Sunday, December 19, 2010

Glad to See DADT Gone, But the Underlying Bigotry Remains

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

Don't Ask, Don't Tell has been repealed (once President Obama signs the bill). Finally. We are a better, stronger, safer country than we were before the vote. But let's not break our arms patting ourselves on the back.

Why am I so grumpy? No, it's not because I'm Scrooge. (By the way, Happy Holidays to everyone, and yes, I do mean "Happy Holidays." Unlike the systematic discrimination against gays and lesbians allowed by Don't Ask, Don't Tell, I prefer to be sensitive to the fact that not everyone celebrates any given holiday in December. So let the "War on Christmas" bull begin.)

I'm grumpy because the positive aspects of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal pale in comparison to the problems that still surround the larger issue of how we treat gays and lesbians, especially when you consider how long it took for the repeal to arrive, and how much garbage had to be endured to get there.

Even with the repeal, it seems like it's still acceptable in some circles to openly disparage gays and lesbians, in a way that would not be tolerated with religious, ethnic or racial groups. For example, John McCain, in defending Don't Ask, Don't Tell, said, "I think [our troops are] mature enough to make a judgment on who they want to serve with and the impact on their battle effectiveness."

What if McCain legitimized the choice of not wanting to serve with African Americans? Or Jews? Or Latinos? Would his statement be deemed acceptable? Of course not. He would have been the subject of widespread condemination. So why is it okay with gays and lesbians? It's not. The only difference is that we, as a society, allow bigotry against gays and lesbians that we once allowed against African Americans, Jews and other minorities.

(Not to mention that the troops said in a survey that they didn't mind serving alongside openly gay colleagues.)

I've been doing a lot of reading in the last few months about the first half of the 20th century, especially the period from the early 1930s to the late 1950s. Obviously, there is a lot to be proud of during that era, especially how the country mobilized to win World War II. But the era also featured some shameful and mind-blowing actions by the U.S. and its citizens that make you wonder how we didn't learn our lesson about oppressing a minority people. From sending Japanese Americans to internment camps to the outrageous mistreatment of African Americans, especially those serving our country in the armed forces, we did things that would make even the modern day Tea Party blush (well, maybe not ... we have our birthers).

So why are we allowing oppression now with gays and lesbians? We have public debates over gay marriage in the way we once argued over miscegenation. The bullying of gay teens also has echoes in past treatment of minorities in this country.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell seems to follow our pattern: We get where we should be, but only after condoning shameful behavior for too long. (Tell me you can't imagine a teenager in 2050, struggling to comprehend what he is hearing, saying to his father, "Wait, we kicked qualified people out of the armed forces while we were in two wars because they were gay? Are you kidding me? Why?" Just as a teenager today would not be able to understand that African Americans were not only separated from white soldiers during World War II, but were often treated worse than some German prisoners of war, for example, in being denied access to food and entertainment enjoyed by whites.)

It's telling that when I expressed my sentiments about the Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal on my Facebook page, a commenter wrote that it was nice to see such a response coming from someone who is straight. I completely understand her reaction, but it's a shame that she had to feel that way. Gay or straight, every American who cares about the basic American value of equal treatment under the law should oppose the oppression of any minority, whether a member of that group or not.

We may have won the battle over Don't Ask, Don't Tell, but it seems to me there is a lot left to do on the bigger question of how we, as a country, treat people we perceive as different.

I think a big part of the problem is the right-wing propaganda machine, which creates an environment in which intolerance can flourish. In my reading about the 1930s, I was struck by how the era had its version of both Rush Limbaugh (the hateful, racist, anti-Semitic Father Charles Coughlin) and Glenn Beck (the snake oil salesman turned snake oil salesman/radio mogul John Brinkley). (Bruce Lenthall's "Radio's America: The Great Depression and the Rise of the Mass Culture" has a great chapter on Coughlin and Brinkley.) It occurred to me that while the popularity of these divisive figures eventually waned, it might have been different if they had the support of an organized, right-wing propaganda infrastructure as exists today. (By now, you've all probably read the study that shows that Fox News is successful in meeting its goal of disseminating misinformation, as its viewers are epically uninformed on the facts of the day. Similarly, Paul Krugman's column on Friday noted that the Republicans on the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission voted to exclude the terms “deregulation,” “shadow banking,” “interconnection,” and “Wall Street” from the commission's report, insisting on the inclusion of "facts" that are not, in fact, true. More evidence that the right wing has successfully built a structure of its own "facts" that are at odds with reality.)

So you'll forgive me if I'm not risking spraining my ankle jumping for joy over a Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal that is 17 years too late (it should have never been adopted) and took overcoming GOP filibusters and entrenched opposition to be achieved. (I hope you can handle the fact that McCain thinks it was a "sad day," even as he once supported the repeal if the military leaders supported it, which they now do.)

To me, the story isn't how enlightened we are to allow gay and lesbian Americans to serve their country, but rather how, yet again, we were slow to stop oppressing a group because its members are perceived as different. And we continue to allow mistreatment of gays and lesbians in a way that would be viewed as unacceptable for racial, religious and ethnic minorities. It reminds me that we seemed to learn nothing from our abhorrent institutional treatment of African Americans, Japanese-Americans and others in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.

I'm overjoyed that Don't Ask, Don't Tell is dead. But I can't help but find more bad than good associated with its repeal.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Why Sarah Palin's North Korea Flub Matters

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

Sarah Palin provided prime material for news outlets and comedy programs when she said on Glenn Beck's radio show Wednesday:

"But obviously, we've got to stand with our North Korean allies."

If she hasn't already, I'm sure Palin will say that the "elitist," "lamestream" media is doing her wrong, and that she is once again a victim of "gotcha journalism." And Palin's small but passionate group of supporters will undoubtedly argue that Palin made an honest slip of the tongue, something that could happen to any of us. Her supporters are right. Saying "North" instead of "South" is something that any of us could easily do.

But here's the thing: Any of us did not stand up two years ago and claim we were qualified to fill a job that is a heartbeat away from the American presidency. We haven't written books, made speeches, endorsed candidates and spoken to the (mostly right-wing) media as if we were policy experts. And we haven't been scouting office space in Iowa for a 2012 presidential run.

In short, more should be expected of Sarah Palin than any of us, based on how she has portrayed herself, and how she is treated by the media.

The real story, though, isn't that Palin said "North" instead of "South." Let's be honest: Vice President Joe Biden could have just as easily blown a line like that.

No, the real story is that Palin was discussing a complex, precarious, highly dangerous issue as if she was an expert, even though she clearly isn't.

Does anyone outside of Palin's relatively small group of smitten followers honestly believe that she is competent to act as an expert on Korean policy? That she knows the intricacies and risks of engaging with the North Koreans? That she understands the possible leadership struggle going on there? Do you think she has the first clue about the history of Korea over the last century? Do you think she's ever heard of Syngman Rhee, the Bodo League massacre, the Battle of Inchon, or National Security Council Report 68, or that she knows about the decades of Japanese rule in Korea? Do you think she's ever read about the role the propaganda efforts of the post-Stalin Soviet government played in the eventual armistice that ended the fighting?

Doubtful, at best.

Now, do you doubt for a second that Joe Biden could reel off a dissertation-level analysis of these issues from the top of his head?

That's the real story about the Palin flub about North Korea that the media isn't covering. It's not that she misspoke, but that anyone cared what she had to say on the issue in the first place.

Sarah Palin, with her reliance on spouting talking points, simplistic approach to issues and complete lack of experience beyond a half term as governor of a state the size of Columbus, Ohio is not competent to be discussing North Korea. And shame on any media outlet that treats her opinions as if they're worth anything.

The real damning Palin quote in the Beck interview is the one in which she worries if "the White House is gonna come out with a strong enough policy to sanction what it is that North Korea's gonna do." Putting aside her usual butchering of the English language, she takes a complicated problem facing the United States (and the world) and reduces it to a talking-point political attack on the president.

Her comment reveals that she has no understanding that we are dealing with a North Korean leadership that may not be rational and may even be self-destructive. And one with the firepower to kill legions of South Korean civilians. To her simplistic, politics-driven approach, it's only about how the Democratic president isn't tough enough. (As an aside, she is talking about a president who has increased troops in Afghanistan, stepped up drone attacks on the enemy, and taken out more Taliban and al-Qaida leaders than George W. Bush ever did, but I digress ...)

She recklessly portrays the North Korea crisis as one that is simple and only requires American strength, when, in reality, it is a difficult-to-solve issue fraught with danger. It is complicated and nuanced, and one wrong move could lead to an attack on Seoul.

I wonder if Palin would be so cavalier in her approach if North Korea's missiles could reach Anchorage, Dallas or some other city in Real America?

And this person wants to be president? It's a joke.

Palin's "North"-for-"South" flub matters, but not because she misspoke. It matters because we, as a country, are acting as if she is some kind of policy expert, when, in reality, she is simple-minded and ignorant. She can say the wrong name, just like us. But just like most of us, she has no business acting like she understands the North Korea crisis in the first place.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Three Good Things for Progressives to Take from the Midterm Election Results

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

It's been apparent for some time that Election Day 2010 would not be a good one for the Democrats. Midterm elections generally don't go well for the president's party, and when you throw in high unemployment and a sputtering economy, it becomes an especially tough hill to climb.

So I had no illusions about the 2010 midterms. But there are three things about the GOP gains this year that made me especially angry.

First, it's frustrating that public perception was largely based on lies about health care, stimulus and government spending. In addition to the more publicized fabrications like death panels (Sharron Angle was pushing the death panel lie as recently as last week), GOP ads also exaggerated the costs and effect on the deficit of the health care legislation (as determined by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office). The ads also exaggerated the nature of federal spending since President Obama took office.

As I often say, I'm happy to have a debate over government policy, but the debate should be based on the actual facts, not lies manufactured by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and the rest of the right-wing propaganda machine.

Second, it's frustrating that Americans have such short memories. It was George W. Bush and a Republican congress who, over the course of most of the last decade, plunged the United States into the worst economic situation since the Great Depression, widening the gap between the wealthy and middle class to levels not seen for nearly a century. And it was traditionally conservative principles of deregulation and unfettered corporate power that created the housing bubble and nearly brought down the financial system.

But the voters are now trusting the same people responsible for leaving the country in tatters, who are proposing the same failed strategies again, to fix the problem? It makes no sense.

It's unreasonable to think the Democrats could fix this deep mess in less than two years. And it's even more irrational to punish the Democrats, who at least made efforts to start undoing the GOP-inflicted damage, while rewarding the Republicans, who practiced strategic obstruction, putting political gain over finding solutions that would help Americans in need.

Finally, it's frustrating that the dishonest campaign waged by Tea Party-dominated Republicans was funded by a post-Citizens United flood of millions of dollars of anonymous corporate and private money, with figures like Karl Rove, the Koch brothers and the Chamber of Commerce essentially buying the election.

Back in January, when the Supreme Court, in a fit of judicial activism, made new law in Citizens United, I wrote the following:

"Corporate interests, which already dominate Washington politics and prevent any meaningful change that would be helpful to average Americans (and who own too many members of Congress, especially on the GOP side but, unfortunately, from both parties), have now had their power reinforced and expanded. Citizens United is nothing short of a massive change in the way American politics will function."

The 2010 midterms showed the first signs of what the Supreme Court has done to our democracy.

Despite my points of anger, and despite a big victory for the Republicans on Election Day, I can find three positives to take from the midterm election results.

1. Mainstream Americans rejected the Tea Party. At first glance, you may well think that I've lost my mind with that statement. But answer me this: Can you name one contest for a U.S. House, U.S. Senate or gubernatorial seat in which a Tea Party candidate won a race that a mainstream Republican would have lost? I know I can't. And I'm sure you can't either. The Tea Party didn't earn a single seat for Republicans.

But if you reverse the question, you get a very different answer. The nomination of Tea Party candidates undoubtedly cost the GOP seats. Mike Castle would have been nearly unbeatable in Delaware, but when he was defeated by Christine O'Donnell in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, the party handed victory to Democrat Chris Coons. (A Democrat also defeated a Tea Party candidate for Castle's old House seat, making this a double loss for the GOP.) The Tea Party also improbably allowed Harry Reid to hold his seat in Nevada. The unpopular Senate majority leader surely would have been dispatched if the Republicans had put up any credible candidate. Instead, they offered Tea Party zealot Sharron Angle, and the result was a surprise Democratic victory. One has to wonder if West Virginia, which has voted for Republicans in the last three presidential elections, might have sent a Republican to Washington to fill Robert Byrd's Senate seat if the party had nominated a more mainstream candidate than John Raese. And if the less-than-popular Michael Bennett can hold off Tea Party extremist Ken Buck in Colorado, it will certainly only be because the Republicans didn't nominate a mainstream Republican.

Simply put, mainstream America's rejection of the Tea Party could have cost the Republicans control of the Senate.

And it's not just the races Republicans lost. In a red state like Kentucky, in a year like this one, a GOP Senate candidate should have won easily, but Rand Paul's race was fairly close, requiring the party (and its wealthy anonymous supporters) to pour millions into the state. In solidly red Alaska, what should have been a low-effort romp for incumbent Lisa Murkowski is now a free-for-all between Murkowski (now a write-in candidate), Tea Party Friend of Palin Joe Miller (who secured the GOP nomination over Murkowski) and Democrat Scott McAdams. And in Pennsylvania, Tea Partier Pat Toomey edged Joe Sestak for a Pennsylvania U.S. Senate seat. But given GOP victories elsewhere in the state (for governor and in the race for Sestak's old House seat), you have to wonder if a mainstream Republican would have defeated Sestak fairly easily.

In these and other races, the effect of the Republicans choosing a Tea Party candidate as a nominee was to give life to Democratic candidates that otherwise would have been easily dispatched.

Both of the gubernatorial candidates on my Tea Party All-Star team handed gifts to Democrats tonight. While Andrew Cuomo probably would have defeated Rick Lazio, it certainly would have been closer than the non-race with Tea Party crazy Carl Paladino. And Colorado elected Democrat John Hickenlooper after the GOP chose Tea Partier Dan Maes, who was such a disaster as a candidate that by election day he was polling in the single digits, far below a conservative third-party candidate (who is so extreme, he said that Barack Obama was more dangerous than al-Qaida).

In short, while the Tea Party was successful in essentially taking over the Republican Party, its nominees were not attractive to mainstream voters. The presence of a Tea Party candidate on a ballot improved the chances of the Democrat in that race.

2. It's easy to be tough when you are just talking. Tea Party-fueled Republicans talked a tough game in this campaign. They told us that Barack Obama was the problem. They told us they are going to cut everyone's taxes. They told us they are going to lower the deficit. They told us they are going to slash spending. They told us they are going to repeal health care reform. And they told us they aren't going to compromise.

But it's easy to talk. Now some of these firebrands will have to serve in the House and Senate. Which means they have two choices, neither of which bode well for them. Either they have to compromise with the president, the man they have told us is so horrible, and go back on their promises to essentially burn the political establishment to the ground. Or, they can stick to their word, but then they will have to cast votes that may not be as easy as they thought it would be. Are they going to shut down the government? (When Newt Gingrich did it in 1994, it cost the Republicans dearly, as the American people blamed the GOP.) People are always in favor of theoretically cutting government spending, but when asked about specific programs, these same people will often oppose the specific cuts. That is a lesson the Tea Party Republicans are about to learn the hard way. Sure, their constituents loved it when they promised to cut spending, but will the voters be happy when the cuts result in fired police officers, closed schools and reduced benefits? Doubtful.

When faced with a delicate balance of trying to shrink deficits, lower taxes and cut spending, these new Tea Party-fueled Republicans are going to find themselves trying to solve a puzzle with no easy solutions.

David Brooks argued in the New York Times Monday that there will be few Tea Party zealots refusing to compromise in the House, and Republicans will govern modestly. He's living in a wishful-thinking fantasy world. A look at the candidates winning many House and Senate races on Election Day paints a very different picture. The Tea Party zealots are there, and they've painted themselves into a corner.

3. Democracy works, even if you don't like the results. One of my favorite things about American democracy is that, time and time again, the system proves itself as effective. That's not to say elections always result in the best results for the country. Far from it. No, I mean that elections give the people exactly what they voted for. A great example is 2004. After four years of Bush's presidency, we knew everything there was to know about him, from his religiously-fueled extreme right wing beliefs, to his pro-corporate/pro-wealthy/anti-middle-class economic agenda, to his simple-minded and dangerous foreign policy, to his lack of respect for the rule of law. It was all there.

And yet, the American people chose to give him four more years in the White House. And what happened? Bush continued doing what he had done the previous four years, botching the war in Iraq so badly that voters handed both houses of Congress to the Democrats in 2006, and bungling the economy so thoroughly that Barack Obama was elected in 2008.

Similarly, every one of the major pieces of legislation Obama shepherded through Congress (namely, health care, stimulus, and financial reform) were the very policies he promised to work on if he was elected. Again, Americans got what they voted for.

So now, in 2010, the electorate has decided to hand control of the House and more Senate seats to Tea Party-controlled Republicans. And by 2012, we will see what that decision brings us. Based on the track record of the Bush presidency and the GOP obstructionism of the first two years of the Obama presidency, it doesn't bode well for the country.

It's been easy for the Republicans to spend the last two years demonizing and obstructing the president, blaming all the country's problems on his policies. Well now the GOP has a share of the power, and they can no longer just sit back and throw rocks at the president.

In fact, that is my favorite takeaway from the midterm results: The Republicans are on the hook for the country's problems now, too, every bit as much as the Democrats. Let's see how that works out for them, especially if they keep their campaign promises and try and impose their failed, right-wing agenda on the American people.

Friday, October 29, 2010

A Short and Clear Guide to What a Midterm Vote Really Means

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

It seems that Tea Party-dominated Republicans are going to make gains in the midterm elections on Tuesday. Prognosticators from Nate Silver to the Huffington Post are forecasting the likelihood of a GOP takeover of the House and a very closely divided Senate.

The president's party traditionally loses seats in the next midterm election, and with unemployment pushing double digits, it is not surprising that Republicans are faring well (despite the fact that the current economic problems resulted from the policies of a Republican president and Republican congress). But there are two factors that make this midterm election especially vexing for those of us who think a Tea Party/Republican surge is bad for the country: Much of the anti-Democratic sentiment is based on lies about health care (Sharron Angle is still pushing the death panel lie) and stimulus, and the Republicans' gains are being fueled by a post-Citizens United flood of corporate money. (Democratic candidates actually had more money in donations than their Republican counterparts this election season, but cash from interest groups backed by people like Karl Rove has swamped the Democrats, flooding the airwaves with attack ads.)

So, with the midterms days away, I wanted to make it crystal clear what this election is really about. When you pull a lever on Tuesday, you may think you are voting for one candidate or against another, but, in the big picture, the vote won't be for a person. Instead, whether you like it or not, you will be voting based on these opposing principles:

1) What is best for corporations and the wealthiest one percent v. what is best for the vast majority of Americans. Wealthy donors like the Koch brothers aren't pouring millions of dollars into this election because they won't be benefited by the results (nor because Republicans won't be indebted to them). Tea Party/Republican candidates have supported a massive tax cut for the wealthy, even if it adds to the deficit. They have also promised millions of dollars in spending cuts, even as they won't identify what programs they would cut. Suffice it to say that the spending reductions won't hurt the Koch brothers, but they will hurt lower- and middle-class Americans.

Before voting, ask yourself this simple question: Do you want to support and affirm the flood of money going to Republican candidates from the likes of Rove, the Koch brothers and the Chamber of Commerce, none of whom rank what is best for the majority of Americans high on their list of priorities?

So if you vote for a GOP candidate, and he or she wins, you will get a politician who is looking out for the wealthiest Americans and corporations, but not for the rest of us. (I discussed this issue in more depth here.)

2) Extremism v. mainstream American policies. This is not your father's Republican party running on Tuesday. This new GOP has been taken over by the Tea Party, whose out-of-the-mainstream views are so far to the right, they are simply un-American. Many of them want to abolish the Department of Education and believe that basic, long-running, established, essential programs like Social Security and unemployment insurance are unconstitutional. (I ran down the views of 10 high-profile Tea Party/Republican hopefuls here.) They are prone to outrageous statements, like Angle claiming that Muslim law is taking hold in American cities, Ken Buck supporting banning IUDs and birth control pills, and Christine O'Donnell lying about the president's student loan program. They have talked of repealing the 14th and 17th Amendments.

In short, this is not just about deficits, taxes and spending. If the real policies of the Tea Party/Republicans were actually enacted, a vast majority of Americans would be outraged.

3) Going back to the policies of George W. Bush v. not going back to the policies of George W. Bush. The Democrats have had less than two years to try and dig the country out of the hole left to them by Bush. While it is not fair to think that the economic mess could be fixed quickly (especially in the face of all-out obstructionism by the GOP), it is absolutely fair, in light of the current sagging economy, for the opposition to offer another option, an alternative way to put people back to work. Only, the GOP is not doing that.

What is the Tea Party/Republican plan to jump-start the economy? Tax cuts for the rich and less government regulation. Sound familiar? It should, because these were the two hallmarks of the Busch economic policy, which led to slow job growth (compared to the decade before), the largest income disparity between the wealthy and middle class since the Great Depression, and, eventually, a full-on recession. (Remember, even though the stock market plunge that accompanied the financial crisis wiped out big chunks of Americans' retirement accounts, Bush still believes that not privatizing Social Security was his biggest failure as president. The ignorance and myopia of that statement is astounding, especially given the epic failure of his economic and foreign policies.)

The Bush economic policies were clinically effective in redirecting money from the lower- and middle-classes to the wealthy. A vote for the Tea Party/Republicans on Tuesday is a vote to re-institute those policies.

4) Ignorance and inexperience v. intelligence and ability. I admit to being a fan of 1970s punk music, which relished the musicians' lack of technical proficiency. But while I'm fine with a less-than-talented guitarist hammering out chords in a rock and roll song (replacing technical skill with passion), I expect more from the people who run our government. The current crop of Tea Party/Republicans seem to revel in ignorance the way the punk guitarists flaunted their lack of ability. They toss out words like "elitist" in an effort to make a virtue of their lack of knowledge and/or education. We all got a laugh when O'Donnell revealed in a debate that she didn't know what was in the First Amendment, but it is outrageous that someone running for the U.S. Senate doesn't have that basic knowledge at her disposal

Similarly, Wisconsin Republican senate candidate Ron Johnson has an ad that demonizes senators for being lawyers, which means that he is complaining that the members of a law-making body are experts on the law.

Don't fall for the spin. Intelligence, education, knowledge and competence are good qualities, contrary to what the Tea Party/Republicans would have you think. (It's amazing such a statement even has to be written.)

The Bush years were a lesson in the perils of willful ignorance. With so many problems facing the country, we can't afford to let the ignorant and incompetent try and fix things.

In the end, the midterm elections on Tuesday are really about four basic questions:

1) Do you support corporations and the wealthiest one percent over the rest of us?

2) Do you support far-right policies that are way out of the American mainstream?

3) Do you want to go back to the economic policies of George W. Bush?

4) Do you support ignorance and lack of qualification?

If you answer "yes" to these questions, then, by all means, cast your ballot for Tea Party/Republicans. But if you believe in what's best for all of us, and you want to reject extremism, ignorance, Bush's economic policies, and the takeover of our elections by Rove, the Koch brothers and the Chamber of Commerce, than you might not want to vote for the GOP.

Voter anger may be justified, but on Wednesday morning, we will have to live with the votes cast on Tuesday. And we will all be better off if those votes don't come for the Tea Party-dominated GOP.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Tea Party All-Stars: The Worst of Extreme GOP Midterm Candidates

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

Noted football coach Bill Parcells once said, "You are what your record says you are."

Parcells' quote jumped into my mind when I was thinking about the slate of Tea Party-influenced Republicans running in November. I feel like we've become immune to the stories about the extreme and, sometimes, downright delusional things they've said, since they've come in a steady stream over the past several months. But if you step back and look at the group as a whole (or at least some of the leading Tea Party favorites), you can get a real sense of what the Republican Party is offering voters in November.

In short, I thought it would be useful to give a rundown of some of the madness.

Establishment Republicans can call these folks outliers (although they rally around them, in most cases, once they have the GOP nomination in hand). But, as Parcells said, they are what their records say they are. This is the modern Tea Party-dominated Republican Party, like it or not.

To be clear, I'm not talking about one-off scandals here. This has nothing to do with David Vitter consorting with prostitutes or Ohio Republican House of Representatives candidate Rich Iott glorifying Nazi S.S. officers by engaging in reenactments. And I'm not talking about innuendo or gossip. What I am arguing is that if you look at the words and positions associated with many members of this year's GOP slate, they are either far out of the American mainstream or patently unqualified for office (or both).

So in honor of the baseball post-season (and the surprising first-round sweep victory of my beloved New York Yankees), I present to you the starting lineup for the GOP Tea Party All-Star Team.

1. Leading off is the GOP nominee for the U.S. Senate from Delaware, Christine O'Donnell. We know she confessed to dabbling in witchcraft and only decided not to become a Hare Krishna because she didn't want to give up meatballs, but these silly (and entertaining) stories are the least of it. Far more important are her delusions (like that the Chinese government was plotting to take over the United States or that scientists are developing "mice with fully functioning human brains"), as well as her far-out-of-the-mainstream policies and beliefs (ranging from the near comical, like her idea that masturbation is adultery, to the deadly dangerous, like her statements that homosexuals engage in an "unhealthy life style" and that AIDS education is "a platform for the homosexual community to recruit adolescents," to the extreme, like her lies about the president's student loan program and her opposition to abortion even in the case of rape). And while I acknowledge that her repeated exaggerations about her education (also here) kind of fall under the category of scandal, it does highlight her lack of educational achievement. (If believing that graduating from top-notch schools is a good thing makes me an elitist, as the Sarah Palin-types seem to believe, then I am proud to be an elitist, at least in their terms, anyway. In what civilized country is education considered a bad thing?)

And, of course, there is O'Donnell's record of financial irresponsibility, including defaulting on her mortgage and her alleged use of campaign funds to pay her rent.

With her lethal combination of ignorance, out-of-the-mainstream positions, and delusional beliefs, O'Donnell is a formidable lead-off hitter for the GOP Tea Party All-Stars.

2. For the number two position in the lineup, we turn to Wisconsin Republican U.S. Senate candidate Ron Johnson. Johnson has portrayed himself as a level-headed businessman who can create jobs, especially in the onslaught of television ads he has foisted on the state. But a scratch below the surface shows his worthiness for the GOP Tea Party All-Star squad.

Johnson has called Social Security a "Ponzi scheme," blamed climate change on sunspots, called dismantling Social Security and Medicare a "starting point," and is "open" to abolishing the Federal Reserve.

Johnson's extreme business-first, the-people-last approach to the world was on display in his decision to testify against a state child abuse protection bill in January. Why would anyone have a problem with legislation that would eliminate the statute of limitations for civil actions related to child abuse? Well, Johnson wasn't happy with the provision that included corporations. Johnson's first concern wasn't the victims of abuse, but how it would affect businesses. He testified, "I think it is extremely important to consider the economic havoc." Johnson proposes massive federal spending cuts, but he refuses to identify which programs he would cut: "I'm not going to get in the game here and, you know, start naming specific things to be attacked about, quite honestly." And if you want some good old-fashioned hypocrisy to go with his extreme, out-of-the-mainstream policy positions, how about this: Johnson has campaigned against subsidies for businesses, but he has used prison labor at his factories, with the state picking up the health care costs of the prisoners.

And let's remember, the Tea Party-affiliated Rock River Patriots in Wisconsin declined to endorse Johnson because they were unimpressed with his knowledge of the Constitution. When the Tea Party calls you ignorant, it's a sign you've earned a starting spot on the GOP Tea Party All-Stars.

3. A team's best hitter usually hits third, so for the GOP Tea Party All-Stars, that position has to be filled by Nevada Republican U.S. senate candidate Sharron Angle. With her numbers falling, Angle has had to reassure voters that she's changed her mind and no longer favors privatizing Veterans Affairs and getting rid of Social Security, and no longer considers unemployment benefits akin to welfare.

Like the best number-three hitters, Angle is consistent and dependable, in that you know another out-of-the-mainstream and possibly-crazy pronouncement is just around the corner. Sometimes, she appears truly delusional, like when she said Muslim law is taking hold in American cities, or that there are "domestic enemies" in Congress, or that Harry Reid helped child molesters get Viagra, or when she campaigned against black football jerseys (because the color was "evil"). Other times, she is heartless, like when she made fun of health coverage for autism (using air quotes to describe the condition), or when she said she would have voted against federal aid for those affected by Hurrican Katrina (a measure that unanimously passed the Senate).

Angle is so extreme that a Nevada Republican, Bill Raggio, who has served 38 years in the state senate, endorsed Harry Reid over Angle, the first time he has ever supported a Democrat. Raggio had this to say about Angle:

"What is difficult to overlook is her record of being totally ineffective as a four-term assemblywomen, her inability or unwillingness to work with others, even within her own party, and her extreme positions on issues such as Medicare, social security, education, veterans affairs and many others."

Ineffective and extreme. Sounds like a spot-on description of Angle and the reason she is in the heart of the lineup of the GOP Tea Party All-Stars.

4. The clean-up hitter is Rand Paul, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Kentucky. Paul got in the game early when he had to backtrack after criticizing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Like many Tea Partiers, he supports the elimination of the Department of Education. He called Medicare "intergenerational welfare," and even after high-profile mining accidents, he accused President Obama of "forcing the EPA down our throats." Paul polished his rich-focused bona fides by defending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, saying you can't "punish the rich." And let us not forget that he allegedly, while in college, blindfolded a female acquaintance, tied her up, and instructed her to smoke marijuana and worship the "Aqua Buddha." (It has been dismissed as a college prank among buddies, except the victim stopped being friends with Paul after the incident. To me, this story is revealing in that it gives a glimpse into where Paul is coming from with his wealthy-focused policy positions, namely a privileged, sheltered world where college boys think nothing of pulling a stunt like this one.)

5. Giving solid protection to Paul in the GOP Tea Party All-Stars lineup is Alaska extremist and (former?) friend of Sarah Palin Joe Miller, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate. Miller's views are far out of the American mainstream, and his lack of understanding of the U.S. Constitution (he seems to think that virtually everything is unconstitutional, contrary to well-settled law in these areas) must, I can only guess, leave his former professors at Yale Law School shaking their heads in disbelief. He thinks that unemployment benefits are unconstitutional (but that didn't stop his wife from collecting them several years ago), and he also believes that the minimum wage, hate crime laws, and the health care reform legislation (even as he admits benefiting from Medicaid and other state programs ... see a trend here?) are unconstitutional, too. He wants to shut down the Department of Education and "transition" out of Social Security, and he doesn't believe in man-made global warming. He is also so rabidly anti-choice, he doesn't even support a woman's right to an abortion in cases of rape and incest.

And what's with the so-called fiscally responsible Tea Partiers who are irresponsible with their own fiances? Miller apparently has between $35,000 and $80,000 in credit card debt.

6. Providing some pop towards the bottom of the order is Ken Buck, the GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado. Buck's specialty is taking out-of-the-mainstream positions, and then backtracking on them in an effort to look less extreme to his state's voters. Since securing the Republican nomination, he flip-flopped on his support of repealing the 17th Amendment (which allows citizens to elect U.S. senators, rather than have them appointed by state legislatures), as well as on his promise to introduce anti-abortion legislation and vote against confirming pro-choice judges. Buck has also done a 180-degree turn on his support of privatizing Social Security and Medicare (as well as questioning Social Security's constitutionality), banning IUDs and birth control pills, and shutting down the Department of Education (a Tea Party favorite), as well as his support for a consumption tax to replace the income tax. Buck's reversals have been reflected in changes to his website, which toned down his earlier stated views on Afghanistan, abortion (he had advocated for a constitutional amendment to protect the unborn) and immigration, among other issues.

So the voters of Colorado have a choice to make: Do they believe the way out-of-the-mainstream views Buck espoused before securing the nomination, or the slightly less far-out positions he is taking now? Either way, the people of Colorado have an all-star on their hands, at least on the GOP Tea Party All-Stars squad.

7. Proving the GOP Tea Party All-Stars have a deep lineup of extreme wingnuts, the squad can roll out a potent platoon of governor candidates in the seventh position: Carl Paladino (New York) and Dan Maes (Colorado).

When he is not threatening New York Post editors (the Post!) or sending out shockingly offensive racist emails, Palladino, a Tea Party favorite, is almost as reliable a source for bizarre and out-of-the-mainstream behavior as O'Donnell and Angle. He bashes gays, recently saying he doesn't want "to be brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid or successful option." While he's pumped $3.8 million of his own money into his campaign, nearly $2 million has gone to his own companies. And while he seems to hold the predictably far-right positions of Tea Party candidates (like opposing abortion even in the cases of rape and incest), Paladino's extreme views add a wacky element, revealing his dedication to the wealthy at the expense of the rest of the population. He has called for welfare recipients to be forced into work camps (housed in converted prisons), where they will be taught, among other things, personal hygiene (so much for small government). Similarly, he wants to send children in failing schools to state boarding schools, where they would be housed with kids removed from their homes by social services. And Paladino, who fathered a daughter out of wedlock while married (but didn't tell his wife about it until years later), nevertheless made wild accusations about his opponent's marital infidelities.

He is such an out-of-the-mainstream candidate, the vice chairman of New York's Conservative Party resigned over the decision to give the party's line to Paladino.

You may think Paladino is as extreme and bizarre as a gubernatorial candidate can get, but I invite you to take a look at Dan Maes. In what may be the most fun of the many paranoid, delusional charges leveled by Tea Partiers, Maes accused his opponent, the current mayor of Denver, of "converting" the city "into a United Nations community" by ... wait for it ... encouraging citizens to ride their bicycles. That's right, he says while it may look harmless on the surface, the mayor's plan "is all very well-disguised, but it will be exposed." Believe it or not, there's more. After bragging about his stint as a police officer in Kansas and claiming he was let go after battling corruption, Maes released documents to substantiate his claims, only they showed that he was fired for leaking information about an investigation to a relative of a suspect. After these and other missteps, Colorado Republicans tried to get him to leave the race, but he refused. That might be bad news for the GOP, but it's enough to earn Maes a spot in the starting lineup of the GOP Tea Party All-Stars.

8. Linda McMahon, the Republican running for Chris Dodd's U.S. Senate seat in Connecticut, may not really be a Tea Party candidate (it's hard to know what McMahon stands for, since she is especially good at evading specific policy positions), but some elements of her candidacy put her comfortably on the GOP Tea Party All-Stars.

McMahon sounded an awful lot like a Tea Party candidate when she had to backtrack from her position endorsing lowering the minimum wage. And while this story is more funny than disturbing (and also, admittedly, old news), continuing the Tea Party theme of financial irresponsibility, McMahon filed for bankruptcy in 1976 after investing in an Evel Knievel stunt that went awry.

To be honest, the reason I included McMahon on the list isn't her policy positions, which, as I noted, are hard to discern. Rather, she belongs here under the part of the equation related to her fitness for office. McMahon proudly campaigns that she is a successful businesswoman, so I think it's fair to look at her business, the professional wrestling conglomerate the WWE. If Connecticut residents are looking for a senator who will help keep jobs in the state, they should be wary of the WWE's policy of manufacturing many of its licensed toys in China and Pakistan.

But to me, the element of the WWE that renders McMahon unfit for office is that she presides over a business that is morally repugnant. The WWE's wrestling scripts rely on misogyny, homophobia and damaging stereotypes to generate entertainment. Even worse, on her watch, she has, at best, turned a blind eye to rampant steroid use that, combined with the violent beatings the wrestlers sustain to their bodies, has left too many of them disabled and, in worst case scenarios, suicidal and/or homicidal when their WWE careers are over. As ESPN's Bill Simmons once wrote:

"These guys destroy their bodies, then their hearts give out and they die. Google the phrase 'dead wrestlers,' and your computer will start to smoke like an overtaxed car engine."

Simmons is right. Lists of WWE veterans who met an untimely end are freely available on the Web. This page lists about 20 WWE wrestlers who have died young (under 50, with most under 45) in just the last 10 years. And there are whole sites dedicated to the topic, like this one.

McMahon may not be a Tea Party favorite, but like O'Donnell and Angle, she forces you to ask the simple question, "Is this the best person the Republicans can offer?"

9. Marco Rubio, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Florida, bats in the ninth and final spot, demonstrating that even at the bottom of the lineup, there are still plenty of way-out-of-the-mainstream Tea Partiers to choose from. In a sign of how far to the right the GOP has moved, popular Republican governor Charlie Christ had to run as an independent after poll numbers showed he would not be able to secure his own party's nomination to run for the U.S. Senate. Rubio's positions fit neatly into the Tea Party fold. He signed a pledge supporting the privatization of Social Security, calling the program "generational theft." He said he would have voted to oppose the extension of unemployment benefits enacted by Congress earlier this year. He had to backtrack on his earlier claim that extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich would pay for themselves (but he still supports extending them anyway). And he flip-flopped on the Arizona immigration bill, now supporting it and even backing deporting children who have grown up in the U.S. to countries that are completely alien to them.

These are 10 of the candidates the Republicans are offering up to Americans in November. And each one of them, in their own way, is shockingly unfit for the office they seek. The GOP establishment might want you to believe that these candidates are wingnuts, not representative of the Republican Party. But they're wrong. The way things are now, these candidates are the Republican Party.

As Coach Parcells said, you are what your record says you are. And the Republican record says that their slate is filled with out-of-the-mainstream, clearly unqualified, Tea Party-influenced candidates.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What Does a Vote for a GOP Candidate in November Really Mean?

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

With the primaries now complete (and Republican voters in Delaware giving the Democrats a huge gift by nominating the East Coast version of Sharron Angle over the popular--and probably unbeatable--Mike Castle), the races are set for the midterm elections in November. With many forecasters predicting success for the GOP, it raises the question: When you cast a vote for a Republican candidate in November, what are you voting for?

There was a time when a principled Republican could fairly and accurately reply that he or she was voting for smaller government and lower taxes as a way of improving the fortunes of the middle class. (I personally disagree with that policy position, but it is a fair argument to make.)

But in the current Tea Party- and Beck-Palin-Limbaugh-dominated GOP, such an assertion is completely untenable. Recent news has shined a clear spotlight on exactly what the GOP is actually supporting. As I pointed out last month, odds are, the Republicans are not looking out for you.

1) A vote for a GOP candidate is a vote for the interests of the wealthiest Americans, at the expense of everyone else, including the middle class. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell put his cards on the table when he said that senate Republicans will not accept anything short of a permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, presumably voting against maintaining the tax cuts for those making less than $200,000 if the rich are not also included. It is important to note that just a day earlier, House Minority Leader John Boehner took a more reasonable position, saying he would vote for the extension of the tax cuts for those making less than $200,000 if he had to. (Here is a basic hint for life: If you are putting politics ahead of the good of the nation even more than John Boehner, it is a sign you have gone horribly off the rails.)

Unemployment is pushing 10 percent, Americans are concerned about the economy, and Republicans in the Senate are making their stand to support the wealthiest Americans? There is no reasonable, non-fringe economic argument that tax cuts on the top earners fuel job growth, but we know that these tax cuts have exploded--and would continue to explode--deficits (something House and Senate Republicans have previously said is just fine, putting tax cuts for the rich in front of deficit reduction).

McConnell's stand makes explicit what has long been clear in the actions of Republican lawmakers: They view their obligation first and foremost as protecting the wealthiest handful of Americans, above and beyond what is best for the rest of the country.

2) A vote for a GOP candidate is a vote to give power to a small handful of wealthy fringe Republicans who are pouring millions upon millions of dollars into anti-Democrat advertising. A front-page article in today's New York Times detailed how Republicans have outspent Democrats in House and Senate races so far, but that a bulk of the money has not come from the party or the candidates themselves. Rather, ads are being funded by independent interest groups who can accept unlimited contributions from individuals and corporations without any obligation to report the identity of the donors. That means that a few wealthy extremists (the article points to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth funder Harold Simmons, a Texas billionaire, and the infamous David Koch) have pumped millions of dollars into these campaigns. So no matter what any of these Republican candidates say, whether they are crazy, fringe-right Tea Partiers like Sharron Angle, Ken Buck or Joe Miller, or more mainstream Republicans, they will be at the beck and call of the Koches and Simmonses of the world. And we know whose interests they will be looking out for. (Hint: If you're not a millionaire, you just may be out of luck.)

Timothy Noah recently wrote a great piece for on the concentration of wealth in the United States. He notes that in 1915, about 18 percent of the country's wealth sat in the hands of one percent of Americans. After World War II (a time economists have called the "Great Compression"), the income disparity between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else shrunk, bringing down the wealthiest one percent's ownership to less than 10 percent of income. Beginning in 1979, a period Paul Krugman has called the "Great Divergence" began, as the rate started climbing. And the disparity in income exploded during the Bush years, so that by 2007, not only had the gains of the middle class been completely erased, but the ownership of the top one percent had soared to 24 percent of the nation's income.

The moral of the story is that Bush extended a massive redistribution of wealth from the middle class to the wealthy.

As I've said again and again, there is anger in this country, and it is justified, but it needs to be channeled in the right direction. A vote for the GOP in November is a vote to reinstate the same wealth redistribution policies that helped to destroy the American middle class. In short, it is a vote for the top one percent to continue to increase its hold on the nation's wealth.

3) A vote for the GOP is a vote for the politics of fear. Since President Obama was elected, the Republican opposition to his presidency has been built on fear. Rather than offering competing policies, the GOP chose to lie and obstruct with the end game being scaring Americans into believing that the president was a dangerous extremist. It's not just the deranged ravings of pundits like Limbaugh, Beck and Palin, either. Reliance on fear (and absence of positive policy proposals) has been a hallmark of the Republican minority in Congress.

The GOP policy of fear is most apparent in the recent fomenting of Islamophobia. With unemployment strangling the nation, Republican politicians thought it was important to demonize an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan. Last month I discussed how Republicans are cynically using the Islamic community center for political gain. But the issue is really bigger than just this one building in Manhattan.

Despite the Obama administration's stellar record in catching and capturing al-Qaida and Taliban leaders, Newt Gingrich spews out nonsense like:

“What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]? ... That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior.”

It's a blatant use of baseless fear for political gain, seeking to scare Americans into believing that the president can't keep them safe (even though, so far, he has). That is the way of the modern Republican party.

But the Republican use of fear goes beyond foreign policy and terrorism. Fear is at the center of GOP domestic policy as well.

Rather than debate the president's stimulus bill or budget on the merits, the GOP resorted to fear-mongering, calling the president a socialist. Debate health care? Why, when it is easier to scare senior citizens with made-up death panels and again trot out charges of socialism and government takeovers?

In his New York Times column today, conservative David Brooks described how the misunderstood and overly rigid application of anti-government theory by mainstream Republicans like Rep. Paul Ryan is a recipe for a "political tragedy," a "fiscal tragedy," and a "policy tragedy." What especially struck me in Brooks' piece is a passage he cited from a Wall Street Journal op-ed penned by Ryan and American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks:

"The road to serfdom in America does not involve a knock in the night or a jack-booted thug. It starts with smooth-talking politicians offering seemingly innocuous compromises, and an opportunistic leadership that chooses not to stand up for America’s enduring principles of freedom and entrepreneurship."

Ryan, one of the Republican leaders in the House, invokes terms like "serfdom" and "seemingly innocuous compromises," as well as making accusations that Democrats are not standing up for American principals. Let's be clear here. Ryan and Brooks are not saying that Democrats, in trying to dig the country out of an economic mess (created, incidentally, by a Republican president and Republican Congress), chose policies they thought would best do the job (which by any honest and fair assessment of the situation is the actual truth), but that they disagree with those choices. No, instead, they are accusing the president and the Democrats in Congress of actively trying to overthrow the American way of life, and to make citizens into serfs.

Ryan and Brooks aren't offering positive solutions. Rather, they make wild accusations to stoke fear in Americans.

Fear is really the only item Republicans are offering voters in November. The GOP isn't running on what they want to do (all they ever offer are more tax cuts for the rich), but instead on what bad things will happen if voters don't elect Republicans in November. Under the Republican narrative of fear, it's not that Democratic policies are well-intentioned but ineffective. It's that the Democrats are out to hurt Americans, and if voters leave Democrats in office, Americans will become serfs in a socialist takeover, which might not matter since the president is a Kenyan who doesn't want to defend the United States from Muslim terrorists.

Is this the country we want to be? Do we want to be ruled by fear?

Historically, that hasn't worked out so well for us. From the internment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II, to the McCarthy inquisition of the early Cold War, to J. Edgar Hoover's anti-civil rights investigations, America has taken actions out of fear that we, as a country, later came to regret. And after 9/11, George W. Bush's reaction was similarly extreme, in effect doing everything the perpetrators of the atrocity hoped he would (curtailing the rights of Americans and damaging the economy, American military power and the United States' standing in the world through the ill-conceived and botched invasion and occupation in Iraq).

And yet, fear is all the GOP has to offer voters in November.

Republicans will run in November against what they say is an expanding federal government, an echo of the GOP traditions of small government and lower taxes. But make no mistake: A vote for the Republicans in November will be a vote for something very different. A vote for the GOP will be a vote for policies that favor the richest one percent of the country at the expense of the rest of us. And it would be a vote for the kind of fear that, in our history, has resulted in anti-American behavior that we, as a country, eventually come to regret. That is the real Republican platform for November.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Is the GOP Looking Out for You?

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

With the midterms just over two months away, we are inundated with daily media reports on the election, most of them predicting doom for the Democrats. But what jumps out at me is how telling so many of the proposals and actions from Republican officeholders and candidates are, since they reveal that they are acting on behalf of a small group of right-wing extremists, not in the best interests of the American people.

To be clear, I'm all for political debate. I think for democracy to work, there has to be a free exchange of ideas, with the best solution to a problem winning the day. But in the current American political environment, we are missing two key elements necessary for our democracy to work. First, thanks to the dissolution of the mass media and the rise of a right-wing propaganda machine (Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, etc.), there is no longer an accepted common set of facts on which to base a debate. Instead, the right wing has decided to use lies and fear-mongering (everything from inventing death panels to questioning the ideological and religious beliefs of the president, including where he was born, to stoking fear of Islam) as a strategic method to win elections. As a result, we have a situation where, according to a recent Newsweek poll, 52 percent of Republicans think President Obama "sympathizes with the goals of Islamic fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law around the world," and nearly a quarter think he is, in fact, a Muslim. Second, regarding the tea party-dominated Republican Party, in most cases, their proposals and tactics are not chosen with the best interests of the majority of Americans in mind, but are instead cynical attempts to win elections.

Today, Media Matters revealed how several right-wing media sources took a report from the InterAcademy Council on global warming and trumpeted it as proof that the threat from climate change was exaggerated, even though it said no such thing.

Again, policy debates are a good thing. And if someone thinks that we have no responsibility to act to beat back the debilitating effects of climate change, that person has every right to do so, and to make his/her best argument for that point of view.

But what is not useful for democracy is for partisans to knowingly lie about the facts in play to make an argument that plays to their rigid ideological position. The scientific community is not in a 50-50 split about the causes and effects of global warming. The IAC report (the one the right-wing propaganda machine insists debunks the global warming "myth") says: "Climate change is a long-term challenge that will require every nation to make decisions about how to respond."

I think a majority of Republican officeholders know that scientists are almost universally in agreement that global warming is a real issue, but they are choosing to allow the right-wing media to use lies to keep Americans doubtful, all for political gain. If the effects of global warming are real, these Republicans are not just failing to look out for what is best for Americans, they are actively preventing solutions from being discovered and implemented.

Global warming is just one example. On the myriad of problems we have to face as a nation, solutions are hard to come by because the tea party-controlled Republican Party has put political gain ahead of helping the American people.

Who are Republicans looking out for when they insist on extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, even if they add to the deficit? By definition, the tax cuts would be a windfall for a tiny portion of the population (those making more than $250,000 a year) at the expense of the vast majority of Americans, both individually and collectively (higher deficits, fewer services and benefits). So to defend this gift to the wealthy, Republicans have to resort to fudging the facts. They argue that somehow the tax cuts help job growth by helping small business owners. But as numerous writers have laid out (a good example comes from Ezra Klein in the Washington Post), that argument has no basis in fact, as only a tiny percentage of small business owners are directly affected. (In fact, this paper from the Tax Policy Center of the of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution argues that "a majority of households that report small business income will end up worse off than they would have been without the tax cuts.")

When Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty issues an executive order forbidding his state from applying for federal health care aid, is he looking out for his state's citizens or his presidential aspirations? Clearly it's the latter, as he is blocking potential help to individuals in the name of his ideology. But such an action is not surprising given the Republican positions in the health care reform debate. Rather than engage in a productive discussion over how to handle the real problems facing the American health care system (as I've written many times before, while I support health care reform, I can easily make a thoughtful, compelling argument against it, even though no Republicans chose to do so), Republicans instead turned to fear-mongering and lies. (Death panels! Socialism!) Pawlenty is protecting his true constituency (corporations over individuals) and his own political ambitions, not the best interests of most of the people in Minnesota.

Similarly, with our education system falling behind many other countries of the world, and with the South's schools doing worse than the rest of the country, who is Georgia Republican gubernatorial candidate Nathan Deal helping when he said he would reject federal education aid if elected? Certainly not the children of his state. And when Nevada Republican senatorial candidate Sharron Angle says she would have voted against federal aid to victims of Hurricane Katrina (something, by the way, not a single senator actually did at the time), she clearly isn't looking out for the well-being of the people of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. And the list goes on and on.

That's actually the heart of the problem here. You can disagree with the approach the president and the Democratic-controlled Congress took in addressing the massive problems left by the inept Bush administration. Again, debating solutions to problems is what underpins the people's faith in our democracy. But the Republicans never engaged in such a debate. They instead spoke and acted as if the Obama presidency was somehow illegitimate, even though he won a convincing majority of the American people. Rather than debate the benefits of a stimulus bill (and reveal that they were protecting their constituency: the wealthy and corporations), Republicans called Obama a socialist. Rather than debate foreign policy, politicians and candidates gave a wink and a nod as right wingers questioned his religion and his place of birth.

In the end, with the country facing massive problems, the Republicans decided not to act in the best interests of the American people and try and find solutions. The vast majority of Republicans holding office know that the president was born in Hawaii and is not a socialist. They know he advocated for health care reform out of a desire to help Americans, not as part of a plan to seize control of private corporations. They know that his economic proposals were his honest attempt to boost a recession-addled economy and restore a near-collapsed financial system, not an attempt to redistribute wealth. They know that his foreign policy actions were his honest best judgment meant to protect and promote the interests of the United States, not a secret plan to help radical Muslims. And they know that as president, he is doing what he thinks is right to help the American people, not to bring down the United States.

They know these things even as they stridently disagree with his policies. But rather than make that clear, these Republicans chose, instead, to allow the demonization to occur, knowing full well that many Americans would start to believe the lies. (We saw in the March Harris poll that revealed that 57 percent of Republicans think Obama is a Muslim, and 45 percent think he wasn't born in the United States.) Clearly, allowing these lies to take root is not in the best interest of the American people.

(It is interesting that Republicans accused Obama of intervening on behalf of the failing auto industry and proposing federal stimulus as part of an ideological attempt to assert government power over private industry. But these same Republicans have been completely silent over the fact that the American auto industry has not only rebounded since the federal government intervened, but the government will soon be selling off its shares in General Motors to private owners, as well as the report from Moody's chief economist Mark Zandi finding that the stimulus legislation was successful in saving and creating millions of jobs.)

As I wrote in July, I understand that Americans are angry. They have a right to be. But if they take that anger out by voting for Republicans in November, they will only be making a bad situation worse. In addition to playing into the GOP strategy of obstruction and dishonesty, they would be making it harder for the country to address the real and massive problems facing the country.

The GOP is looking out for a select group of constituents, but unless you are an extreme right-wing ideologue or in the top one percent of American earners, Republicans probably aren't trying to help you.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Proposed Lower Manhattan Islamic Center Deserves Nuanced Discussion, Not GOP Fear Mongering

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

Given how far to the right the mainstream of the conservative movement has moved in the last few years, it is not often that I read a piece from a right-leaning columnists that actually adds to the national discussion of an issue. Which is why I was pleasantly surprised by Ross Douthat's column in the New York Times today on the proposed Lower Manhattan Islamic center.

I have been disgusted by the right's decision to politicize the issue, using the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the proposed Islamic center as a way to turn fear of "the other" into votes. (Newt Gingrich, an avid practitioner of fear mongering, has, not surprisingly, staked out a far-right position, equating Islam and the Nazis.) With each appeal to our basest, most xenophobic selves, the Republicans are systematically eroding the great American traditions of tolerance and diversity that have been a large part of the growth of the nation. (Note to the GOP: The Statue of Liberty is not just a pretty sculpture. It actually stands for something.) Even the use of the term "Ground Zero mosque" to describe the project is incendiary, intended to alarm at the expense of accuracy (the proposal is not for a stand-alone mosque, and the building would not be at Ground Zero).

Most of all, I have found it depressing that the right has turned a truly nuanced and complicated issue into a mean-spirited, us-versus-them test of patriotism.

Enter Douthat, who, frankly, I usually find to be a stealth apologist for distasteful policies on the right. He tends to act as if he is taking a reasonable, moderate position on an issue, only to come in with his true doctrinal-conservative take on the subject in the final paragraphs. (A great example is Douthat's piece on gay marriage, in which he begins by debunking several arguments against same-sex unions, before swooping in during the final third of his piece to declare an "ideal" in which "children grow up in intimate contact with both of their biological parents," and that Judge Vaughn's ruling "suggests that any such distinction [between gay and straight relationships] is bigoted and un-American." In other words, he set himself apart from the typical right-wing arguments on the issue, only to take a position that is every bit as insulting to same-sex couples--they're not "ideal," after all--as those mainstream right-wing arguments.)

While I don't agree with many of Douthat's points on the proposed Lower Manhattan Islamic center (more on that later), I think he astutely recognizes that there are two issues at play here. Douthat says there are two Americas, one "where allegiance to the Constitution trumps ethnic differences, language barriers and religious divides," and another "that understands itself as a distinctive culture, rather than just a set of political propositions." While I find his set-up strategically chosen to reach his intended result, I give him full credit for being one of the few writers who has acknowledged the complicated and potentially difficult-to-discuss aspects of the issue.

I would turn Douthat's two Americas into two questions. The first is whether those proposing the Islamic Center should be legally permitted to open the facility on Park Place. I think there is really only one correct answer, one we have heard from Mayor Michael Bloomberg and President Barack Obama: Of course the Constitution protects the right of the sponsors to build the Islamic center. And I can't believe any American would take the opposing position, let alone file lawsuits to prevent it from happening. Telling a religious group that it cannot purchase private property and open a house of worship is about as un-American as it gets. You would think a modern conservative movement that has fetishized the right of citizens to act without government intervention would support the side of private citizens seeking to maintain private activity on private property.

But there is a second question, and, to me, this is the question that has really spurred the debate, but one that deserves thoughtful and honest discussion, not the political games-playing and fear-mongering of the right: Should the sponsors of the Islamic center build their project at this location. Those on the right paint the decision as insensitive, as the location is two blocks from the site of a terrorist attack carried out by those who claimed Islam as the justification for their barbarity. Others see the establishment of a center by self-described moderate Muslims as a positive (or at least benign) action, sending a message to extremists like Hamas and al-Qaida that they are powerless to intimidate Americans into surrendering their ideals out of fear. (To be clear, not surprisingly, I am in the latter group.)

But buried in this second question is an inquiry that Douthat gets at that I think is absolutely justified, and it is at the heart of the question of what American culture really is. Douthat's point (in his "second America") is that there is an essential American character (he describes it as being Anglo-Saxon and derived from Protestantism and later adapted to include Jewish and Catholic values), and that immigrants had to assimilate into this American way of life to survive and prosper, thus allowing this essential American character to continue to hold the country's society together.

Now, Douthat's approach seems to justify bigotry and discrimination as a means to an end that forced new immigrants to become Americans (citing as examples the need for Mormons to give up polygamy and for Catholics to shake their "illiberal tendencies" so that they were inspired to "prod their church toward a recognition of the virtues of democracy, making it possible for generations of immigrants to feel unambiguously Catholic and American"). I can't get behind this kind of thinking. Bigotry and discrimination are always wrong, full stop.

But the underlying question of core American values is a valid one. It is clear that there has to be an American culture, at least strong enough to have acted as a uniting element for the country as it expanded and prospered over more than 200 years. It had to be strong enough to allow Americans to unite after the Civil War (to the extent that they did), and to rally together in the face of tragedies and wars. And it was on full display with the sacrifices of ordinary citizens who stepped up to help after the 9/11 attacks. There clearly is an American culture of some kind (although I'm not sure I agree with Douthat as to what is at its core), and it seems to me obvious that immigrants have found a way through the decades to come to the United States and assimilate into that culture, even while keeping the traditions and beliefs of their homelands.

The reason the GOP sees an opportunity here to score political points is, in part, due to concerns of some that the nature of Islam prevents its adherents from embracing these values that have held together American society. Personally, I think that the existence of a moderate-leaning Islamic center in Lower Manhattan could, potentially, demonstrate why such a fear is unfounded. But given world events and the behavior of those who have used Islam as a justification for violence (or even for societal intolerance, misogyny, etc.), it is fair to discuss these questions. Burying concerns doesn't mean they'll go away. Only through airing our society's darker thoughts can they be confronted and hashed out.

Obviously, when you throw religion, politics and a seminal tragic event in modern American history into a pot, it's going to get sticky, messy and potentially unpleasant. Such a cocktail requires a thoughtful discussion of the issues with a goal of reaching the truth and finding consensus.

Which is why the GOP strategy of using these issues to stoke fear for political gain has been especially odious. But it's also why a progressive blogger should highlight a conservative columist's attempt to have a more nuanced discussion of the issue (and to address some of the hot-button topics in a more mature way), even if he doesn't agree with all of what that conservative columnist has to say.

So I thank Douthat for taking a more thoughtful approach to the proposed Islamic center in Lower Manhattan, and I am happy to point out the places where I agree with his analysis, and those where I find his arguments to be less convincing. If only the majority of Douthat's conservative colleagues would take the same approach. If nothing else, we should all agree that what is best for America is a thoughtful discussion, not cynical attempts to stoke fear for political gain.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Krugman's Takedown of Ryan Demonstrates How Conservatives Are at War with the Middle Class

[I was asked to contribute a piece to Huffington Post on the decline of the middle class. This is what I came up with. It can also be accessed via my Huffington Post author page.]

Conservatives routinely paint Barack Obama as a socialist looking to redistribute wealth in the United States. (Or worse, as Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) reported that tea party leaders, during a meeting, espoused paranoid delusions of a totalitarian takeover of the U.S. by Obama.) This charge is cynical and outrageous, not just because it is false and a naked attempt to use fear mongering to drum up votes, but because there is actually a group of Americans actively engaged in wealth redistribution, and they have been for quite some time.

Who are these people looking to move massive amounts of assets from one subsection of Americans to another? The conservatives themselves.

Beginning with the Reagan administration, and reaching its fullest realization during the presidency of George W. Bush, conservatives have systematically been acting to redistribute wealth from the middle class upward. The result has been the steady decay of the middle class, and it's all a result of conservative policies, specifically involving taxes and deregulation.

Bush successfully pushed through accelerated deregulation and massive tax cuts for the highest earners. The result was that while the wealthiest Americans saw substantial income gains, real income for the middle class was static (and far below the robust growth of the middle class during the Clinton administration). And when, in the absence of regulation, Wall Street's reckless bets nearly brought ruin to the financial industry, the result was a massive recession that severely hit the lower, working and middle classes.

As I lamented last month, middle and working class Americans have every right to be angry now, but that anger shouldn't be directed at the Democrats in November, but at the Republicans, whose policies created the economic mess the country finds itself in. Which is why I was so happy to see Paul Krugman's annihilation of the economic plan advanced by the so-called "intellectual" star of the Republican party, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Krugman exposed Ryan's plan for what it is, a replay of the Bush economic policies, only this time on steroids: A massive tax break for the wealthiest five percent of Americans that would cost the country $4 trillion over the next ten years, a tax increase for the other 95 percent of Americans, and monumental cuts in government spending that would cause catastrophic pain for the lower, working and middle classes (while having little effect on the wealthy, the primary beneficiaries of Ryan's plan). Oh, and Ryan's plan would add to the deficit, pushing it far beyond the current projections for 2020. (Of course, Ryan is touting the savings of his spending cuts without accounting for the costs of his tax cuts for the rich.)

I thought Krugman's exposure of the realities of the Ryan plan provided a solid summing up of current Republican ideology. On the surface, Ryan appears more reasonable than the more vocal leaders of his party. He tends to avoid the outrageous pronouncements of his fellow conservatives (think Sarah Palin, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) and his talk of "velvet revolution," Rep. Michelle Bachman (R-MN) and House Minority Leader John Boehner, not to mention the lies and vitriol spouted by pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, as well as the consistent national security fear-mongering of Newt Gingrich, and the out-and-out insanity on parade daily in the media, like the recent charge by Colorado gubernatorial candidate Dan Maes that his Democratic opponent encouraged bike use as mayor of Denver as part of a plan to convert the city into a "United Nations community," not to mention the possible Queen of the wackos, Nevada GOP senate candidate Sharron Angle, including her claim that the press should ask the questions she wants to answer.).

Ryan is the young, normal-looking and sounding face Republicans would like to send out in front of the public, but, as Krugman comprehensively laid out, his policies are no more mainstream or plausible than those of his more obviously extreme colleagues. No, Ryan, just like the others, is completely dedicated to policies that empower corporations and transfer wealth upward, at the expense of the middle class.

In short, Ryan and the rest of the conservatives are at war with lower, working and middle class Americans.

The Republicans would like to frame the November midterm elections as a matchup between a socialist party looking to redistribute wealth and engineer a government takeover of the private sector (the Democrats) v. a party defending traditional American values of free market, capitalist economics (the Republicans). Such a framing of the two parties is a Republican fantasy, as accurate as the charge that President Obama was not born in the United States (which, according to a recent CNN poll, nearly two in five Republicans believe to be true).

But one look at the reality of the Bush years and the behavior of Republicans during the Obama administration paints a very different picture. On issue after issue, the Republicans have sided against the middle class, whether it was opposing financial regulation (even after GOP-touted deregulation resulted in the near financial collapse that plunged the country into deep recession), pushing for an extension of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, opposing any kind of job-creating stimulus (that didn't involve more tax cuts for the rich), opposing and delaying the extension of unemployment benefits to those out of work (and painting the unemployed as lazy), opposing state aid that would preserve the jobs of teachers, police officers and firefighters (even though it would decrease the deficit), opposing health care reform (except to protect private insurance companies), and even opposing aid to workers sickened by the toxic fumes at Ground Zero after the 9/11 attacks.

The smoking gun of GOP dedication to the wealthy at the expense of the middle class (and the revelation that the party's supposed fanatical opposition to deficits is a facade) came when one Republican after another lined up to back Sen. John Kyl's position that it was okay to add to the deficit for tax cuts for high earners (something even conservative stalwart Alan Greenspan could not support).

The GOP record of the last ten years demonstrates that, in reality, the election in November will pose a choice between Democrats who support a free market capitalist economy, but with protections to prevent against its excesses (thus protecting lower, working and middle class Americans), and Republicans at war with the middle class, advocating policies that further their suffering while benefiting Wall Street, corporations and the wealthiest Americans.

Conservatives are right when they say that there are those in Washington looking to redistribute wealth. It's just that it's their party that is all for the redistributing.