least four years these people will have had quality insurance, mostly for the first time, although how affordable it was is debatable. If “affordable” means plans with high deductibles and copays, it sets up a losing scenario for those with the least income.

So I think it’s fair to criticize Obama for being too disengaged in the politicking aspect of his job. It’s clear that he preferred the cozy White House to the grubby business of wheeling and dealing with Congress. Particularly after the Republican wave in 2010 it was clear that his wings were clipped and that the remainder of his administration would be tactical in nature to keep what was earned. His game became mostly defense at this point. To his credit, he played an excellent game of defense against an implacable and united Republicans in Congress.

It’s also quite clear to me that his effectiveness was undercut substantially by being mixed race. Perceived as black it pressed all the unstated buttons of racial animus among Republicans, feelings that were clearly expressed in the election of Donald Trump. Republicans were not ready for a black president, not even a black Republican president, let alone a woman and it unleashed a powerful and almost primal rage from them. His race caused them to dig in their heels to an extraordinary degree and animated opposition against Obama. It arguably created the Tea Party, an overwhelmingly racist group of people. Certainly if Obama had been white there would still have been tension, but it’s unlikely he would have been so relentlessly stonewalled by Republicans.

So as a wheeler-dealer Obama gets at best a C. That’s not to say that he didn’t show other extraordinary strengths elsewhere. As Commander in Chief, he gets an A from me. We haven’t totally gotten out of Iraq and Afghanistan, but our presence in both countries is minimal while people who live there are shouldering more of the burden. He proved intelligent and tenacious as a Commander in Chief, famously tracking down and killing Osama bin Laden.

Obviously he had some foreign policy failings, principally Syria and Libya. In truth though neither of these, particularly Syria, was solvable and bound to explode in anyone’s face. Some of his decisions were controversial, such as the use of predator drones, often killing innocent people. But he adroitly kept us from getting entangled in yet another foreign war. If Trump proves to be typically Republican, our armed forces will be back into these melees soon after he is inaugurated.

One of the most amazing aspects about his administration was its scandal-free nature. This is virtually unheard of and was certainly not representative of the Reagan, Clinton and Bush administrations. Obama proved himself to be a man of integrity and those values projected down through his entire administration. I expect this to change quickly in a Trump administration. In retrospect this will be seen as one of Obama’s greatest achievements. In addition he never succumbed to the moral failings that dogged other presidents.

Obama proved a seasoned administrator who was systematically cautious and thoughtful before making any decisions. He was adamant that decisions should be based on facts and by diving deeply into the underlying policy issues. He was uniformly cool under pressure, and made smart decisions like using diplomacy over Iran’s nuclear program.

Personally, Obama was a consistent gentleman. He was thoughtful and always measured his words carefully. He was truly inspirational but like any president he was caught in a political web notoriously difficult to fundamentally change. It’s not clear to many Americans, particularly those who opposed him, but he did work in their best interest, such as economic policies that caused resurgence in the auto industry and spurred the growth of green technologies. Time will make this clearer. It won’t take many years (or even months) under a Trump administration before even his critics will feel wistful about the man, someone at least consistent, reliable and caring. He will be missed and appreciated, and distance will make this fondness grow.

Thank you, Mr. President for being a truly model civil servant.

Should we applaud that a woman is likely to be nominated for president?

The Thinker by Rodin

Is it remarkable that a woman will finally be leading a presidential ticket in this election? Yes it is, primarily because it took so long for it to happen. This makes Hillary Clinton’s status of the presumed nominee of the Democratic Party something of an embarrassment too. It might have happened eight years ago but of course Barack Obama narrowly won that nomination, which was also historic for transgressing the color barrier. So while this one took some time, it does say something that it was the Democratic Party that managed to pull two such historic nominations in eight years. Alan Keyes, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina never really had much of a chance within their parties. As for Hillary, I noted eight years ago that a woman’s time was likely to come soon.

Still, it is somewhat disappointing that of all the women out there that Hillary Clinton would be the first to get the nod. I am not one of those Hillary haters and I will happily vote for her in November. She was one of our better secretaries of state but was only a so-so senator from New York. Of course as first lady she had the opportunity to understand how the White House works and that’s one of my disappointments. Hillary was the opposite of an outsider. Her success came from being an insider and having the support of powerful people, particularly her husband Bill. Yes, some of her success due to being effective (but sometime catastrophically wrong) in office, but mostly it’s due to opportunity. Not many women can be married to a president of the United States. Her path to senator was smoothed over due to Bill’s connections. Her most distinguished role is really as secretary of state. In this she was a surprise pick and turned out to be a good choice. Obama had every reason to throw her to the wolves, but did not.

Maybe that’s how it has to go for our first female presidential nominee. Maybe it would be too daunting to have happened any other way right now. I say this not because I think that women don’t have these skills, but connections and establishment trust are imperatives, at least within the Democratic Party, and those are harder for women politicians as they are fewer in number and tend to have been in office for shorter periods of time compared with male politicians. Certainly she broke a glass ceiling, but not alone. Bill and friends of Bill did a lot of the pushing for her.

Hillary has high negatives that I frankly don’t get. I certainly have concerns about her judgment. Setting up a private email server was quite stupid and a more astute politician would have not ignored these red flags. While stupid, it was forgivable. It’s understandable that Republicans want to make hay over the killing of our Libyan ambassador and two others, but it’s quite clear from all the evidence that what happened was not her fault. She was hardly a perfect secretary of state, but she was a competent one and navigated that fine line quite handily between being empowered and following direction from the president.

Of course our foreign policy could have been handled better during her tenure, but the same is true of every secretary of state. We cannot control foreign events. All any president and secretary of state can do it position military and diplomatic forces effectively to reduce the likelihood of conflict. Diplomacy is tough and it rarely makes headlines. It involves creating and maintaining effective international collations. Radical change in foreign policy such as Trump would implement tends to not really be a good option. You must deal with the realities across the globe in all their enduring messiness. You should strategically move resources to reduce the messiness if possible. This can be done through long-term proactive strategies and the limited short-term application of military and diplomatic muscle when they can be effectively leveraged, such as with Iran.

Regardless, our next president will be either her or Donald Trump. While the choice is pretty obvious to me it’s apparently not obvious to plenty of voters. Voters need someone else to look at to help in their decisions, which is why who Hillary picks as her running mate may actually matter for a change. I don’t expect her to pick Sanders; they temperamentally too different as Hillary is a pragmatist and Bernie is an idealist. To me her choice is obvious: my senator Elizabeth Warren. Warren is frankly a far better speaker and communicator than Hillary is. Like Sanders she has a gift of connecting viscerally with voters. It’s unclear if Warren would accept this offer, although she had not ruled it out. Party insiders expect someone more milquetoast to get the nod. Tim Kaine and Sherrod Brown are names being bandied about. A prominent Latina would make a lot of sense but at the moment there is no one aside from Warren that would really be ideal.

I pity the fool Trump picks as his running mate and it’s unclear how many would accept. Newt Gingrich is not so secretly running for the position, but perhaps is less in the running since he has overtly criticized Trump over his racist remarks about the Judge Curiel, who overseeing the Trump University case. My bet is that he chooses New Jersey governor Chris Christie, because they are both temperamentally the same (bullies) and are both from the northeast. It would not surprise me at all if both the vice presidential nominees come from the northeast, which would be quite surprising as my area of the country is hardly representative of the rest of the country. Of course, time will tell.

I don’t worry too much about Sanders voters ultimately voting for Trump for the same reason that pissed off Clinton voters ultimately came around and voted for Obama in 2008. Wounds tend to heal given some time and there are five months until the election. In addition, pretty much all Democrats like and trust Obama. As long as the economy doesn’t implode, his opinions will carry a lot of weight. Obama endorsed Hillary today and will go on the stump with her next week. There is no downside for Obama: his legacy depends on having a Democrat succeed him. As this is a very rare occurrence (it hasn’t happen after two or more full terms since Harry S Truman) pulling it off would be another feather in his cap.

I also don’t worry about Trump finding a “presidential” footing. Like a leopard, there’s no way to change his spots. He may be a bit more cautious about putting his foot in his mouth but it’s not hard to predict he’ll do more of that than not in the months ahead. It really felt like with the latest reactions to his comments on Judge Curiel, he has finally jumped the shark. His hardcore supports won’t waver, but he has made it infinitely harder to bring in those with any doubts.

Barring some major external event and even given Hillary’s negatives, I don’t worry too much about the election either. She hardly has it in the bag, but she is intelligent and focused. Trump shows no inclination to be strategic, to raise serious money, to support fellow candidates or to act presidential. He’s effectively thrown his dice already and given the velocity and the angle it’s not too hard to predict he’ll land snake eyes.

The game is now truly afoot.

2016 Republican Presidential Debate #2

The Thinker by Rodin

I skipped the first of these interminable Republican presidential debates because I simply couldn’t stomach it. I did watch the second debate last night with some misgivings, mostly because like everyone else I wanted to see if Donald Trump would get his comeuppance. Still, I have limits and yesterday’s was two hours worth. I kind of felt sorry for them forced to stand there for three hours with Reagan’s Air Force One as a backdrop. I know my bladder wouldn’t hold out for three hours and I’m betting most of the men on the stage have enlarged prostates too. I’m betting they were wearing Adult Depends.

Trump did not exactly did get his comeuppance but he was sort of neutered because the moderators wouldn’t allow him to yammer on and hog the stage like he did during the first debate. This was good because it gave other candidates a chance to talk about issues instead of personalities. With the exceptions of John Kasich and Ben Carson though the rest seemed shopworn, irritating at worst and uninteresting at best. Carson was clearly going for the nice guy angle, which helped contrast him not only with The Donald but everyone else except Kasich. Granted that Carson’s actual policies are just as wacky as the others’ are, and are in some cases even wackier. Kasich was the sole moderate on the stage, although even Ronald Reagan would not have recognized him as a moderate Republican. Kasich at least sounded reasonable and pragmatic, as did Carson at times simply because he wouldn’t raise his voice or criticize any of his fellow candidates. That doesn’t seem to be what Republican voters want in a nominee this time, but we’ll see.

Carly Fiorina generated the most buzz. She did so right near the start with some false statements about the highly doctored Planned Parenthood videos. She essentially inflamed the Planned Parenthood funding issue in highly emotional and clinical terms to shamelessly draw attention to herself and it obviously worked. She also one-upped The Donald with her caustic reply to a question about Trump’s earlier remarks about her ugly face. I hope that Republicans are wising up to Trump, who is basically a very rich bully. In any event these two events allowed Fiorina to look sort of presidential, at least by comparison to the low standards the other candidates set. Trump’s rampant sexism and plain bad taste seem to have finally become counterproductive. He also made a snide remark about Rand Paul’s disheveled hair, perhaps because his hair is a frequent news story in itself.

More revealing was his degree of sexism, which should disqualify any thinking female from voting for him. He had already criticized Megyn Kelly with a vague reference to menstruation. In trying to dodge his remarks about Fiorina’s ugly face, he dug himself in further. He had earlier said he meant her persona was unpresidential, not her face. In the debate, after Fiorina caustically replied to his comment, he said she had a beautiful face. Would he say this about one of the handsomer men on the stage, like Marco Rubio? Not likely. He sees beauty as an important aspect of a woman. Beauty however is simply a matter of genetics and taking care of yourself. Beauty has nothing to do with judgment. By seeming to suggest it’s important for a woman to be beautiful to be successful suggests that he is handicapping all women that are not or won’t try to be. It must be his cluelessness because there is nothing clever about this at all.

It’s not surprising that when they weren’t criticizing each other or the minutia in their policy differences they were complaining about President Obama and his “disastrous” presidency. They said he was weak on foreign policy, which was laughable as he was the president that got Osama bin Laden, a goal George W. Bush saw as unimportant. Obama also got us out of an unwinnable war in Iraq and is getting out of a similar one in Afghanistan. They chastised him for the nuclear agreement on Iran, even though it keeps us out of the folly of a pointless war and reduces Iran’s potential to develop nuclear weapons. They said he was a disaster for the economy, even though he created more jobs than any other modern president and dropped the unemployment rate lower than their hero Ronald Reagan ever did. It all sounded so hollow. Obama is simply a projection of their own inner frustration at his many accomplishments in spite of their relentless obfuscation. Their solutions to his alleged deficiencies were to do more of the same failed things that haven’t worked before. Not one of them had the courage to admit this was retarded.

At least there was more debate about issues last night and less blather from Trump. Their solutions did not vary much, but it took the focus off of Trump, who seemed out of his element. Trump spent much of his time off camera giving peculiar stairs at the other candidates when they spoke. He seemed to have lost his footing and was only willing to engage when it gave him the opportunity to be judgmental about other candidates. He is a one trick pony who looked very played last night.

It was so painful to watch certain candidates. They are all pretty grating, but Ted Cruz just oozes obnoxiousness. No wonder he doesn’t have a single friend in the U.S. Senate. Ditto Scott Walker and Chris Christie, both well seasoned bullies. Cruz though just has this look that is totally off-putting. Seeing someone like him on the street I reflexively move to the other side. Memo to Cruz: picking fights all the time and saying “my way or the highway” is not leadership. Taking the initiative to solve problems, generally by collaborating with others to find common ground, is leadership.

Jeb Bush tried hard to sound reasonable and affable but none of it made him particularly interesting or helped him shine. Did you notice him standing on his tippy toes when pictures were taken? He was already the tallest candidate but he had to be seen as taller, maybe because he knows history tends to favor the tallest candidate. He wants to look as dominating as possible but this was over the top.

Most of the other candidates tried to get words in edgewise but didn’t have much luck. None of these candidates though, not even Donald Trump, can master a stage like Barack Obama. Of course he’s not running although they were talking about him so much he did sort of command the stage in abstention.

My dream would be to have a debate between Trump and Obama. Trump thinks he’s a wizard on the stage. On the same stage with Obama debating the issues, he would be road kill under Obama’s shoes. I hope during the final campaign the Democratic nominee is wise enough to bring Obama on the road with him/her. History will vindicate Obama’s presidency. None of these potential Republican nominees is ten percent of the person that he is.

I’ll try to critique more of these debates in the future, but it is a struggle. It is intensely painful at times to hear such ridiculous tripe and such nonsensical and counterproductive solutions to our many vexing problems. With the possible exception of John Kasich, it’s horrifying to think what wreckage any of these people would be likely to do if they actually became president. On the plus side, any of these candidates except Kasich might actually make George W. Bush look the better president in retrospect.

Why do Republicans want to kill Planned Parenthood again?

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s no longer news that Republicans aren’t tethered to reality. You might say they are the anti-reality party. Pretty much anything that is undeniable, they will deny it. They don’t believe climate change is happening. Evidence like increased carbon dioxide levels and steadily rising average temperatures won’t persuade them. Even rising sea levels that are already threatening Norfolk, Virginia won’t convince them.

They are a pretty reflexive party in that, like Pavlov’s dog, you know how they will react before they open their mouth. If President Obama says it’s good, for example, they will say it’s bad and therefore it must be opposed with all necessary force and vitriol. His multi-nation agreement with Iran to lift sanctions in exchange for closer monitoring of their nuclear activities must be voted down because Obama’s name is on it. The alternative to not having an agreement is likely the collapse of sanctions against Iran by major countries and the rapid enrichment of Iran’s current nuclear stockpile. Republicans would rather have war against Iran instead, and it’s all in the interest of our (and Israel’s) national security somehow. Note that most of the yahoos pushing this approach also voted or advocated for the Iraq War in 2002. They have a great track record!

Now, a highly doctored video showing representatives of Planned Parenthood suggesting they might be able to provide parts of aborted fetuses for research (which they already do in some cases) has Republicans in Congress racing to pass legislation taking away all federal funding for the organization. This is much more important than, say, passing a multi-year funding bill for the Highway Trust Fund or passing appropriations so the government won’t shut down again on October 1. The bill is necessary they say to show their disgust for Planned Parenthood in general and their abortions in particular. Never mind that federal law does not allow a dime of federal money to provide any abortion services by Planned Parenthood or any other organization. It’s been this way for more than a decade. In their pique they now want to make sure Planned Parenthood doesn’t use federal money for any activities, like providing birth control to poor people.

Obviously I’m not the brightest person on the planet but I’m pretty sure that if poor people can’t get contraceptives for free or at a reduced cost, they’re probably not going to embrace celibacy. Instead lots of poor women are going to get pregnant that would not have otherwise. And some of them will choose to get an abortion rather than carry the pregnancy to term. Since zero federal money is going to Planned Parenthood for abortions (and only 3% of their funds are used for abortion services) it’s likely many of these women will go to Planned Parenthood or other abortion clinics for abortions instead. This will mean that their actions will only increase abortions.

Moreover, to the extent that limited parts of fetuses (most are not much larger than a kidney bean) are provided for medical research now, because of these actions there will be more available in the future. Those women that don’t get abortions are more likely to raise poor children, who will probably need social services. Republicans clearly hate women, abortions and poor people, so it’s hard to imagine a more counterproductive act than this. However, given the way they reacted to the agreement with Iran, it’s just more par for their course.

In response to all of this, I am giving more money to Planned Parenthood. Maybe in doing so I can help keep some of these women from getting pregnant. Long ago while pondering the best use of the money I give to charity, Planned Parenthood went to the top. It’s hard to imagine a better use of my money. Consider:

  • It empowers women. By being able to get free or reduced birth control, they have greater freedom and control over their lives.
  • It strengthens families and relationships
  • It allows these people to have a higher standard of living
  • It reduces social services and costs borne by the taxpayers
  • It reduces infrastructure costs, reducing the need for new houses, roads, bridges, shopping malls, etc.
  • It’s environmentally friendly
  • Contraception prevents abortions in the first place. This should make both pro-life and pro-choice people happy because it supports their goals.

So Congress’s likely actions will wreak more havoc that will inescapably increase the number of abortions. It will unnecessarily add to our misery as a country. And it won’t retard the use of fetal tissues in medical research.

So nice going Congressional Republicans! You remain as consistent as always promoting your agenda. Your reflexive actions here offer us more of the same counterproductive results Americans have come to expect from you. It’s not surprising then that a recent Pew poll found the fewest number of Americans approving of the Republican Party in decades (just 32%).

It also sounds like you are going to get one hell of a karmic wallop come elections next year. Don’t tell me then that you didn’t see this coming.

Future errata on the news

The Thinker by Rodin

No special topic for today’s post, just some quick thoughts about the news of the day and what I believe the story behind the story will be. With luck my precognition will be proven by subsequent events, and these will be errata indeed:

  • On the invitation by Speaker John Boehner to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before a joint session of Congress: This isn’t about the supposed threat that Iraq’s nuclear weapon program poses to Israel’s existence. Congress doesn’t need additional convincing on that. This is about Republicans, and House Republicans in particular, having a snit with President Obama because basically they loathe him and can’t figure out any other way to kick him in the balls. They don’t respect him or his administration, even before he came to office. In short, this is institutional passive aggressive behavior. It is also very unwise as it sets a new and dangerous precedence that our country will speak on foreign policy with multiple voices. (Executing foreign policy is constitutionally the responsibility of the Executive branch.) This is also about Speaker Boehner trying to gain some leverage with his mostly out of control Tea Party wing. It helps shows that he is manly and serious in ways that they can appreciate. If I were a Democrat in Congress, I’d boycott attending. However, I don’t expect a critical mass of Democrats will do this, as they proved in the 2014 election that they are quite spineless.
  • On the allegation in David Alexrod’s new book that President Obama hid his support for gay marriage in the 2008 campaign: no duh! It was clear to us Democrats that he was for gay marriage, but he felt it was too dangerous to say so publicly at the time as it would have adversely affected his campaign. What was evolving was not his opinions, but the American people’s opinions. He was waiting for us to catch up. So, yes, he was being disingenuous, but no more than most politicians. In fact, most of the Republicans who claim to be upset about gay marriage really don’t care too much about it either; they just don’t want to upset their base, or really what the think is their base, i.e. the noisy (i.e. politically active) ones.
  • On funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which runs out at the end of February: in the end Republicans will cave, probably sooner rather than later. Even if the House bill gets out of the Senate, which won’t happen, the President will veto it. The egg won’t be on Obama’s face as it plays out, because Americans overwhelmingly support his interim steps for immigration reform. So this is a losing issue for Republicans. Republicans will probably go for a series of 30 day funding mechanisms, until enough of them realize it just makes them look stupid, and then they’ll capitulate.
  • On the Obama Administration’s hope that a reinvigorated Iraqi army — with plenty of American advisors safely out of firing range to act as coaches –will retake Mosul from ISIS: it ain’t going to happen. The Iraqi army is a joke because there is no country called Iraq and because more desertions happen monthly than recruits coming in. What there is is a marginally governable country that should be called Shi’ite Iraq. To the extent that they will retake land it will be in traditionally Shi’ite dominated areas of that former country. What’s really happening is what I predicted in 2006: Iraq is being fractured into a number of religiously orthodox and ethnically pure countries: Shi’ite Iraq, Kurdistan and the Islamic State. It won’t be external forces that kill the Islamic State. It will be resistance from within when residents get sick of the overwhelming terror and (worse) the paucity of first world services like satellite TV. Neighboring countries will try to nudge this to happen sooner rather than later by making living in the IS more undesirable. The IS will either have to adopt into something marginally politically acceptable in the Middle East or it will eventually die a natural death. A state that does not operate like a state, i.e. with some uniformity and ability to provide basic services, is not a real state. I doubt it will be around five years from now regardless of what is done or not done.
  • On the reemergence of diseases like measles because certain parents can’t or won’t get their children immunized: never underestimate the power of shame and conformity. Americans are all for freedom until someone else’s freedom hurts their kids. If just one kid dies in America because someone kid’s parent refused to get their kid immunized, the remaining states will quickly fall in line and require all children to be inoculated against preventable diseases. The only question is where the set point is these days, as most Americans have no living memory of mass diseases like the measles. Smart Republican politicians are already walking back their talking points because disease knows no political boundaries. The parents of a Republican kid who comes down with the measles will be just as pissed-off Democratic parents in this situation, once they get over their own shame. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, particularly when we are certain that immunizations are safe and effective.
  • On the inevitability of Hillary Clinton as our next president: I am not convinced. The more I study her, the more things I find to dislike about her. The more Americans focus on her and the more they study her, the more that have second thoughts as well. If Republicans were smart, they would nominate a mainstream woman to run against her, perhaps Carly Fiorina to help negate the frustration by women that we never had a female president. Fortunately for Democrats, Republicans usually go stupid when picking a nominee. Still, a convincing mainstream Republican like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush or Indiana Governor Mike Pence could win in 2016. That’s what the sensible establishment Republicans are figuring, which is why they are throwing money into PACs for Jeb and trying to make him the likely nominee. If Clinton stumbles, right now the Democrats best bet is former Virginia Senator Jim Webb, because he is known for crossing the aisles and for taking unpopular positions, assuming Webb does not try a third party route. That’s credibility, and it’s what Americans are desperately looking for. I don’t expect though that Democrats will be in the mood to go with a mainstream candidate.

Election 2014 postmortem

The Thinker by Rodin

The victors write the history they say. Those who show up write election results. That Republicans won a majority of the U.S. senate last night, as well as added to their majority in the House, did not surprise me at all. The only thing surprising was that Democrats did not do worse.

Democrats were of course hopeful, but most of us did not have a misplaced hope. Midterms tend to favor the power out of party, particularly in a president’s second term. Republicans also had an almost ideal environment for making gains. Many seats, particularly in the Senate, were ripe for the picking because Democrats held them in Republican leaning states. So it’s no surprise that it’s goodbye David Prior and Kay Hagan.

In general where there was some hope of Democrats eking out a victory, they didn’t, and that was due to the general dynamics of who took the time to vote: mostly Republicans. Republicans voted disproportionately because they cared more about the election, and that was because they are out of political power, not to mentioning their ever-festering hatred of Obama. Democrats did not vote for the most part and stayed home, same as in 2010. With rare exceptions, Democrats only exercise their majority during presidential years.

Unquestionably there were dynamics that made it harder for Democrats. One of the overriding themes was Obama fatigue. The truth is most of the events Obama got dinged for yesterday were beyond his control, but certainly Obama has set a tone since his reelection that has turned off many. He used to be seen as cerebral and cool. Now he is seen as haughty and detached. Mitt Romney would have been just as stymied and ineffectual addressing Ebola and the rise of the Islamic State as Obama. Actually, it is likely he would have been more ineffectual, as government spending would likely be lower if he were president, and there would be fewer resources to draw upon.

Democratic candidates, who tend toward cowardice, exacerbated the problem by running away from Obama in their reelection and election campaigns. The underlying dynamics of our economy are actually pretty good. Those millions of jobs that Mitt Romney promised to create in four years? Obama created all of them in less than two years. Inflation is at historic lows. Unemployment is below six percent. No modern president has been better for stockholders in recent times. All this is good for the economy, but very little of this prosperity trickled down, mostly due to obfuscation by Republicans on issues like increasing the minimum wage. Voters though simply look at their own pocketbooks and if they don’t see prosperity they blame it on whoever is in charge. The truth is that both parties share blame here. The failure of prosperity to move toward the middle class is a result of dysfunctional government, not of Democratic governance in particular. Republicans would simply not play ball with Democrats these last six years, and it has proven to be a good political strategy for them.

By voting for Republicans, voters simply heaped on the dysfunction and kicked any real solutions to our problems to 2016, where they probably won’t be resolved again. The sad reality is that we voted last night to point fingers, not to solve any real problems. So among those applauding the results last night were our enemies. Barring some summoning of the national will that seems absent, this election simply contributes to the likely demise and dis-unification of the United States of America. In that sense we hammered a nail in our own coffin.

Rant of the month

The Thinker by Rodin

I haven’t had a rant all month, but it’s not from lack of opportunities. There is so much political craziness going on before midterm elections next week that it’s hard to choose what to rant about. Then I read this today and it managed to ring all my bells:

Republicans are calling on Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu to apologize after she suggested Thursday that President Barack Obama’s deep unpopularity in the South is partly tied to race.

What did this senator in a very uphill battle to retain her U.S. senate seat actually say?

I’ll be very, very honest with you. The South has not always been the friendliest place for African-Americans. It’s been a difficult time for the president to present himself in a very positive light as a leader.

To her credit, Mary Landrieu is not walking her comments back. But why on earth should she? What could possibly be more obvious than the truth of her statement? Of course historically the bulk of slavery in the United States occurred in the southern states. What could be unfriendlier to blacks than being enslaved? We fought a civil war principally so blacks could enjoy freedoms, freedoms that were subsequently largely taken away from them, if not by regular lynchings, then by Jim Crow laws that set up poll taxes to keep blacks from voting.

But even if you selectively forget all that arguably dated history, upon hearing Landrieu’s remarks the only thing you can really say is, “Well, duh!” It’s been decades since a black has been lynched in the south, thank goodness, but it’s quite obvious that blacks in the south are still being discriminated against and harassed every damned day because of the color of their skin. That Republicans reacted so vociferously clearly indicates that they are sensitive to the issue. And that’s because it’s so obviously true.

I know I would be much happier if they would simply come out and admit they are a party principally full of racists that are out to promote racial inequality. Most of their anger is still directed against blacks, but of course it’s not just blacks, just principally blacks. They don’t much like Hispanics, at least the “illegal” ones, as if a person can be illegal. And of course they are working actively to make sure anyone they don’t like (principally blacks of course) can’t vote. This is not the least bit American, of course, but they have zero qualms about doing anything they can get away with to disenfranchise those they don’t like.

Let us count just a few of ways blacks in particular feel unfriendly behavior from those in charge in the south:

  • They are stopped and questioned by police in greatly disproportionate numbers compared with whites
  • They form a majority of the prison population in the south despite being in the minority
  • They are the ones who are shot and/or killed most often, principally by whites, who feel threatened by them, even when no crime has been committed. Trayvon Martin is the obvious example here, although there are plenty of others that did not make the papers. It’s okay for whites to shoot blacks to “stand their ground”. If a black did the same to a white, does anyone in the south honestly think the black would get off?
  • Their states disproportionately have onerous voter ID laws, often requiring only certain picture IDs in order to vote, pictures that are hard to attain and cost money to acquire
  • These same states have cut back or eliminated early voting or mail in voting, making it harder for these people who often work two or more jobs to vote affecting, of course, principally blacks
  • If blacks can make it to vote on Election Day, they tend to wait in longer lines, discouraging them from casting a vote, because they get fewer voting machines per voter than more well moneyed and whiter precincts
  • Whites at polling sites question their right to vote harass many of them. Some take pictures and engage in other forms of harassment.
  • They often get misleading robocalls about voting on or before Election Day, sending them to wrong precincts, providing them with bogus information on credentials they will need or telling them they are not allowed to vote
  • Since blacks form the bulk of the prison population, and many are convicted of felonies, they often lose voting privileges for life
  • Just today we have a story of a Texas judge caught on tape saying he doesn’t want blacks to vote.

As for President Obama, he’s hardly the first Democratic president to get a hard time south of the Mason-Dixon Line. John F. Kennedy died from the bullet of a redneck in Dallas. Even fifty years ago they were hostile to liberal Democrats in the south. But anyone who doesn’t think that Obama’s race isn’t a huge factor in the way he is loathed by Republicans in the South clearly isn’t looking very hard:

  • There have been numerous examples in the south where Obama has been hung in effigy, often with accompanying racist signs and slogans.
  • It doesn’t take much looking to find racists signs about Obama in the south. Often you just look at the bumper of the car ahead of you.
  • Upon his election as president, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell declared it would be his mission to completely undermine Obama’s agenda. This included filibustering all judicial appointments, a policy that would still be ongoing had not Senate Democrats changed the rules after the start of the last Congress.
  • The language used by Republicans about Obama is frequently racist.
  • So many of them believe he is a secret Muslim and was born in Kenya, and promote it on news outlets
  • So many of them don’t believe his birth certificate is legitimate

Of course there are reasons for Republicans not to like President Obama that are not racist, but no modern Democratic president, even Bill Clinton, has come close to getting the complete obfuscation and stonewalling that President Obama has gotten. Rather than simply oppose him, Republicans have proven they will shutdown the government in order to get their way, and stonewall his appointees when they can to keep him from governing. They will put party before country.

This response was knee jerk and predictable, but no one, especially those who are protesting Landrieu’s remarks, believes their remarks were sincere. Their actions speak louder than words. Just a couple of the items I documented above would be plenty of evidence of overt and damning racism.

Republicans are a party consisting mostly of racists unwilling to compromise on pretty much anything. They are spoiled and pigheaded brats. It’s hard to think of anything Landrieu could have said that was milder in acknowledging the obvious problem of racism in the south today.

Why Obama is winning

The Thinker by Rodin

Pollsters keep telling us that President Obama is statistically tied in the presidential race with his challenger Mitt Romney. “It’s within the margin of error,” they say, and if elections were won based on the popular vote, it would be. It is much harder to make the claim that the candidates are tied if you look at state polls, particularly at swing state polls. It’s beginning to look like check and mate for Mitt Romney.

Can things change? Of course they can. There is plenty of history sixty days out from Election Day showing that polls in early September don’t accurately predict the eventual winner. In this election though, the number of undecided voters is tiny. Moreover, the only undecided voters that matter are those in swing states. In most states, all the undecided voters could vote for one candidate over the other and it won’t change how the state’s electoral votes will go. With a few exceptions, states award all of their electoral votes to the candidate with the majority of votes in the state. Both campaigns know this, of course. There is no point wasting money trying to persuade voters in Texas to vote for Obama, or in Massachusetts trying to convince voters to vote for Romney. It’s only in swing states like, ironically, my state of Virginia where overbearing political ads seem to run nonstop.

State by state polls show that Obama has many realistic paths to the 270 electoral votes he needs for reelection, while few of Romney’s paths are viable. Most importantly, Romney looks like he is not going to win in Ohio, at least not without a lot of ballot stuffing or voter suppression. Polls show Obama with a consistent lead of about six points. Ohio’s Republican legislature has been working hard on the latter, but is getting some resistance from the courts. In recent times no candidate has won the presidency without winning Ohio. It is possible that Romney could win in a bunch of other states to make up the difference, but that path looks impossible.

Romney’s hope lies not in third parties that will spend enormous amounts of money to try to change the difference. His affiliated PACs have been doing that for months and it has been mostly wasted money. The recent Republican National Convention gave Romney no bounce at all in the polls. The more recent Democratic National Convention appears to have given Obama a bounce of at least a few points. History suggests any bounces will be short lived. So the race is likely to settle back to where it was before the conventions, showing the candidates close to tied with Obama generally shown marginally ahead.

Romney has only two real paths to victory. First, he can hope for some sort of cataclysmic financial event such as happened before the last election, or a sharply negative jobs report. This certainly is possible, but is unlikely. Second, he can hope that he so shines in the presidential debates that significant number of voters change their mind because they see a different and better candidate that they did not expect. Republican state legislators are hoping that Democrats can be restrained from voting through toughened voter identification laws, thus flipping the state into the red column. At best this strategy will work in only a couple of states.

Voter enthusiasm also makes a big difference in who wins, as Republicans demonstrated in 2010 when Democrats stayed home. There will be no problem turning out Republicans, unless polls make them feel disheartened. Democrats are also expected to turn out in large numbers, but perhaps not in as large numbers as in 2008.

So if Romney is checkmated, as it looks like he will be, how will it have happened? There are of course many factors, but I think the most important factor is that voters sense that Obama really cares about the middle class, and are not convinced that Romney does. Ohio actually makes a great case in point. It was ravaged by the recession, as it is nearly as dominated by the auto industry as Michigan. Obama and his brief Democratic congress rescued the auto industry when no one else would. The American auto industry came back as a direct result of our investment in it. This is the value of actions over beliefs. In this case, it is obvious that these were correct decisions, and probably explains why Obama leads in Ohio by a consistent six percent.

Moreover, voters remain distrustful of Republicans. While they may be unhappy that the recovery has not be broader, faster and more sustained, they do know who got us into this economic mess and they know it was not Obama. Having had their hand recently burned on the stove, they are reticent to put their hand back on the stove. Republicans need to demonstrate political competence. Instead, they are demonstrating obstruction, extremism and intransigence, which may thrill their political base but does not endear them to independents, no matter how desperate they may feel about their job prospects.

It’s not sexy but Democrats and President Obama have spent most of the last four years trying to keep the bottom from falling out of the economy. This Houdini trick became exponentially more difficult after the 2010 election when Tea Party Republicans took control of the House.

In addition, Obama framed Romney very effectively in June and July when voters were just beginning to pay attention to him. The frame, which was not hard to apply, was that Romney was someone with no empathy for the middle class and who understood only profits and losses, not the real issues that Americans face. Obama understands the needs of the middle class from experience, an experience that Romney never tasted. Romney’s own bungling and inconsistency since then helped cement the frame. He seems incapable of any empathy for other than the rich, and cannot even seem to speak in a language that middle America understands.

Smart Republicans have already largely written off a Romney win, and are concentrating money where it matters: on obtaining a Senate majority (which is looking increasingly problematic) and maintaining their House majority (which looks likely). Losses in this election might foment some earnest soul searching from Republicans. The sooner they realize that they need to moderate positions the more likely they are to achieve lasting political power. Republicans are going to eventually realize that they must govern from the center to maintain political power, and this means their extreme positions will need to be moderated or they risk obsolescence as a party.