Monday, December 28, 2009

The Republicans' Disdain for the American People Should Be the Story of 2009

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

Looking back on 2009, much of the discussion on TV news shows is whether President Obama and the Democrats in Congress correctly handled the problems facing the country. Somehow, a narrative seems to have emerged that the Democrats failed and would pay the price in the 2010 midterm elections.

But where is the discussion of how the Republicans have behaved in the last year?

It has been less than one year since President Obama was sworn in. When he sat behind the big desk in the Oval Office for the first time, he found himself responsible for a free-falling economy (and mounting staggering job losses), a massive deficit, the manpower and financial burden of hundreds of thousands of troops in Iraq, a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, and a militant Islamic movement looking to inflict damage on America and American interests, all of which came as a direct result of the failed policies of his predecessor. Obama also had a host of other problems to address, from global warming, to energy dependence to a corrupt and dangerous Iranian government struggling to hold onto power and capable of real danger, just to name a few.

The president didn't create any of these problems. Not one of them. And it is completely unrealistic to think that any person or party could solve these issues in less than a year.

Now, there has been much debate over whether Obama's handling of these issues was up to snuff. From listening to the ridiculous rhetoric from the right, you would think that the president was trying to turn the country into some bizarre combination of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. And many progressives are unsatisfied with Obama's handling of the re-regulation of the financial industry, as well as his approach to health care, LGBT issues and other points of contention.

But another way to put it is that the criticism form the right is not only unfounded, but the Republicans have offered no real alternatives to address the issues, aside from advocating for the failed Bush policies of the last decade. And progressives seem to forget that the arcane rules in the Senate limit what can be done with only a majority, while Republicans in Congress are single-minded and united to do anything they can to politically damage the president, without any concern for actually governing for the American people. We saw that in play in the health care debate, as the 40 Republican senators remained rock solid in support of the insurance companies and the status quo (the current system is a disaster, as health care costs chew up more and more of the country's GDP while leaving Americans with more and more health care expenses and less and less coverage).

What have the Republicans offered aside from "no"?

To me, that should be the real story of the first year of the Obama administration. The discussion should be about the utter disdain the Republicans have shown for the American people, as the party has put political games and protecting its corporate interests in the first position on every issue. That, and the out-and-out lies that have become the go-to strategy of the party (death panels anyone?).

Consider that in the last two weeks alone, we have been treated to:

- GOP senators blocking confirmation of Obama appointees as a way of securing petty political victories. (What kind of system allows a single senator to hold up confirmation of an appointee? How is it that a party can control 60 seats in the Senate and still not have the ability to confirm the president's appointments? Does this seem like a good idea to anyone interested in maintaining a functioning government?)

- Republican senators holding up funding for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan as a tactic to slow down health care reform. (When Democrats in Congress during the Bush years balked at writing a blank check for a failed war in Iraq, Republicans questioned their patriotism. But now, to Republicans, it's okay to block funding the troops as a way of slowing down health care reform? How is this not a story? Why is this not provoking voter outrage?)

- Republicans opposing health care reform on fiscal grounds, even though the bill will lower the deficit, and despite the fact that the same Republicans had no trouble ballooning the deficit in the Bush years by approving massive tax cuts for the rich, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Medicare prescription drug program without paying for any of them.

- Sen. James Inhofe traveling to Copenhagen to undermine President Obama at the Copenhagen climate change summit. (Can you imagine the charges Republicans would have thrown at a Democrat who traveled to a conference Bush was attending to undermine his position? I promise you the words "patriotism"--as in lack of--and "treason" would have come up.)

- GOP senators calling for the watering down of financial reform legislation, just a year after the misconduct of the banks caused the economy to go into a death spiral. (If there is a lot of anti-bank feeling in the country now, why isn't the biggest defender of the finance industry, the Republican party, getting hit with the blame? And how can any legislator oppose reform in the face of developments like a credit card legally charging 79.9 percent interest?)

- Sen. John Thune lying on the floor of the Senate as to when benefits take effect in health care reform legislation. (Thanks to Al Franken for not being intimidated and pointing out a lie when he saw one.)

- Republican superstar Sarah Palin reiterating the lie that health care legislation called for death panels, and changing the basis for the accusation when her original charge was proven untrue. (This kind of dishonest fear-mongering is more contrary to American ideals of democracy than anything in the health care legislation itself could ever possibly be.)

- Sen. Tom Coburn demanding a reading of an amendment to the health care reform bill calling for a single-payer program (which would have taken 12 hours, but which only went several hours before Sen. Bernie Sanders withdrew the amendment) as a way to slow down health care reform. (If the Democrats had tried something like that during the Bush years, they would have been pilloried by Republicans for not respecting the American people's wishes as expressed by the election results.)

Again, these events are only from the last two weeks. And the list is hardly complete.

So if the Republicans are supposed to be guaranteed to win seats in 2010, on what will these victories be won? What have the Republicans done to help the American people with the grave problems they face? (Sen. Mitch McConnell seems to think that the health care reform bill will be enough. Will Americans really support the Republicans on this one?)

To be clear, I am not arguing that the president and the Democrats in Congress have been beyond reproach in 2009. I think there is a lot of fair criticism to be levied, and a fair debate can be had as to whether the Democrats handled health care reform and other issues as well as they could have. But any deficiency in the Democratic approach pales when compared to the shameful conduct of Republicans during this time. The Democrats were making an effort to clean up Bush's messes. The Republican motives in the last year have not in any way involved actually trying to fix problems (or, even worse, they don't even acknowledge that many of the problems exist in the first place).

The story for 2010 should be the Republican party's complete disregard for the needs of the American people. The party's decision to prioritize scoring political victories over the president, protecting corporate interests, and relying on lies to do it over solving problems and governing should be clear to anyone paying attention. Let's hope that when voters go to the polls in 2010, they remember who was trying to solve problems and who wasn't. Time will tell if we will ever fully recover from what Bush did to the country. The last thing we need is more Republican rule, offering more of the same failed policies.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Political Labels 101: A Lesson for Republicans and Tea Baggers

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

I am a big believer in open political debate. While my views may be solidly progressive, I have the utmost respect for anyone interested in making honest arguments as to how to proceed on the issues of the day. I admire Jurgen Habermas's view of democracy requiring a public sphere in which citizens come to the table not just with arguments for their side, but with an open mind to hear the views of opponents.

I was reminded of how far the right wing approach is from this ideal when I read that Sarah Palin was tweeting about death panels again.

I absolutely acknowledge that a fair debate on health care (or any issue, really) can be had. I know that my progressive beliefs may not provide the best answer to every problem in every situation. But what I have no patience for is the outright lies and ignorance, as well as the dangerous accusations, being injected into our national consciousness. And what's worse is that the mainstream media has done virtually nothing to point out the simple and obvious explanation as to why these charges are outrageous.

Here is an example of a functional and positive (but, unfortunately, fictional) debate on health care reform:

Pro: The current health care system is broken. A growing amount of our gross domestic product is going to health care costs. More than 50 million Americans have no health insurance. We have a moral obligation to provide medical care for Americans, something nearly every Western democracy does. And in doing so, we can help the economy by removing (or lessening) the health care burdens on Americans and employers.

Anti: It would be nice to cover more Americans, but it is not a moral obligation. We have limited resources as a nation, and we just can't afford to provide everyone with everything. Our national debt is high, and we are coming out of a recession with limited recovery of jobs so far. It's not the place of the federal government to provide health care to the country's citizens. Other countries may do so, but the United States has always been a market-based country that allows entrepreneurs to innovate. If health care costs get too high, someone will figure out a way to do it better and cheaper, and that person will not only be successful, but the American people will benefit.

This is a fair exchange of ideas. It gives citizens two points of view to consider, both with pure motives from the proponents. Americans can then choose which way they think is the best way to move forward.

Of course, that hasn't happened.

On September 9, while addressing a joint session of Congress, President Obama made this argument:

"The plan I'm announcing tonight would meet three basic goals. It will provide more security and stability to those who have health insurance. It will provide insurance for those who don't. And it will slow the growth of health care costs for our families, our businesses, and our government."

The responses?

Well, we had a siting member of the House of Representatives yell "You lie!" during the president's address.

We had all kinds of lies and fear-mongering from the right, featuring outrageous claims of doom if health care reform passed (I collected a few of the egregious examples here).

And for the last year, we have had vile comparisons of Obama to everyone from Lenin and Stalin and Hitler, along with charges that he was a socialist bent on bringing down capitalism. (How can any reasonable person not be disturbed by this sign?)

I fully understand that some of you are saying right about now, "Of course the tea baggers are morons and don't know their history. Duh." Agreed. But the mainstream media isn't making this basic point. They show the images of the protests on television, but they provide no context. And it matters, since it legitimates the ridiculous anti-Obama and anti-health care arguments that make no sense.

And none of this is going away any time soon. Yesterday, Palin tweeted about health care reform: "R death panels back in?" This bit of craziness came from the Republican party's most recent vice presidential nominee, not from an ignorant, hasn't-read-a-newspaper-in-her-life, religious fanatic tea bagger. Uh, wait. I guess actually it came from someone who is all of those things. Palin, nevertheless, is a national figure, a legitimate candidate for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012, and a right-wing icon big enough to sell more than five million copies of a work of fiction (that she mistakenly calls a memoir), Going Rogue. The death panel ridiculousness can be judged to be the top lie of 2009, but Palin happily tweets about it like it was fact.

So, since the mainstream media refuses to set the record straight, and with health care reform winding its way to a (hopefully) successful conclusion, I thought I'd offer a basic lesson on political labels in the health care context.

Fringe Socialist: According to the platform of the Socialist Party USA, all private health insurance companies should be immediately abolished and be replaced by government-funded health care "controlled by democratically elected assemblies of health care workers and patients." Also, private pharmaceutical companies would be abolished in favor of "public ownership and worker and community control of the pharmaceutical industry." Finally, the socialists call for "full community decision-making regarding the creation, organization or elimination of public health care facilities."

Progressive: The platform of the Green Party USA calls for: "A single-payer National Health Program to provide free medical and dental care for all, federally financed and controlled by democratically elected local boards." Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) called for the extension of Medicare to everyone.

Mainstream Democratic: The public option is not a progressive or socialist plan. Rather, it was a compromise developed as a way to provide coverage to uninsured Americans without putting the health insurance companies out of business, and without going to a full, government-run, single-payer system.

Centrist: Considering how few true centrists remain in American politics, it is hard to pin down a centrist position without being cynical. My first instinct would be to say that on health care, a centrist is a Democratic senator from a conservative state who agrees to a watered down health care bill in exchange for subsidies funneled to his or her state. But, if I put my cynicism aside, I guess I would say that the centrist position is finding a way to cover uninsured Americans without damaging the economic interests of the beneficiaries of the current failing system (health insurers, pharmaceutical companies, etc.).

Mainstream Republican: Like the centrists, I haven't seen many mainstream Republicans in Congress, so it's hard to nail down a position. My cynical take on the mainstream Republican position: Pretend to care about health care reform, but vote against anything that actually changes the status quo (I'm looking at you Sen. Snowe and Sen. Collins). But if you go to the source, the Republican position is to oppose government funding of health care and any major changes to the status quo, except to support limited consumer protections in areas such as banning insurers from rejecting patients with preexisting conditions and improving the portability of insurance, and to bring down costs through state innovations.

Fringe Reactionary: "You lie!" Health care reform could "cost you your life." A public option is "gonna kill people." "I don't have to read it or know what's in it. I'm going to oppose it anyways." Health care reform "rations health care so that our citizens are withheld important and potentially life-saving treatments."(All statements of sitting Republican members of Congress.) And, of course, the charges that Obama is a communist/fascist/Nazi.

Considering Obama did nothing to push the public option in the Senate, cut deals with the drug companies and health insurers, and never suggested a single-payer system, it's pretty clear that there is no valid argument to make that he is a socialist (or a Nazi, either, since if he was, he would have to send himself, his wife, his kids, his chief of staff, his chief strategist, and numerous members of his staff and cabinet to concentration camps; I'm not being flip, I'm just appalled at how little the right wing Obama attackers know about history, and how insensitive some of the charges are).

In fact, going down the scale, you would find that Obama isn't a progressive or even a mainstream Democrat. His approach to health care reform has been closest to the centrists (but I think his motive was pragmatism, not to line the pockets of the health insurers and pharmaceutical companies).

And the bill that is emerging from the Senate fits comfortably into the centrist position, too.

Again, I'm sure many readers will think I am being trivial here, but I firmly believe that the narratives in the country on Obama and health care have been greatly distorted, in no small part because of the mainstream media's legitimization of ridiculous charges by the the right. Sometimes, even if it seems silly, it's helpful to point out simple facts and demonstrate how ridiculous these charges are.

I was quick to pillory George W. Bush for his utter incompetency and disregard for democracy, but I manged to do it without calling him a Nazi or comparing him to Stalin. I engaged in what, I think, Habermas would agree was the kind of arguing over public policy that allows a democracy to function. Little coming from the right at this moment in time would fulfill that role. All we hear are lies, scare tactics and propaganda. Since the mainstream media won't do their basic job function of reporting how idiotic these claims are, I will have to write articles like this one, silly or not.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Three Reasons to Be Happy About the Reported Deal by Senate Democrats on Health Care

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

According to reports yesterday, a group of 10 Democratic senators, five centrists and five progressives, has reached a deal to allow health care reform legislation to proceed. We don't know much about the compromise yet, as the senators aren't talking about it pending receiving cost estimates from the Congressional Budget Office. What seems to be the basic deal, though, is that the public option won't be a part of the legislation, but, instead, the bill will include an expansion of Medicaid and an opportunity for those 55 to 64 to buy into Medicare.

Many are lamenting the demise of the public option, but I thought of three things about the reported deal that actually make me happy:

1) Finally, the Democrats figured out that the power to make a deal lies with them, not with the Republicans. Back in September, I begged the Democrats to forget about the Republicans (who were only pretending to engage as a way of stalling progress), caucus, and come to a compromise that all 58 Democrats and the two independents could support. I have criticized the Democrats for failing to properly use the power of their majority in Congress and the mandate from an overwhelming victory last November, so it's only right I give them their props for finally taking charge.

My favorite element of this story, from a political gamesmanship point of view, is the statement from Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota that all 40 Republicans would oppose the Democratic compromise, even if the public option is off the table. It was such an entertaining moment, since Thune's statement meant absolutely nothing. How nice for you, Sen. Thune, that you and your 39 colleagues will stand together to support health insurance companies and oppose health care reform for Americans. But your opposition will have zero effect if the 58 Democrats and two independents agree to a deal. Thune and his 39 fellow Republicans will be powerless to stop health care reform from happening if the other 60 senators stand together.

Essentially, Thune's statement is like the temper tantrum of an eight-year-old who isn't getting what he wants: it's annoying but doesn't change anything.

It is quite enjoyable to read about a health care deal that doesn't involve what Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins or any other Republican whose agenda is to torpedo real reform wants. I don't care what they think. And if the 60 other senators really have made a deal, I don't have to.

2) I have come to the conclusion that no public option is better than a weak one. From the beginning, I have supported Rep. Anthony Weiner's proposal to extend Medicare to all Americans. The public option was meant to be a compromise between the left's desire for a single-payer system and the right's claim to oppose governmental intervention in health care. Somehow, the public option became the left's position in the debate, essentially taking the compromise position to begin with, even though the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House. Once it became clear that centrist Democrats (who enjoy riding on the financial coattails of health insurance and pharmaceutical companies) opposed the public option, it became clear that if such an option did end up in the legislation, it would be so watered down by triggers or other gimmicks that it no longer would have effectively done the job it was there to do: provide competition for private insurers and keep costs down.

If a weak public option became law, and it didn't work to bring down costs and expand coverage options (since it would have been set up to fail in the compromise), the perception would be that the idea itself failed (even though that wouldn't be the case). Given a choice between a weak public option destined to fail, and no public option with the reputation of the policy remaining intact, I'll take the latter every time. It leaves us with the opportunity to fight another day when those suffering under a system with lack of choice and high rates become more open to a governmental solution to address the crippling problem.

As an example, I offer the stimulus legislation. Democratic leadership allowed the Republicans and centrist Democrats to decrease the amount of the bill and to load it up with useless tax cuts. The result? Complaints that the stimulus bill didn't do enough to create jobs. Seems ridiculous, right? Make a proposal to address something, have your opponents water it down so it can no longer remedy the problem (or not work as well), and then blame the program for not providing a solution. I don't want to see the same absurd dance play out again with the public option.

3) A win is important both politically and in practice for those struggling without health insurance. The side of me that loves the game of politics thinks that if after a year of battling and enduring lies and other desperate measures thrown out from the right (death panels, funding abortion on demand, keeping Americans from seeing their own doctors, socialism, etc., I rounded up some of the crazy statements by Republicans in Congress here) the Democrats can get a health care reform bill through to President Obama's desk, something no other Congress has done in the last half century of trying, it will be a huge blow to the Republicans and conservatives who have fought this battle. Similarly, failing to pass health care reform legislation would be a deadly blow to the Democrats. So from the political point of view, getting something like the reported compromise through Congress would be huge for the Democrats.

More importantly, though, there are a lot of people suffering in the United States right now because they can't afford health coverage. According to the nonpartisan National Coalition on Health Care, 54 million Americans under the age of 65 lacked health insurance in the first half of 2007, with 7 million more estimated to lose their insurance by next year. The Republicans may want to protect their corporate benefactors, but something has to be done for the tens of millions of our fellow citizens in need. The current health care legislation may give too much to the health insurance and drug companies that have helped create the current mess in which we find ourselves, and it may not provide the kind of coverage and cost control many of us would like to see. But it will make life better for millions of Americans who are suffering right now with a lack of health care in a difficult economy. As much as I think politics is important, it is even more important to provide the citizens of our country with affordable health care, and the reported compromise is better than nothing for those in need. It may even represent a start, the first step in a process of true health care reform.

So I hope the reports of a compromise are true, and that 58 Democratic senators and the two independents who caucus with them have reached a deal to pass health care reform legislation. It may not be an ideal bill, but there are at least three reasons to be happy about it.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

I'm Not in a New York State of Mind, Thanks to 38 State Senators

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

But now I need a little give and take/The New York Times, The Daily News/It comes down to reality And it's fine with me 'cause I've let it slide/Don't care if it's Chinatown or on Riverside/I don't have any reasons I've left them all behind/I'm in a New York state of mind
- Billy Joel, "New York State of Mind," 1976

I am often in a New York state of mind. After living most of my life in New York, I recently moved to Madison, Wisconsin, to go back to graduate school. But being a New Yorker is a strong part of my identity. Which only made it harder to accept the New York State Senate voting down a gay marriage bill on Wednesday (my birthday of all days). Eight Democrats joined all 30 Republicans in shamefully telling millions of New Yorkers that they are less deserving of rights in the State of New York.

There is a viral video making the rounds in which a man, speaking directly to the camera, attempts to shoot down the arguments against gay marriage. While, obviously, I agree with the bulk of what he has to say, the issue is far, far simpler to me.

I look at the issue in legal and constitutional terms. (I may not practice law anymore, but I can't seem to put my legal education and short time practicing completely behind me. I guess it doesn't help that my wife is also an attorney, so the law is always buzzing around me.) And when you look at the gay marriage question through this lens, it is easy to see the anti-gay marriage folks for what they are: religiously fueled bigots.

Marriage has two essential elements to it. First, it is a union recognized by most of the world's major religions as being between a man and a woman. Second, and completely separate from the issue of religion, marriage is a contract between two individuals recognized by the 50 states. You will note that I identify the second element as completely separate from the first one because of a nifty little amendment to the U.S. Constitution (the first one, in fact) that reads, in relevant part:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"

Thanks to more than a century of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, we can safely conclude that, among other things, the First Amendment prevents the government (states are bound by the First Amendment via the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified after the Civil War) from enforcing religious decisions in carrying out its business. As such, it is not incumbent on the states to enforce religious laws on marriage, nor may the states force religious leaders to carry out certain policies that violate their faiths.

So there is religious marriage (based on the rules of a couple's faith) and state marriage (essentially a civil contract under which certain rights and responsibilities become enforceable under state law).

Now, there is no doubt that many American religious leaders feel that the marriage of two men or two women violates the rules of their faiths. While I can't support their bigoted views, I would be quick to defend their right not to marry two men or two women. That is a decision the state has no place getting involved in. And religions are not bound by any responsibility to treat their followers fairly or to extend them equal rights. If Catholics do not want to let women become priests, or if Orthodox Jews do not want to allow women onto the bimah (altar) during services, or if any other religion chooses to extend fewer rights under the rules of the faith to one group or another, that is the right of those religious institutions to do so. It's up to the members of the religious institutions to decide if they want to be part of a religion that discriminates in these manners.

But the government doesn't enjoy the same leeway as the religions. In fact, the Constitution, federal law and state law are filled with provisions that assure just the opposite, that every American should be treated equally under the law. So if a state decides to grant the right of two men or two women to marry, that is the state regulating state business (and I would argue it's both the legal and moral obligation of the state not to pick and choose to whom it extends these rights and responsibilities). The state isn't telling any priest, reverend, rabbi or imam to marry two men or two women, nor is it requiring the religions to accept the couples as being married under their faiths (in the same way that if a Jew and a Baptist are married by the state, the state doesn't require Orthodox rabbis or Baptist ministers to recognize the marriage in their faiths).

In other words, religious marriage is the domain of the religions, and state marriage is the domain of the states. And under the First Amendment, the states are not supposed to force religious rules on its people, nor are they to interfere in the beliefs of the religions. Seems simple enough.

In light of the understanding of the two elements of marriage, what can be a rationale for opposing gay marriage? You can't say it violates your religious beliefs, because nobody is asking you to change, in any way, your religious beliefs. Nobody is asking you to accept the gay marriages in your church, or for your religious officials to perform same-sex marriages. No, the only reason to oppose same-sex marriage is because you believe that gay men and lesbians do not deserve the same rights as heterosexuals. It's really that simple. Everything else is just a smoke screen, a way of diverting attention from the bigotry at the heart of those who oppose same-sex marriage.

The only senator to have the balls to stand up in the New York Senate and speak against the same-sex marriage bill (which had overwhelmingly passed in the New York Assembly), even though 38 of them eventually voted against it, was Ruben Diaz Sr. of the Bronx, and his remarks made clear how intellectually bankrupt the anti-same-sex-marriage position is. After Sen. Eric Adams of Brooklyn, noting the secular job of legislators, said that when he walks into the senate chamber, "my bible stays out," Diaz, a pastor, declared in response, "That's the wrong statement. You should carry your Bible all the time."

(Some of Diaz's exploits include being sentenced to probation in the 1960s after being arrested for possessing heroin and marijuana and getting investigated by the FBI for corruption in 2007. He serves as a nice reminder that being religious does not necessarily mean that you behave ethically and morally.)

In other words, Diaz was happy to impose his religion-based belief that homosexuals were not entitled to the same rights as heterosexuals under the law on all New Yorkers as part of his duties as a New York State senator. Note, he didn't reference state law. He referenced the bible.

What is it to be an American if you do not support equal rights under the law? And when you clear away baseless threats that legalizing same-sex marriage somehow has an effect on how religions handle marriages in their faiths, all that's left for those opposed to same-sex marriage is bigotry. It's really that simple.

One of the few bright spots of the debate was the remarks of Sen. Diane Savino of Staten Island, who told a funny story about the explanation she gave a pedicab driver of why she supports same-sex marriage. She explained to him they could go to City Hall and get a marriage license, even though they just met and were in no way ready for such a serious commitment. She then offered what I think is as elegant and simple a point as anyone has made about same-sex marriage:

“We in government don’t determine the quality or worthiness of people’s relationships. If we did, we would not issue three-quarters of the marriage licenses we do.”

Again, there are two marriages: one recognized by religion and one recognized by the state. I'm not asking the religions to open their minds, but I am demanding that the states (or at least, in this case, New York State) provide all of their citizens with equal rights. Because as Sen. Savino makes clear, the state has no business in judging the two people that step forward to ask for a license to marry and avail themselves of the rights and responsibilities the state offers to married couples.

As much as Senators Adams and Savino make me proud to be a New Yorker, legislators like Diaz make me wonder what has happened to my beloved state. I think it's time for New Yorkers to stand up and tell the 38 senators that voted to deny equal rights to millions of New York citizens that they don't represent the beliefs of true New Yorkers. That would put me back in a New York state of mind.

Friday, November 20, 2009

It's Too Early to Celebrate the Senate Health Care Vote

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

I swear, I find no no joy in being Debbie Downer. I really wish I could celebrate the Senate's 60-39 vote to begin the debate on health care legislation, narrowly holding off the blocking tactic of the Republicans. I am 100 percent in favor of health care reform (I'm a fan of Rep. Anthony Weiner's proposal to extend Medicare to everyone). But a realistic view of what happened (and what has happened leading up to the vote) reveals far more things to be concerned about than to cheer for.

For starters, to get to an up-or-down vote on the final bill in the Senate, this 60-vote procedural hurdle will have to be jumped over again to close debate, and Sen. Joe Lieberman has already promised to join the Republicans in filibustering any bill that contains a public option. There are also several other centrist Democrats in the Senate who may not vote for cloture if there is a public option in the bill. Since the Democrats were only able to secure the minimum 60 votes to get past the Republicans this time, without Lieberman's vote (and all of the centrists'), if no Republican jumps ship, a bill containing a public option cannot get to the floor.

Also, it is easy to forget that a health care bill only barely made it through the House (220-215), and did so only after Democrats agreed to pass the bill despite the inclusion of the anti-abortion Stupak Amendment, which wouldn't just prevent the government from funding abortions, but would actually have the effect of making it harder for many women to exercise their constitutional right to choose under health care reform than it is today. True, the Senate's version has a less onerous anti-abortion provision, but if the House anti-choice Democrats stand firm again, even if a bill gets through the Senate, when it comes out of conference, the House will have two options, neither of which is good: pass the bill with the odious Stupak Amendment intact, or watch the bill go down to defeat at the hands of the anti-choice Democrats.

So what am I supposed to celebrate, exactly? That a health care bill will be debated? Even though, to get past a 60-vote cloture motion, it will have to be gutted even beyond the shadow of a bill it is now (the current bill has a weak public option, no other mechanism to really cut costs, and hands billions of dollars to the insurance companies who are a big part of the original problem)? I'm not saying I don't support this weak bill (it's better than nothing), but if it gets any weaker and cuts into the constitutional right of women to choose, really, does the good still outweigh the bad?

And the whole notion that there will be a debate is really hard to take seriously. There has been no honest health care debate up to this point. There has be a flood of outright lies from the right (two words for you: "death panels"), and if you think it's getting any better, as the vote neared, Sen. Kit Bond compared health care reform to one of the biggest Ponzi schemes ever: "Move over, Bernie Madoff. Tip your hat to a trillion-dollar scheme." This is the level of debate. Paranoid ramblings about government takeovers and hidden agendas of doing the bidding for insurance companies, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies that line the pockets of those opposing reform. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office can report that the Senate health care bill will cut the deficit by $130 billion over the next ten years without raising taxes on the middle class, but Republicans will still scream about expanding deficits and massive tax increases. Some debate.

You know, there is one thing I really like about the health care legislation that will now be debated in the Senate, and, oddly enough, it's something that most of my fellow progressives oppose: the ability of states to opt out of the public option. Honestly, I think this part of the bill is spectacularly brilliant. Why? It's simple, actually. It's democracy at work.

Consider that in the last months since the health care debate took off, we have been treated to the following:

- Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina screamed "You lie!" during President Obama's health care address to a joint session of Congress.

- Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said that passing health care reform with a public option could "cost you your life."

- Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia, who, by the way, is a physician, said that health care reform with a public option "is gonna kill people."

- Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma said, regarding the health care bill: "I don't have to read it or know what's in it. I'm going to oppose it anyways."

- Sen. Richard Shelby wrote to one of his constituents that health care legislation would "directly subsidize abortion-on-demand," "rations health care so that our citizens are withheld important and potentially life-saving treatments," and "requires taxpayer dollars to fund health benefits for illegal immigrants," all scare tactics that he knew (or, as a U.S. senator, should have known) is patently false.

Unfortunately, I could go on a lot longer, but you get the point. All of these politicians have many things in common, but there are two I would like to point out here: 1) They represent states that would likely opt out of a public option, and 2) they were duly elected by their constituents to serve in Congress.

Item 2 is really something important to remember. These men did not stage coups d'etat. No, they were elected by the majority of the voters of their states or districts. They were chosen by their constituents in democratic elections. And now it's time for democracy to do its job, so that the citizens of these states get exactly what they voted for. Why should we, as a country, spend taxpayer money to improve the health care of citizens who would send to Congress men capable of uttering baldfaced lies, all in the name of politics (trying to prevent the president from getting a "win") or protecting the special interests that fill their campaign accounts? And if they are telling their lies in defense of some kind of pure ideology that abhors the government's involvement in anything (except the bedrooms of its citizens, of course, but that's another issue for another day ...), well, then, let's give their constituents what they want. Hell, Shelby went after Medicare in his constituent letter, so I would be happy to let the states opt out of Medicare and Medicaid, too

In Shelby's state, Blue Cross Blue Shield controls 83 percent of the health insurance market, with more than 600,000 people living without health insurance and another more than 175,000 who cannot obtain group coverage and are forced to buy insurance on their own. Under health care reform, most would have access to health care, more than 400,000 Alabama residents would be eligible for government subsidies to help pay for health insurance, and the 175,000 plus not on group plans could get more affordable insurance. But these people also voted for Shelby. I respect the democratic process, and the people of the good state of Alabama should be free to get exactly what they voted for. I wouldn't dream of standing in their way. And the same can be said for the folks in South Carolina, Kentucky, Georgia, Oklahoma and all the other states who have sent representatives to Washington to obstruct health care reform.

This is the country in which we live now. This is what passes for debate. So you will forgive me if I am not optimistic that a worthwhile health care reform bill will make its way past another cloture vote in the Senate, past an up-down vote in Senate, through a post-conference vote in the House, through yet another cloture vote in the Senate, and finally through a final up-down vote in the Senate, all while the Stupaks, Liebermans, and Lincolns of the world are standing in the way, not to mention the stop-at-nothing lies and scare tactics employed by the right. I am sorry, but I am firmly in I'll-believe-it-when-I-see-it mode.

The bottom line is that I don't want to be the messenger of doom. I would love to celebrate a health care reform victory. And when a real one arrives, I will.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Candidate Obama Might Have Some Questions for President Obama

[I was invited by the editors of to write a reaction to Arianna Huffington's article comparing President Obama to Candidate Obama, after she read David Plouffe's new book. This is what I came up with. You can access it from my author page here.]

As Barack Obama stood in Grant Park a year ago tonight and gave his victory speech, it was a galvanizing moment, one I (and millions of others) will never forget. A year later, many of the president's supporters are expressing concern as to whether he has kept faithful to the vision he laid out in his campaign.

Today, Arianna argued that candidate Obama might not be so thrilled with the job President Obama is doing. She wrote: "Would he look at what the White House is doing and say, 'that's what I and my supporters worked so hard for?'"

I understand the dismay some, like Arianna, are expressing. It's hard to read headlines on HuffPo like "Obama Administration Helps House Gut Post-Enron Reforms" and not wonder where the "change" we were promised is hiding.

I find myself torn between two points of view I find compelling. On the one hand, it would have been virtually impossible for a president to come in and undo decades of corruption and inertia in Washington politics in one year. The mountain the president had to climb in this regard was immense. To me, though, the biggest problem has been that Obama lacks a necessary partner in this epic struggle: Congress. As I wrote in September in the context of the health care debate, it seems to me that the Democrats in Congress have forgotten that the president won 365 electoral votes last November, and that the American people handed 59 seats in the Senate (before Arlen Specter's defection made it 60) and 256 seats in the House to the Democrats. From the fight over the stimulus legislation, through the battle over the budget, and careening right into the war over health care reform, Congressional Democrats seem to have forgotten that the American people bestowed a mandate on them to enact the president's agenda. For some inexplicable reason, they've been scared of the Republicans, who retain the ability to be obstructionist, but don't have any power to actually do anything. (Making the Republicans filibuster something is not a bad thing.)

If Obama has been timid, the Democrats in Congress have been straight-out terrified.

And despite the Democrats on Capitol Hill not pulling their share of the "change" weight, Obama did manage to get through stimulus legislation and important programs in the budget, and health care reform has gotten further along in the process than it ever has before. Not to mention the general competency and positive world view that Obama has brought to the White House, a huge change from his bumbling, toxic and disastrous predecessor.

At the same time, I would be lying if said I wasn't disappointed with Obama's leadership. I applauded his early efforts at bipartisanship, but once the Republicans revealed themselves to be completely uninterested in any kind of cooperation, only focused on blocking the president at every turn, his attempts to come up with bipartisan solutions morphed from being admirable to being naive and counterproductive. (I agree with Arianna that I couldn't care less what Olympia Snowe does or does not want in health care reform legislation.) I appreciated Obama's desire to learn from past mistakes and allow Congress to generate legislation, rather than imposing solutions on the legislators (after the Clinton administration's failed attempt at health care reform). But coming off the election, the president had enormous political capital (really a blank check to move forward with anything he campaigned for), and I can't help thinking that he didn't make enough use of it. Some more outspoken leadership was necessary (and missed).

And most of all, the president hasn't done enough to foster the idea that his is an administration of change, just like he promised. Arianna is unhappy that Larry Summers has an influential position in the Obama White House, and such an objection is understandable, given his close ties to the kind of deregulation, anything-goes attitude that contributed to creating the economic mess the administration now has to try and clean up. But to me, the problem isn't who the president does and doesn't hire. It all comes down to him. When he spoke to a joint session of Congress about health care, it re-ignited action on reform and turned the mood around. It was an important speech and an important show of leadership from the president. I'd like to see more moments like that one.

During the campaign, every time writers (and I was one of them, on occasion) groused that Obama wasn't hitting back hard enough when his opponents attacked, his strategy always seemed to pay off in the end, making the pundits look bad. So I can't help feeling like he must know what he is doing now, that there is a strategy behind his less-than-assertive public approach to his presidency. But as each day goes by, it becomes harder to have faith. As Arianna noted, the ability to make pitch-perfect course corrections during the campaign was a key to Obama's success. Hopefully, he will continue that trend in the second year of his presidency.

Just over 10 months ago Obama took the oath of office with unfair expectations hovering ominously over his head, so I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. But, as Arianna's article shows, that benefit is not extended by all, and it is not available indefinitely. One thing I think we can all agree on is that President Obama would benefit from a little infusion of Candidate Obama. The future of his presidency may depend on it.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

We Should Be Grateful that Obama is "Dithering"

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

Former Vice President Dick Cheney accused President Barack Obama on Wednesday of "dithering" on Afghanistan. I found this equally amusing and outrageous.

You see, we, as a country, would be a lot (and I mean a lot) better off right now if Cheney and his boss had done some dithering before invading Iraq. It would have been great if they dithered before starting an unnecessary war based on trumped up evidence. It would have been really great if they dithered enough to better understand the social, religious and political dynamics in the country before the invasion (so they wouldn't have, say, dismissed the entire Iraqi army, creating an insurgency in one rash action). And it would have been really, really great if Bush and Cheney had dithered before deciding not to make any changes while Iraq disintegrated between the time Bush stood in his big-boy flight suit in front of the "Mission Accomplished" banner and the 2006 election, when the American people punished the Republicans for Bush's utter failure in Iraq. (I don't consider Bush and Cheney having dithered between 2004 and 2006, because dithering involves thinking about options, something they were too stubborn to do.)

So now, we have one of the men responsible for one of the biggest foreign policy errors in the last 100 years of American history, largely because he didn't think and plan enough, telling the current president: "Signals of indecision out of Washington hurt our allies and embolden our adversaries." No, Mr. Cheney, what hurts our allies and emboldens our adversaries is making idiotic rash decisions and then holding to them, all evidence to the contrary.

Obama's careful consideration of what to do next in Afghanistan and Cheney's junior varsity football coach-like pronouncements on decisiveness reminded me of something that, I think, sometimes gets lost in the public discourse since last November's election. Obama's victory was, of course, a rejection of Bush-Cheney's failed economic and foreign policies of the previous eight years. But it was more than that, I think. It seems that one of Obama's main draws was that he was smart, competent and thoughtful. After eight years of a president who invaded a country without fully realizing that there were three different kinds of Muslims living there (who didn't really like each other), and who presided over an incompetent government that was revealed to be so to everyone after Hurricane Katrina (with Bush's never-to-be-lived-down praising of the former International Arabian Horse Association judges and stewards commissioner he put in charge of FEMA), the American people wanted someone in the White House who was up for the job.

Obama's election is often painted in ideological terms, but it was equally about competence and thoughtfulness. It was about electing a guy to run the country who would collect evidence, listen to people who know what they're talking about, and then make a sound decision. In a bitterly divided, red state-blue state, conservative-liberal country like ours, you don't win 365 electoral votes (and states like North Carolina, Virginia and Indiana) on ideology alone. Americans voted for Obama because they thought he would make sounder decisions than the guy who was in the White House at the time (and the guy from that party running this time around on a similar platform).

The problem in Afghanistan is not an easy one to solve. The country is known as the "graveyard of empires" for a reason. Foreign powers have not done well trying to impose their will on Afghanistan. Just ask the Russians, who failed only 30 years ago. And when Obama took office, Afghanistan had been neglected by the Bush administration for years while resources were diverted to Bush's folly in Iraq. There are no easy answers. There might not be any good answers. There might only be the least bad option. And it's clear, despite Cheney's childish outbursts (he's like an Old Faithful of silly pronouncements), that Obama gets all this. Whatever Obama decides to do, the one thing that most Americans want is that he considers all options carefully before making any major commitments of the lives of American soldiers (and their families) and of the billions of dollars it would cost to send more troops (money we desperately need at home).

One look at the two competing Afghanistan articles in the Op-Ed section of today's New York Times offers a clue of how complex the issue is. Nicholas Kristof argues in his column that in the post-World War II era, the United States has underestimated the strength of nationalism in numerous cases, from Vietnam to Latin American, with the Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan being particularly ardent in defending their sovereignty. Inches away, Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Max Boot uses a case study of one Marine regiment's success in restoring order to a village in the Helmand River Valley to assert that more U.S. troops are needed to replicate the operation in other places in the country. Neither argument is unreasonable or straight-out ridiculous (like, say, claiming that health care reform will lead to death panels, socialism and President Obama herding everyone into FEMA camps), even if most of us lean towards one point of view more than the other (count me in Kristof's corner).

The point is that Kristof and Booth offer two plausible, rational courses of action, and any competent decision-maker would carefully study and consider both proposals (and others) before sending 40,000 more Americans into harm's way (many of whom have already endured multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan). That isn't dithering, that's being a leader, a role that Cheney has demonstrated he is not very good at fulfilling (something with which retired general Paul Eaton apparently agrees).

The November election unquestionably gave Obama a mandate to carry out certain policies (something I wrote about last month), but it equally signaled that the American people want the president to make smart, reasoned decisions, and not to charge blindly down ideologically charted pathways. So not only is Obama right for dithering, but it is exactly what he was elected to do. To charge in recklessly like Cheney wants him to would be to engage in the very behavior that got Cheney's party thrown out of power in the last two major elections (2006 and 2008).

What if Bush and Cheney had dithered before invading Iraq? What if they had dithered before making the series of post-invasion horrendous decisions that doomed the first years of the occupation? Think about the thousands of dead soldiers (and their families), the hundreds of thousands of troops on multiple deployments (and their families) and the billions of dollars wasted in Iraq, all because Bush and Cheney didn't dither.

Thanks to Cheney, "dither" has taken on a new connotation for me. A word, once viewed as a negative, now sounds like a positive. Congrats to the former vice president. I guess you can say he finally accomplished something.

Meanwhile, I hope the president dithers as long as necessary to make the right decision on how to handle Afghanistan. I'm hoping that he starts the process of extricating us from a no-win situation, but no matter which option he chooses, at least we can all be confident that the decision will be a thoughtful one. Unlike the usual method employed by his predecessor.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

With "FlashForward," ABC Offers a Successor to "Lost" ... Kind of

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

There has been a lot of talk that "FlashForward" (ABC, Thursdays at 8:00 p.m. Eastern) is meant to be the network's successor to "Lost," what with the trippy sci-fi premise and Dominic Monaghan soon joining the cast. After watching the debut episode, which aired last week, I can't say I see the fit. But "FlashForward" has a lot going for it.

You've probably heard the premise by now: Every person in the world (well, nearly every person) blacks out at the same time for 2 minutes and 17 seconds, during which they see a vision of themselves in April 2010. As you can imagine, such an event can wreak havoc: planes fall out of the sky (including Air Force Two, carrying the vice president), cars crash, patients die on operating tables, and even someone walking up a staircase can fall to his death. And that's just the passing out element of the event. Seeing the future can be equally horrifying, whether it's a recovering alcoholic witnessing himself back on the bottle (like FBI agent Mark Benford, played by Joseph Fiennes), a wife seeing herself in the company of another man (like Mark's wife, Olivia, played by Sonya Walger, of "Tell Me You Love Me"), or a groom-to-be not having any vision at all (like Mark's partner, Demetri Noh, played by John Cho of "Star Trek" and the "Harold and Kumar" films), which leads him to believe he is going to die.

So "FlashForward" has a doozy of a premise. But does it turn that striking idea into good television? Mostly. You can see the sensibilities of executive producers Brannon Braga (who got his start working on the "Star Trek" series, beginning with "Next Generation," before moving on to "24") and David S. Goyer (the writer of several "Batman" films) all over "FlashForward," and it makes for an often compelling but sometimes odd fit. Goyer's sensibilities would appear to be several shades darker than Braga's, whose shows have been more direct.

Let's start with the positives. Fiennes, who has spent his post-"Shakespeare in Love" years going back and forth between doing theater and playing B-movie baddies for the paycheck (think Heather Graham's seducer and tormentor in the nudity-fest "Killing Me Softly"), puts both skills to good use as the classic troubled hero, an obviously devoted husband and father who, just as obviously, struggles with his demons, including his alcoholism. (One of my pet peeves is when an actor agrees to do a part even though he can't pull off the accent, so I am happy to report that Fiennes makes for a completely plausible American.) Cho is great as his partner, and Walger, while not the most convincing trauma doctor in the world, does a good job conveying how Olivia's vision has upended her stable world. And Courtney B. Vance was seemingly born to play tough-but-beloved authority figures, like his FBI commander Stanford Wedeck, who, in a light-hearted moment, says he was "in a meeting" in his flash-forward, before we see that he was reading the newspaper while on the toilet.

The story was engaging once it moved past the awkward character introductions necessary in pilots. The writers do a great job of keeping you focused not just on the global event, but on the lives of its main characters. Yes, they definitely go for the easy schmaltz a bit too often (Mark and Olivia's TV-approved adorable daughter; Olivia saving an injured 8-year-old boy; the event happening just as Olivia's colleague, Bryce Varley, played by Zachary Knighton, was about to commit suicide on the Venice pier; Mark and Olivia's model-gorgeous babysitter, who is in flagrante delicto with her boyfriend at the time of the event), but the story kept you on the edge of your seat, leading to two chilling moments at the end (one, which should have been predictable, having to do with a gift Mark is given by his daughter, still was effective).

But on the negative side, the schmaltz left "FlashForward" feeling far less weighty than "Lost." That can be a good thing, in that the underlying myth and sci-fi elements will seemingly be more accessible than the dense, hard-to-follow, fanatic-following-friendly plot twists of "Lost," so "FlashForward" should be less intimidating for potential viewers. But it can also be a bad thing, when it is just too much. Nearly every scene is jammed with a less-than-subtle, emotion-directing score, which I found exceptionally distracting. And the show is directed in a way to play up the soapy elements of the story, a great example being the long, multiple-pullback shots of Mark and his daughter when she gives him the gift. It not only felt like the last shot of an episode (there was still more to go), but it bordered on a parody of the emotional pre-commercial-break revelation we've seen on lesser programs. Throw in some stilted dialogue, and the whole thing feels kind of manipulative, going for a heavy-handed assault on the audience's emotions rather than letting the actors and the stories take viewers along on their own.

Considering only one episode has aired, though, it's only fair to acknowledge that "FlashForward" will have every chance to find its footing and settle on a tone that is more in keeping with its dynamite premise. The debut nabbed nearly 13 million viewers, so the show is off to a good start. Leading into ratings juggernaut "Grey's Anatomy" probably helped, so the pressure will be on for "FlashForward" to keep the viewers it was able to attract. If I had a flash-forward to April, I have a feeling it would reveal "FlashForward" to be one of the most successful new programs of the season.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

"Cougar Town" and "Accidentally on Purpose": More than Just Women with Younger Guys

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

Sitcom veterans Courteney Cox and Jenna Elfman are back on prime time network television, and based on how their characters are conducting their love lives, Chandler and Greg would be shocked. Beyond the older woman-younger guy themes, though, "Cougar Town" (ABC, Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. Eastern) and "Accidentally on Purpose" (CBS, Mondays at 8:30 p.m. Eastern) don't have a whole lot in common, reflecting the sensibilities of their networks more than their central plot device.

"Cougar Town," the new sitcom created by Bill Lawrence (the mastermind behind "Scrubs"; he co-wrote and directed the "Cougar Town" pilot), fits perfectly into ABC's wheelhouse. A single-camera comedy (like "Scrubs") that tries to take serious subject matter and combine it with wacky comedy (like "Scrubs"), but which also challenges the audience with its quick-cut, circuitous storytelling (like "Scrubs"). That formula often adds up to critical gushing (like I have done regularly about "Scrubs") and low ratings (like "Scrubs"). ABC has been the network most likely to take chances like this, seemingly reveling in programs, both in comedy and drama, that are high-quality but tough sells (like "Scrubs").

But "Cougar Town" has a secret weapon: A genuine sitcom star, one who spent 10 seasons on one of the most successful comedy series of all time (definitely not like "Scrubs"). If Cox can bring any kind of audience along with her, Lawrence and ABC might have a well-earned -- if surprising -- hit on their hands. Or, at least what passes for a hit nowadays with sitcoms, which really just entails bringing in a respectable audience that is strong in the advertiser-coveted demographic.

Despite the fun I had with the "Scrubs" comparisons, "Cougar Town" is really quite different in tone and feel, largely, I suspect, due to the presence of Cox, who is more than capable of taking the lead in a sitcom (after 10 years of sharing time with her five co-stars on "Friends"). Here, she plays real estate agent Jules, recently divorced from her ne'er (e'er, e'er, e'er) do well aspiring golf pro husband, Bobby (Brian Van Holt). Jules is trying to figure out how to navigate the dating scene as a 40-year-old woman, preferably without totally mortifying her high school-aged son, Travis ("Aliens in America"'s Dan Byrd, hopefully not finding himself in another well-received, low-rated, canceled-after-one-season sitcom).

Jules is not off to a great post-divorce start. As the premiere episode unfolds, we see that her young co-worker Laurie ("Freaks & Geeks" alumnae Busy Philipps) has made advertisement lawn signs for Jules using a sexy photo taken when they were drunk, and the placards soon become objects of theft for a besotted junior high school student. And it only goes downhill from there, as Jules causes a neighborhood kid to crash his bike when she flashes her bathrobe at him (she's wearing a bra and panties underneath), all to make a point to her newly divorced neighbor, Grayson (Josh Hopkins of "Swingtown"), who beds a succession of willing twentysomethings (he tells one as he leads her to her morning taxi, "It's not a walk of shame if I do it with you").

Meanwhile, Jules's long-time best friend (and next-door neighbor), Ellie (Lawrence's wife, Christa Miller, "Scrubs"), feels like she's losing Jules to Laurie, because Ellie is stuck at home with her baby boy (named Stan, prompting Laurie to ask her, "Stan? What is he, 60?") and her annoying husband, Andy (Ian Gomez of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding").

"Cougar Town" is funny, and in more ways than one. Cox has plenty of opportunities to exhibit her gift for physical comedy, whether it involves hunting and chasing her junior high school admirer or, as she does in the opening of the pilot, exploring every possible flabby portion of her body, from her elbows to her belly (the first of three times in the pilot that Cox strips down to next to nothing). She also does a great job with Lawrence's patented clever dialogue. (Her speech to Laurie, who wants her to go out more: "I have to act my age. I mean, one night out on the prowl, and the next thing you know, I'm at a Jonas Brothers concert wearing a mini skirt, sporting some giant collagen hot dog lips.")

And Cox's interactions with her co-stars work, especially with Byrd. The two have a very funny, very touching rapport, as you know Travis is absolutely humiliated by his mother's antics (he walks in on her while she is going down on a twentysomething boy toy; the next morning he takes the banana she is eating out of her hands and says, "You're not allowed to eat these anymore"), but at the same time, they connect. (An early exchange before Travis goes out with his friend Ryan: Jules, "Home by midnight. And if I ever catch you two drinking and driving I'm going to show everyone that baby picture of you two holding each other's penises. So small." Travis, "You know, Ryan's mom just says goodbye.")

But as funny as "Cougar Town" is, what sets it apart as a program is how Lawrence and Cox have built a character who subverts your expectations based on how films and television have handled newly divorced women in their 40s. Rather than be useless and needy, Jules is more nuanced, generally confused, determined not to be intimidated, but vulnerable just the same. She's not embarrassed to be single or sexual, and she's not ashamed to be caught in an embarrassing situation. When an older potential home buyer with a young trophy wife overhears Jules make a joke about the bedroom being where they'll find the "thousand-year-old husband" dead on his wife, the man calls down to her, "I'm sixty-four," to which an unbowed Jules snaps back, "Great acoustics," turning her faux pas into a selling point. Later, when the geezer overhears her making another crack about his age and tells her he is right above her, Jules calmly responds, "Yes you are," before adding, "Please buy the house."

While from the beginning Jules expresses her confusion of her new role to Laurie (who is always trying to get her to go out and look for men), really, it isn't until her behavior affects Travis that she becomes genuinely more conflicted about it. I think a telling moment occurs at the end of the premiere, after she promises Travis that she'll try not to embarrass him anymore. The second he is out the door, Jules's young lover emerges and they are off to the bedroom to go at it again. Jules loves her son, but it doesn't mean she is not going to try and live her new single life, too. And since she's a genuinely kind person (as we see in the way she takes care of her boorish ex-husband, to whom she pays alimony, as well as Travis, Laurie and Ellie) who in many moments seems comfortable with who she is, we root for her, especially after her speech to Grayson about how scary it is to be 40 and alone, knowing that her looks will fade and she will likely never get remarried (coming, of course, after a very funny moment when she yells across the street to Grayson, while he is with his latest very young conquest, "Stop having sex with babies!").

I hope that Cox's notoriety brings an audience to this quirky comedy. It deserves to be seen.

The very different "Accidentally on Purpose" is more in keeping with CBS's approach to sitcoms, a multi-camera comedy that is far broader than the more realistic situations and sets presented in "Cougar Town." Less like its Monday night cohorts "How I Met Your Mother" and "Big Bang Theory" and more in line with the approach of its other neighbor "Two and a Half Men" (not that it's awful like that show, but that it is broader in its comedy and conventionally filmed and presented, with only a few key locations and exceptionally stagy -- nice word for "fake" -- sets), "Accidentally on Purpose" puts Elfman (of "Dharma and Greg") into the role of Billie, a San Francisco film critic (in the poshest news room in the history of television) who has recently broken up with her wealthy boss (there are wealthy people in the dying newspaper business?), James (Grant Show, another "Swingtown" alum finding a spot on a new sitcom), because he won't propose to her.

Like Jules, Billie's best friend, Olivia (Ashley Jensen, Ricky Gervais's pal on "Extras"), pushes her to go out, and with her sister Abby (Lennon Parham) in tow, they end up at a bar at which a twentysomething "second assistant to a semi-important sous chef" ("Basically, I boil things"), Zack (Jon Foster "Life as We Know It"), and his doofus friends hit on Billie. Billie goes home with Zack, and the two continue on for five weeks, when Billie finds herself pregnant. After about three seconds of thinking about it, she decides to have the baby, since she thinks it may be her last chance. She tells Zack, who says he wants to be a part of the baby's life, and when he loses his room after his friend's brother gets out of prison (he tells Billie, "not violent, drug-related"), she asks him to move into her posh apartment (on a film critic's salary?), but just as friends. No sex involved.

The rest of the pilot of "Accidentally on Purpose" is predictable. James tells Billie he's ready to take their relationship to the next level (he says they can live together, which in his mind means spending some nights at his place, some nights at hers), and before Billie can say anything, Zack shows up and James finds out Billie is pregnant by him. The two nearly come to blows, age jokes are tossed around, and you can't decide if you're more amused or bored by something you've seen a million times before. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.

"Accidentally on Purpose" has its comic moments. (Cute lines like, Billie: "What was I supposed to do? Let the father of my child live in a van so he can be hacked up by some crazy drifter?" Olivia: "He lives in a van. He is the crazy drifter.") Elfman is a talented comedian. I liked Parham's funny deadpan delivery. (Billie: "Holy crap, you didn't tell mom." Abby, with a panicked look: "Okay.").

I'm sure I'll continue to watch "Accidentally on Purpose." But it's not at the level of "Cougar Town." Billie (like the rest of the characters on the show) lives up to every cliche that Jules explodes. Not to overthink a silly sitcom (Who am I kidding? That's what I do), but it's almost like Billie is punished for having a sexually-driven relationship with a younger man by getting pregnant, and it's only through making the relationship about more than sex that the bond is validated. In contrast, at the end of "Cougar Town," Jules is about to have an encore with her fling, seemingly guilt- (and punishment-) free.

With sitcoms becoming a dying art, I am always happy to see new half-hour comedies on the air that are actually funny. "Accidentally on Purpose," largely based on the charms of its star, could very well provide some laughs on Mondays after "How I Met Your Mother." But "Cougar Town," thanks to the combination of Cox and Lawrence, and the funny and compelling world they've created, has a chance to be more than that, a worthy successor to Lawrence's "Scrubs," but maybe this time with a larger audience. I would be very happy to see that happen.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

NBC Makes History with "The Tonight ...", er, I Mean "The Jay Leno Show" in Prime Time

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

If you tuned into the premiere episode of "The Jay Leno Show" on Monday (NBC, Mondays through Fridays, 10:00 p.m. Eastern), you might not have realized that you were witnessing a seminal moment in television history.

No, I don't mean the show itself. Despite a lot of claims to the contrary, "The Jay Leno Show" is essentially the "The Tonight Show," with some cosmetic changes thrown in to let the audience know it's nominally a new program: Leno and his guest sit in Tom Snyder-like easy chairs rather than the host taking the power position behind a desk. The stage is adjacent to the audience now, allowing crowd members to swarm Leno when he emerges to do his monologue. The set is a bit glitzier, as if it had to get gussied up for prime time. And the order of things is slightly mixed up (on Monday, "Headlines" was last, after the musical performance).

But, in substance, nothing has really changed from May when Leno bade farewell to "The Tonight Show." There is a monologue, regular comedy features (like "Headlines" and "Jaywalking"), celebrity guests and musical performances (Monday's music segment was really good, featuring Jay Z, Rihanna and Kanye West), and Kevin Eubanks continues to lead the band.

It seems unlikely to me that anyone who didn't like Leno as the host of "The Tonight Show" will suddenly embrace his new prime time venture, nor do I think any of the comic's fans will like the 10:00 p.m. version of the program any less. It's not like the jokes are any different. If you thought Leno's "Tonight Show" monologues leaned too heavily on predictable shots at easy targets (as I did), then you will likely feel the same way about the opening of "The Jay Leno Show." If you found features like "Headlines" banal (as I did), nothing has changed just by moving the bit to the 10:00 p.m. hour. And if you weren't a fan of Leno's approach to interviews (as I wasn't), putting the guest in more comfortable seating likely won't change your mind.

That said, if you were a fan of "The Tonight Show," there is no reason you should be any less pleased with "The Jay Leno Show." "The Tonight Show" booked the most prestigious guests of any talk show on television (thanks to its L.A. location and solid ratings), and while CBS and ABC have banned their prime time stars from appearing on "The Jay Leno Show," the rule doesn't apply to A-list movie stars (like Tom Cruise and Halle Berry) and A-list comedians (like Jerry Seinfeld, all of whom appeared this week), so Leno will likely continue ruling the guest-booking roost. And if "The Jay Leno Show" is at all successful, we'll have to see if CBS and ABC stick to their guns, since they will be hard-pressed to turn down a chance to plug their programming on a prime time network platform, an opportunity that is not so easy to come by.

Really, the least interesting thing about the launch of "The Jay Leno Show" this week was the program itself. As I said, really, a review can be summed up in two sentences: If you liked "The Tonight Show" when Leno hosted it, you'll like "The Jay Leno Show." If you didn't like "The Tonight Show" when Leno hosted it, then you won't like "The Jay Leno Show."

No, the real story is that with the 2009-2010 season bowing this week, we are experiencing what I think is the biggest single change in the structure of prime time network television since Fox cemented its status as a legitimate fourth network in 1993 by acquiring the rights to broadcast NFL football (and, as a result, adding to its affiliate roster nationally). Just as the ascension of Fox increased prime time network television real estate by nearly a third, NBC, by launching the nightly "Jay Leno Show," decreased its programming by nearly a quarter (abdicating five of the 22 hours a week it provides prime time coverage).

(You could argue that "Survivor" becoming a huge hit in 2000, ushering in the current era of reality programming, represented a seismic shift, but at the time "Survivor" hit the air, I don't think anyone knew it would mean the networks would flood their schedules with non-fiction programming, at the expense of dramas and comedies. And the FCC's 1995 repeal of its rule banning networks from owning shows led to a wholesale change in how programs are produced, but the rule change primarily affected the business side of the industry and was fairly transparent to the average TV viewer.)

Last year, when NBC announced that it had retained Leno by handing over the 10:00 p.m. weeknight block to him, it was shocking, and we knew it was a once-in-a-generation kind of change in television (I wrote about it here). But now it's not theoretical anymore. The moment has arrived. A talk show will now run five days a week in prime time. When you turn on NBC at 10:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, instead of a new drama (even though, according to Entertainment Weekly, 72 percent of new dramas launched between 2004 and 2008 did not make it to a second season anyway), or even a new reality show, it will be Leno, always Leno. Edgy one-hour dramas like "Southland" (which I reviewed positively in the spring) will have to try and make a go of it in a 9:00 p.m. slot -- and in the case of "Southland," on Fridays, rather than at 10:00 p.m. on Thursdays, where it aired last season, following NBC's demographically successful comedy block.

Sure, the move could be extremely profitable for NBC. Talk shows are dirt cheap to produce (even with a big star like Leno) compared to one-hour dramas, so "Leno" could make a ton of money at a ratings number that would get a program like "Southland" canceled instantly. And maybe there is more to it than the more-profit-for-less-viewers swap. Maybe NBC envisions a post-fiction television landscape in which the current trend toward fixating on celebrities (whether that means A-list stars or reality show creations) will only become more intense. Leno was always a go-to place for someone in the public eye to confront a scandal or problem (think Hugh Grant after getting busted for soliciting a hooker), and maybe, in prime time, this function will become even more prominent. Maybe NBC sees Leno as the prime time centerpiece of a new television era.

After all, on Leno's very first show, Kanye West talked about his "jackass" moment at the MTV Video Music Awards, a prime time platform for the rehabilitation of his public image. (I know some people thought Leno was too hard on West, but I didn't think he was at all. Although, I did think it was cheesy that Leno acted so sincerely with West on Monday and then made lame jokes at his expense in the next night's monologue.)

But the facts are the facts. With this move, NBC has essentially turned itself into a two-hour-a-night network (like Fox). And there is no way to get past the fact that NBC, which was a ratings juggernaut in the 1990s, but which fell to the bottom of the viewership battle in recent years, has essentially quit the race, leaving ABC, CBS and Fox to battle it out for eyeballs (at least when looking at the 10:00 p.m. block and, probably, the overall ratings, too). Such a decision not only radically changes the television landscape, but it will have a lasting imprint on NBC, especially as it tries to develop new programming (if you were a producer, would you want to work with NBC, knowing that there are five fewer hours a week available for your show compared to ABC and CBS?). NBC's decision to install Leno at 10:00 p.m. is huge, and the fallout -- expected and unexpected, positive and negative -- will no doubt shake out over the months and years to come.

For now, Leno fans will enjoy seeing him 90 minutes earlier, and those who don't find Leno funny will have to to look to NBC and CBS for network entertainment at 10:00 p.m. But all of us have witnessed a major change in how network television functions. And for anyone who enjoys scripted dramas and comedies (or even reality programs), it's certainly not a change for the better.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Baucus Health Care Bill Debacle Reminds Us that Democrats Have to Forget About Trying to Woo Republican Lawmakers

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

When it comes to policy positions, I certainly agree with the Democrats far more than the Republicans. (Do the Republicans still have policy positions? Does really, really hating the president, making decisions based primarily on hurting the president politically instead of what is good for the American people, and lying about the president's programs in an attempt to scare people qualify as a policy position? I'd say not. But I digress ...)

But when it comes to how to wield power in Washington once you've won an election, give me the Republicans over the Democrats any day of the week. I was reminded of the Democrats' seeming inability to govern when I read about the health care bill that finally emerged from Max Baucus's Senate Finance Committee, after months of negotiations with three Republicans on the committee.

(To be absolutely clear here, so there are no misunderstandings: When I say that Republicans govern better than Democrats do, I am strictly speaking about how effectively they turn their policy positions into law. I am not saying I want the Republicans to retake the House and Senate, and I do not support the Republican positions on issues, which generally look to protect corporations and the wealthiest Americans at the expense of everyone else, and seek to instill an extreme, religion-based morals agenda on the country. What I'm saying is that I wish the Democrats would act like Republicans once they find themselves in power.)

For most of George W. Bush's two terms in office, especially during the key period from 2002 to 2006, he had a solidly Republican Congress with which to work. So, despite a razor-thin win in 2000 (losing the popular vote and, in the minds of many, only winning the electoral vote thanks to a flawed, partisan Supreme Court decision), and another narrow victory in 2004, as president, Bush made no effort to moderate his agenda and pursue bipartisan legislation. His party allies in Congress loyally backed nearly all of his proposals, and Bush gleefully rammed through his far-right conservative agenda (massive tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans, etc.), which was well to the right of his campaign rhetoric (remember, he was a "compassionate conservative"), without thinking twice about what Democrats thought of what he was doing. His razor-thin margin of victory (and even the fact that fewer people voted for him than his opponent in 2000) didn't stop him (or his allies in Congress) from moving full-speed ahead with legislation he supported.

Flash forward to 2008. The American people, via their votes, absolutely and unquestionably repudiated the Republican policies of the previous eight years. After giving Democrats narrow advantages in the House and Senate in 2006, voters really "threw the bums out" in 2008, leaving Democrats with a 60-40 majority in the Senate (once Al Franken was seated) and an even more commanding 256-178 lead in the House. The American people also overwhelmingly elected a Democrat to the presidency, handing Barack Obama 365 electoral votes (to 173 for John McCain), with 53 percent of the popular vote going to Obama and only 46 percent to McCain. In two elections, Bush never came close to these kinds of numbers. And Obama managed to win red states like North Carolina and Indiana that few commentators thought the Democrats could even have a chance of taking just a couple of years earlier.

In short, the American people said to the Democrats: We want you to do your thing.

And yet, that isn't what has happened. Instead, the Democrats in Congress have been timid, looking for Republican support (and making concessions to get it) even though they didn't need it. At first, it was an admirable pursuit, an effort to leave partisan bickering behind and concentrate on solving the massive problems the current administration and Congress inherited from the disastrous presidency that preceded them. And it was something the president not only supported, but actively pursued. But in the first big legislative test of the bipartisan approach, the stimulus bill, not a single House member voted for the legislation, and only a pair of Republicans in the Senate signed on (it was three, but Arlen Specter later became a Democrat, leaving just Maine's two senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, as current Republicans who voted for the bill).

The result was weaker stimulus legislation (to try and lure Republicans), but no Republican support. That is a lose-lose for the Democrats (and those suffering from the recession), and a win-win for the Republicans.

The stimulus bill should have been a wake-up call for Democrats in Congress. The way the Republicans stood united in opposition despite Democratic efforts at bipartisanship should have announced loud and clear that the Republicans had no intention of acting reasonably. They had successfully closed ranks, ensuring that not one single Republican in the House voted for the bill and that they didn't help the president succeed on something that might be viewed as a "win" for him. It should have been a "fool me once" moment from which the Democrats emerged wiser, going forward with the knowledge that the Republicans were only out to obstruct (it was the moment of birth for the Party of No). It should have emboldened Democrats to say, "We won 256 House seats, 60 Senate seats and the presidency. We get to make the rules now. Your guy pushed through his agenda after losing the popular vote. We tried to be nice, and you kicked crap in our faces. We're done. Have fun on the sidelines watching us enact our agenda."

But that's not what happened.

Yes, I understand that you need 60 votes in the Senate to invoke cloture, and yes I know that there is a good size contingent of Blue Dog Democrats in the House and more conservative Democrats in the Senate who would be reluctant to sign off on some of the president's initiatives. Certainly, compromises would have to be made to ensure that enough Democrats supported a given piece of legislation. But those negotiations should have been handled internally. After the stimulus fiasco, the Democrats should have ensured that when they emerged from a caucus meeting on an issue, they had enough votes to pass it without Republican help, just as Bush and his Republican followers did when they were in power.

And yet, instead, the Democrats keep playing the fool.

Which brings us back to the Baucus debacle. He spent months -- months! -- negotiating with three Republicans (Olympia Snowe, Chuck Grassley and Mike Enzi) to try and get a bipartisan health care reform bill through his finance committee. Anybody with an IQ above 75 and access to a major daily newspaper knew that there was no meaningful health care reform bill that Enzi and Grassley were going to get behind. Did Baucus listen to and/or read the kinds of things Grassley was saying in interviews and on talk shows? (Two words: death panels.) The Republicans weren't going to give the president a win (remember Jim DeMint's famous health care will be Obama's "Waterloo" remark), and they were too beholden to their corporate interests to support anything that would have any real impact on the status quo. The Republicans were obviously stalling, trying to do anything they could to keep the health care reform process from moving forward. Again, this was all obvious to everyone watching ... except Baucus.

So what ended up happening? Baucus announced today that he was going forward with a bill and ... surprise! ... no Republicans are backing it (not even Snowe). But, thanks to Baucus bending over backwards to try and lure Republicans, the Finance Committee bill is weaker than any of the other versions to get through committees in the House and Senate. Enzi, Grassley and Snowe managed to stall the process for months and ensure a weaker bill emerged from the Finance Committee, and they did so without having to actually do anything or give up anything (or support the legislation). Who won that battle, Baucus or the Republicans? If it was a boxing match, Baucus would be bloody and unconscious, and Enzi, Grassley and Snowe would be dancing around the ring, triumphantly holding their hands up in victory.

What Baucus (and the rest of the Democrats in Congress) have to realize is some exceptionally simple math: 60 seats in the Senate + 256 seats in the House + 365 electoral votes = They get to do what they said they would do during the campaign. It really is that simple. Make the Republicans vote against the bills. Make them filibuster what they oppose. Expose them for what they are: the Party of No that puts political games and corporate interests ahead of what is best for the American people.

But no, to Baucus, 60 + 256 + 365 = He has to get on his knees and kiss Republican butt. Sorry, Senator, you get an F in math.

The Democrats won overwhelmingly last November. Now they have to govern. Especially after the way Republicans played them for fools on the stimulus legislation, Democrats don't have to kowtow to Republicans. They need to get in a room and come up with health care legislation that the 59 Democratic senators (after Ted Kennedy's passing) -- or 51 of them if they go the reconciliation route --and 218 House members can get behind (and that the president will sign) and get it done. If Republicans want to filibuster, vote no, complain, spew lies, hold rallies, go on talk shows, call Obama a socialist, and throw temper tantrums, let them. I am not saying the Democrats shouldn't fight the public relations battle and shoot down the lies slopped to the public by health care reform opponents, I'm just saying they should do it while passing legislation on their own.

To the Democrats I say: Forget Baucus's bill. Don't give the Republicans another victory (one which represents a defeat for the American people). Pass meaningful health care reform, even if not a single Republican votes for it.

60 + 256 + 365. The math is so easy. If only the Democrats could figure it out. I'm happy to email them a link to the election returns every day if it will help.

Rahm Emanuel and Chuck Schumer taught the Democrats how to win elections, which is great. I just wish someone would teach Democrats in Congress how to govern.