Tuesday, January 26, 2010

An Open Letter to the President: It's Time for Change, Not Spending Freezes

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

Dear President Obama:

I know you are a very smart guy. After all, not only have you graduated from Ivy League universities like Columbia and Harvard, and taught a heady subject like constitutional law at one of the top law schools in the country, but you have had real-world success, reaching the highest office in the country while still in your 40s (and managing to do it while being an African American candidate named Barack Hussein Obama).

So I write this letter with a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for what you have accomplished, as well as with faith that you are smart and savvy enough to understand what is happening in our country right now. After all, during the presidential campaign, you were often criticized by commenters (including me) for not responding strongly enough to the lies and dirty tricks thrown at you by John McCain, Sarah Palin and the Republican party, and yet you showed in the end that you knew what you were doing, better than we did. You had properly measured the temperature of the country, and you were rewarded with the presidency.

You also have to know how much your candidacy meant to so many people. You weren't just another aspirant for high office, you captured the hope and optimism of millions of previously disaffected voters. I think I am a good person to comment on this because I never viewed you as a savior, but rather as a really smart, seemingly competent politician who was a mainstream Democrat more than a progressive. So my expectations weren't as sky-high as many others. But it is clear that you were elected to the presidency by a coalition of Americans--young and old, progressive and moderate, urban and rural, East and West, North and South--who agreed on one thing: change.

Change was your campaign slogan (and a good one), but it was more than just that. When McCain tried to co-opt the change message, it fell on deaf ears. Why? It wasn't credible. People really believed you would bring change. They believed it was something to which you were committed, not a marketing strategy you just signed off on.

Which brings me to the reason I am writing you this open letter today. President Obama, I think I speak for many, many Americans when I say: Have you forgotten why you were elected?

The Republicans want Americans to believe that the election of a GOP candidate to the U.S. Senate in liberal Massachusetts was about a glorification of the Republican party, the death of the Democratic party, and a rejection of health care reform. But anyone paying attention--and I have to believe you know this--could see it was about anger at the raw deal the average American is getting right now, all while big corporations (namely banks) prosper. The two issues underlying the Massachusetts anger were unemployment and Wall Street, because they stood for this larger principal. People are out of work, and yet the banks are foreclosing mortgages and failing to lend to citizens and small businesses with good credit, all while paying their executives billions of dollars in bonuses (and after the American taxpayers forked out hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out the banks).

Mr. President, it's not that complicated, and I know you know this. I don't agree with the voters' choice in Massachusetts (as I wrote last week, I think they cut off their noses to spite their faces), but I understand the anger. And after the election, I thought to myself, "Finally, now the White House will have to admit that there is a problem and do something about it."

You see Mr. President, while I think you have been a good administrator, making some smart executive decisions in ways that your predecessor did not, you have failed to let the American people feel like you are committed to change. I believe that appearance can blur reality (like with health care, where a flawed but mostly positive bill is unpopular mostly because the Republicans did a better job of demonizing it and lying about it than you and the Democrats did of advocating for it), but the reality of many of your decisions in your first year do not comport with the idea of change.

Specifically, let's talk about the two issues that boiled over in Massachusetts: unemployment and Wall Street. A lot of people smarter than I am have argued that the message from Massachusetts is that your administration has to change course on these two issues. History shows that when Democrats try to be "Republican Lite," it's a recipe for disaster (like in 2002). Why would voters choose a fake Republican when they can have the real thing?

No, what will turn around the fortunes of your presidency and the Democratic party is for you to re-embrace the change you promised all of us in 2008. And really put change into action.

I will give you some concrete examples relating to Wall Street and unemployment. We all know that the financial crisis of 2008 was precipitated by the accumulation of nearly 30 years of deregulation, which allowed financial executives to take crazy win-win risks (they got paid massive bonuses, even as their bets lost). And yet, you have a lead economic advisor (Larry Summers) who is best known for being a deregulation advocate in the Clinton administration (and continued with the same kind of language while working for you), and you have a treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, who, while with the New York Federal Reserve, was smack in the middle of the AIG disaster (and he just came out against the Move Your Money initiative).

In short, the leaders of your economic team are (in both substance and appearance) closely aligned with Wall Street. How is this change? It isn't. And it only stokes Massachusetts-like anger.

As for unemployment, Americans are out of work and angry. They may understand, on some level, that your administration didn't create this mess, and that there is only so much that you can do to get the country out of it. But they want to know that you are on their side, and that you are doing what you can. So it is puzzling why you would respond to the Massachusetts loss by announcing a plan for a spending freeze. Who will like this proposal? Well, Republicans, who will never come over to your side anyway (after all, it was something McCain proposed during the campaign), and the financial industry. What won't it do? Help create jobs. So, again, you are viewed (not unfairly) as cozying up to the banks while neglecting average Americans. Paul Krugman called your freeze proposal "appalling on every level" and "bad economics."

Mr. President, based on your track record in running your campaign, you earned from me immense patience and respect for your approach. I trusted that you must know what you were doing, even as you appointed people like Geithner and Summers, stayed quiet on health care, let the Democrats in the House and Senate take control of key legislation like the stimulus, and sought to work with Republicans even after, again and again, they made it absolutely clear that they were not willing to make any deals that would give you any kind of political success. As you made what appeared to be questionable judgment after questionable judgment, I gave you a lot of slack, trusting you had a plan.

Well, Mr. President, I'm here to tell you that with your reaction to the Massachusetts election, I have officially rescinded your benefit of the doubt. And I know that many, many Americans who support you agree with me. To be clear, I (and we, I'm sure) still support you and still believe you have the intelligence and character to be a great leader and president. It's just that it's time for you to recognize that you've made a mistake and right the ship.

It's time for you to take actions that show Americans that you support them, not Wall Street; that you know they are out of work, and this fact is a priority driving your administration. It's time to stop making proposals that will assuage your detractors on the right and the powers-that-be in the financial industry. (Who cares what Republicans think? The party's approval ratings are lousy, too.)

People care about jobs and about fairness (they're struggling while Wall Street prospers). They don't care about deficits (that's the main concern of the bank-leaning advisors in your administration and Republicans). Sure, deficits are important, and long-term fiscal prudence is a good thing. But you have to prioritize, and right now, jobs should be the key.

It's time to be bold, Mr. President. Where is that audacity of hope? It's time to introduce a bold jobs-creation bill, and to replace your Wall Street-stained economic team members with individuals not tainted by having helped cause the financial crisis. Trying to make your detractors and those that created our current mess happy is no way to lead, and no way to galvanize support. More importantly, it's no way to solve our problems. It's time to declare to the American people, in words and deed, that starting today, you have received the message of Massachusetts (not the fake meaning assigned by Republicans, but what the voters were really saying). It's time for you to be the sincere, inspiring leader for whom they voted.

In short, Mr. President, it's time for change. Only time will tell if the country can recover from the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush. I can only imagine what further damage would be inflicted by more Republican rule. It's up to you, Mr. President, to correct your course and lead us to a better future. You've shown once that you can be an advocate of change. It's time for you to demonstrate once again that you are the man for the job. Please.

Mitchell Bard

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Citizens United Reveals the Danger of Our Right Wing Supreme Court

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

Shortly after George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004, a friend of mine said, "Well, at least we'll be rid of him forever in four years." My response was, "I wish." Although it's a tiny part of any presidential campaign, presidents leave a lasting impression on the future of America through their appointments of Supreme Court justices, who serve for life. I knew that Bush's re-election meant that his extreme right wing views would haunt us on the nation's highest court for decades. And sure enough, within two years, Bush had the opportunity to appoint two exceptioinally right wing justices, John Robers and Samuel Alito, to the Supreme Court, joining fellow extreme conservatives Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

The Bush legacy was the first thing I thought of when I read of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, because it showed how a right wing Court would not only pose a threat on hot-button issues like abortion and civil rights, but would actually be a danger to our long-cherished basic democratic principals.

President Obama said of the decision that he could not "think of anything more devastating to the public interest." In the often-hyperbolized world of political statements, it's easy to dismiss his concern as exaggerated. I assure you it is not. In short, in my opinion, there is no internal threat to traditional American principals of democracy greater than Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito, as revealed in this decision, and it is time for Americans to wake up and see what these four extremists, far out of step with the average citizen, are doing to our country.

(In a September 2009 New York Times piece, Jeffrey Rosen argued that Roberts wasn't quite as extreme to the right as Scalia and Thomas. I won't quibble on matters of degree. My point is that even if Roberts isn't quite as fringe as Scalia and Thomas, it doesn't matter, because in practice, he and Alito end up joining in on dangerous Court rulings, like in Citizens United. The fact that Roberts didn't join a handful of Thomas and/or Scalia dissents, which would have no effect on the ultimate ruling, is, in the end, meaningless, and the distinction between the Scalia/Thomas position and the Roberts stance becomes one without a difference. Or, as former Solicitor General Theodore Olson put it, “These kinds of distinctions among the conservatives are just angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin stuff.”)

I could probably write multiple pieces on different ways in which Citizens United is an abomination to anyone who respects the American political and judicial systems, but I will restrict myself here to brief discussions of two of the biggest threats posed by this repugnant ruling.

Democracy? What Democracy?
Citizens United essentially allows corporations to dump even more money into the political system than they currently do, even further drowning out the voices of average Americans. Have you enjoyed the way the pharmaceutical and insurance lobby have successfully won so much protection from Congress that not only has health care reform been limited (and, possibly, completely killed), but the percentage of GDP spent on health care has continued to climb, as Americans have paid more and more for insurance and received less and less coverage? Have you liked how the oil companies have raked in massive profits and poured billions into lobbying the government to prevent legislation that would curb pollution and encourage new energy sources, all while gas prices spike again and again, our foreign policy is compromised by our dependence on oil, global warming goes unaddressed, and we fail to develop green energy options? Have you been a fan of how the financial industry has poured billions of dollars into lobbying to forestall regulatory changes, even as the reckless ways of the industry led to a near financial crash, a severe recession and a massive federal bailout?

Well, after Citizens United, it will all be worse.

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 New York Times editorial after the ruling does a great job of outlining why the decision is so dangerous.

One side issue coming from the decision has been the argument of those on the right that the Citizens United decision would not concentrate massive amounts of power in the hands of corporations, because unions would also be freed to pour money into the political system. The argument goes that these two forces balance each other out.

Unfortunately, as usual, much of the mainstream media has picked up the conservative argument without question, not bothering to point out that corporations have monumentally more resources available than unions.

Lewis Friedland, a professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Journalism and Mass Communication (full disclosure: Lew is my academic advisor at Wisconsin), did some preliminary research to dispel the myth of the right-wing argument that the unions balance out the corporations.

Lew notes that the National Education Association, the largest union in the country, had reported assets of $188 million dollars in 2007 (to be clear, that's not the union's budget for advocacy, but all of its holdings). He wryly notes that $188 million is "barely a rounding error for a midsized regional bank holding company." Lew went on to calculate that, based on 2006 figures, there were approximately 10,000 unions in the United States with more than 200 members, and that the 38 largest unions range from the NEA, with 2.6 million members, to the United Mineworkers, who count 100,000 in its ranks. He notes that if all 38 top unions had the same assets of the NEA (something clearly not true, given that the biggest union is 26 times larger than the 38th-ranked one), the top unions, all together, would hold a bit more than $7 billion in assets.

If the unions are supposed to counterbalance corporate interests, the assumption would be that the unions have roughly the same amount of financial power as the corporations. But, clearly, with well under $10 billion, the unions don't amount to a gnat buzzing around the head of corporate America. Consider that the 2009 compensation pool for Goldman Sachs alone was $16.2 billion. Think about that for one minute. One bank paid its employees in one year more than double (and probably more than triple) the total assets of the top 38 unions in the country.

Want to go assets to assets? Fine. Again, let's just stick with the banks (putting aside the behemoths in oil, pharmaceuticals, health insurance, etc.). Lew points out that of the top 10 U.S. bank holding companies, four have assets of more than $1 trillion (Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup and Wells Fargo), with Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase holding assets of more than $2 trillion each. So these four companies, which make up one part of one industry in a much wider corporate economy, hold $6 trillion in assets. Lew argues that if just the top-four banks contributed one-tenth of one percent of their assets ($6 billion), it would represent roughly the amount of all of the assets of all of the unions in America.

So how do the unions counterbalance all of the corporations? In short, they don't.

The Supreme Court's decision in Citizens Union has bastardized the American political process. Central tenets of our cherished democratic system, such as one-person one-vote, equality, and a marketplace ideas to which everyone can contribute, and from which the best ideas are accepted, are shredded by the Court's capricious, self-serving gesture of eliminating limits on corporate political spending, one of which goes back to 1907.

Beware of Activist Judges
Republicans love to talk about the danger posed by liberals who are, in their term, "activist judges." They seek to scare the American people (Republicans? Trying to scare Americans to bully them into endorsing their policies? Shocking, right?) by self-righteously declaring that these liberals seek to bypass the will of the American people and their representatives in Congress by legislating from the bench. The line of argument has become so ingrained in the mainstream media's political discussion that when a Democratic president appoints a federal judge (especially a Supreme Court justice), it's as if the appointment starts from the defensive position of having to prove the judge is not an activist. As happens so often, the Republican lie has taken on a life of its own.

But here is the dirty little secret the GOP doesn't want you to know: The four extreme right wing Supreme Court justices are as activist as any judges can get, seeking to use their seats on the Court as a way to undo decades (sometimes more) of precedent in the service of enacting conservative policies. More precisely, the Roberts Court consistently chooses the side of those with power over those without it. As Bruce Shapiro put it in the Nation in 2007, the Roberts Court had showed "an almost gleeful judicial activism aimed not at any particular policy but at the basic configuration of power in this country. Antitrust means antiregulation, free speech means muzzling student protest, desegregation means maintaining segregation."

In a 2009 article in the New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin did a great job of nailing down the philosophy of Roberts--and by extension, the Roberts Court:

"Roberts’s record is not that of a humble moderate but, rather, that of a doctrinaire conservative. The kind of humility that Roberts favors reflects a view that the Court should almost always defer to the existing power relationships in society. In every major case since he became the nation’s seventeenth Chief Justice, Roberts has sided with the prosecution over the defendant, the state over the condemned, the executive branch over the legislative, and the corporate defendant over the individual plaintiff. Even more than Scalia, who has embodied judicial conservatism during a generation of service on the Supreme Court, Roberts has served the interests, and reflected the values, of the contemporary Republican Party."

And Toobin quotes Justice Stephen Breyer as saying from the bench during a dissent, "It is not often in the law that so few have so quickly changed so much."

From striking down a school integration plan under the Equal Protection Clause to upholding the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act to rejecting a defendant's right to DNA evidence to all but eliminating many employment discrimination cases to limiting antitrust application, the Court has been quick to resurrect long-dormant principals (ranging from decisions to constitutional principles) or overturn well-established case law (in the case of the antitrust decision, they overturned a 96-year-old precedent) to get to the result it wants. This is the text book definition of an activist court.

And as many commentators have pointed out, the allegedly activist Warren Court often had unanimous or near unanimous decisions on major cases (such as New York Times v. Sullivan and Brown v. The Board of Education), while the Roberts Court has seen a long string of 5-4 decisions, with the four fringe right wing justices teaming up with the one traditional conservative (Anthony Kennedy) to get the five necessary votes. In the Warren Court, justices across the political spectrum agreed on the judicial principles at stake. In the Roberts Court, there is a split along political and ideological lines on the big decisions.

In fact, in Citizens United, the Court overturned three precedents, going as far back as 1990.

So who is the activist?

Citizens United is just the latest (and more visible, due to its importance) in a line of Roberts Court decisions that have employed activist judicial techniques to craft decisions that diminish the rights of average Americans. A few days ago, we saw what happened when the voters of Massachusetts were angry over the lack of action in Washington against unemployment and the abuses in the financial sector. By that standard, the whole country should be irate by what the Supreme Court has become, and over the right wing political principles the Court exhibited in its decision in Citizens United. We can only hope that voters will remember, when they cast their ballots in November, who appointed the five conservative justices on the Court.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Democracy Worked in Massachusetts, Now We Have to Live with the Consequences

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

Democracy worked tonight in Massachusetts.

The citizens of the Bay State, in which Democrats outnumber Republicans three-to-one, which doesn't have a single Republican in its U.S. House delegation, and whose citizens just 14 months ago voted for Barack Obama by a margin of 62 percent to 38 percent, elected Republican Scott Brown, who happily accepted tea party support and questioned whether Obama's parents were married, over Democrat Martha Coakley for Ted Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat.

The people of Massachusetts, a state that was ahead of the curve in providing its citizens with health insurance and allowing same-sex marriages, has decided to send to the U.S. Senate as their representative someone who will align with the party of Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin. If this was about health care, even though they get coverage in their commonwealth, the people of the Bay State will have sided with insurance companies and drug manufacturers over the the tens of millions of uninsured Americans, as well as the tens of millions more suffering from increased premiums and decreased coverage. They threw in their lots with those that would invent death panels, and decided their U.S. Senator should side with the caucus whose leader claimed that passing health care reform with a public option could "cost you your life." Maybe Bay Staters were hoping Brown's Senate seat would be near his new colleague from Alabama, who 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."

Yup, democracy works. No, I'm not joking. In fact, as I've written often, I think democracy, again and again, proves that it is a system that works in giving voters exactly what they ask for. By 2004, George W. Bush had proven to be an intellectually lacking, incompetent fear monger who duped the country into an unnecessary war with no exit plan, and then botched the occupation. And yet, the American people voted him back for a second term. In exchange for making that decision, Bush was able to continue to run the country into the ground, weakening the military, getting stuck in a quagmire in Iraq, neglecting the war in Afghanistan, and culminating in the near financial crash in September 2008. Democracy worked perfectly.

And now we will get to see democracy in action again. Now we will watch as the Republicans in the Senate do exactly what they've been doing since the day Obama was sworn into office. They will obstruct. They will say no. They will lie and try and scare Americans to make sure the president doesn't get what they view as any political victories. And, most of all, they will continue to look out for corporate interests over the average American. Only now, with 41 votes, they will have the power to block every single initiative the president and the Democrats in Congress propose to address the pile of problems left to us by the incompetency of the Bush administration. Democracy worked perfectly.

Bush spent eight years running the country into the ground. The issues that seemed to bother Massachusetts voters (the economy and the abuses on Wall Street) not only originated and/or were encouraged under Bush, but the current Republicans in Congress have no desire to help on either of these counts. They oppose stimulus or anything else to help put Americans back to work (no, more tax cuts for the rich won't accomplish that goal), and they have even less interest in reforming financial regulation (they've come out against consumer protection and re-regulating the industry).

In effect, the voters of Massachusetts decided that even though it took eight years of Republican rule to create these problems, the Democrats should have solved them in 11 months (even as the Republicans tried to block solutions at every turn). And for the Democrats' failure, the state should send a Republican to Washington who has no interest in fixing the problems his party created in the first place. And again, the result will be 41 Republicans blocking any Democratic programs aimed at fixing the financial industry or unemployment. Democracy worked perfectly.

The blame game has already started, as fingers are pointed at Coakley's uninspired campaign and the complacency of Democratic leadership. But in this Internet-fueled era, in which information is available to all, especially in a relatively prosperous state like Massachusetts, it was up to the citizens of the state to choose which path to take. So the attention has to be paid not to the Coakley campaign or the White House, but to the voters of Massachusetts. They chose a candidate that, based on all available information, doesn't share the beliefs of a majority of the commonwealth's citizens. Put another way, the voters cut off their noses to spite their faces. They chose to put blame on the party that inherited the mess, and to make a statement by giving power to the party that created the problems in the first place. The spotlight should be on the citizens that cast ballots tonight. Because they made their choices, and they (and all of us) now have to live with the consequences.

Tonight, democracy worked perfectly, as it always does. But working doesn't mean we got what's best, only what we deserve.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Three Pleasant Surprises in the First Half of the TV Season

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

Publications and websites are filled with previews of the bevy of new prime-time television shows to be launched over the next month. While I have a few I'm looking forward to checking out (The Deep End looks fun, and, as a Gilmore Girls fan, I'll have to give Life Unexpected a try, although I expect to find it too schmaltzy), this is also a good time to look back at the first half of the TV season. There were an unusual number of successful new programs (like The Good Wife, Glee and FlashForward, all of which I thought were strong in their genres, just to name a few), but I want to highlight three pleasant surprises. In reverse ranking order:

3. Parks and Recreation (NBC, Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. Eastern)
I have a bad habit of hanging with a show for too long, but once I give up, my decision is usually irreversible. And on the rare occasion that I do give a program a second look (as I did with The New Adventures of Old Christine last season), I generally end up affirming my decision to stop watching. But Parks and Recreation turned out to be the exception to my rule.

Towards the end of last season, I gave up on Parks and Recreation. In my mainly negative review of the show last April, I lamented that it was a knock-off of The Office, only with a far less likable and relatable lead character, and as the season wore on, I cared less and less about what happened to Amy Poehler's clueless public servant, Leslie Knope.

Luckily, thanks to my basic sense of inertia (which sounds better than calling myself lazy), I allowed my TiVo to continue to record Parks and Recreation, not only for the final two episodes of last season, but also as this season launched. And then I started to read that the program had improved and, most importantly, that Poehler's Leslie had developed into a less cartoonish character. By Christmas, my curiosity was piqued enough to see what was going on, so I embarked on a two-day Parks and Recreation marathon, during which I watched all of the episodes I had missed. And I was surprised and pleased to find that the program had, in fact, improved.

I wouldn't put Parks and Recreation on my list of top-five-favorite sitcoms, but the show has gone from boring and off-putting to entertaining. Rashida Jones's Ann has developed from a doormat into a stronger presence, dumping her worthless boyfriend (the only element of the program I still don't like, Chris Pratt's Andy) and becoming integrated into the social circle of the parks department. The office workers (Aziz Ansari's Tom, Nick Offerman's Ron, Aubrey Plaza's April, Jim O'Heir's hapless Jerry, and Paul Schneider's Mark) have all been more fleshed out and have developed into a solid comedy ensemble. But most of all, the way the writers have humanized Peohler's Leslie has allowed the audience to invest in the wacky goings on that surround her.

The result has been a funny half hour that fits neatly into one of the last remaining non-disastrous areas of NBC's schedule: The two hours of critically acclaimed and decently rated (at least in the key 18-49 demographic) single-camera comedies on Thursday nights. In my April review, I expressed hope that with a solid cast and a top-notch show-runner like Greg Daniels, Parks and Recreation could find its way. While I wouldn't have bet on it happening at the time, I'm happy to report that the show has, in fact, improved greatly. I now watch it each week. There will be no need for any catch-up marathons anytime soon.

2. Late Night With Jimmy Fallon (NBC, Mondays through Fridays at 12:35 p.m. Eastern)
Let me start out by saying that I fully understand that there are many people out there that just don't like Jimmy Fallon. They didn't like him on Saturday Night Live (despite characters like this, this, this and this, all of whom I thought were very entertaining), and they didn't like him in the handful of movies he's done (even though he was great in Almost Famous and funny in Whip It), so they are not going to like him now that he has a late night talk show. If you fall into this group, I would advise you to skip to the last item on my list, since nothing I say is going to convince you otherwise.

But if you can take or leave Fallon, or if you are a fan of his gee-aren't-we-having-fun persona, and you haven't stayed up to watch his show (or set your DVR to record it), you are really missing out. While I still think David Letterman's Late Show is the gold standard for late night talk shows, to me, Fallon's Late Night is a strong number two and an entry in the genre that is actively expanding its constraints.

I kind of like Fallon's approach to his show, which is upbeat and joyful, like he's really, really, really happy to have the gig (whether true or not, that's the vibe that comes through the screen). His persistent use of "you guys" when talking to the audience and his penchant for calling individual audience members (and, on occasion, guests) "buddy" can be off-putting to some, but they don't bother me. Fallon's enthusiasm sets a positive tone for the show. And while there is nothing special about his monologue, I think Fallon recognizes it, since the segment is shorter than most late night openings.

I really like Fallon's audience segments, which tend to be a bit more off-center than what you see on other late night talk shows. I like the wacky games he hosts, whether it's a contest to see who can dance vigorously enough to send a winter hat and gloves flying from his or her body, or a game in which a contestant's prize is determined by the image captured by his or her cell phone camera.

But where Late Night really excels is with the celebrity interviews. I like Fallon as an interviewer. He treads a narrow line between excitement and ass-kissing admirably, and his questions can be quirky, concentrating on interesting points that may not have come up in other interviews. It's a necessity, since being based in New York (where stars with a project to plug will often make a quick trip and hit a ton of Gotham-based programs in a short period of time) and on at 12:35 means that Fallon is often getting guests who have already appeared that day, or a day or two earlier, on a ton of other talk shows.

But Late Night seems to have found a way to take that weakness and turn it into a strength. Rather than just allow the celebrities to rehash stories they've told elsewhere, Fallon often gets them involved in a game or contest. Michael Cera, a day after appearing on Late Show to promote Youth in Revolt, visited Fallon, so after a one-segment interview, Cera and an audience member played against Fallon and another audience member in a game of Taboo that was very entertaining. Similarly, when Amy Adams appeared on Late Night during a New York swing, she and Fallon spent the second segment of her visit singing karaoke ("Livin' on a Prayer," "You Don't Bring Me Flowers," and "Bust a Move," in case you're wondering). She proved to have a great voice, and the segment had a loose fun to it (especially given the humor of watching the pregnant Adams perform with Fallon). A Fred Armisen visit included him teaming up with his wife, Elisabeth Moss (of Mad Men), for a charades game against Fallon and Amy Poehler (who was not a regular guest on that episode). And Anthony Anderson and Freddie Prinze Jr., both currently playing police officers on TV, competed with Fallon in a paint ball shooting contest.

And how does a 12:35 talk show with a novice host land a Beatle as a guest? Easy. The week before his new album is set to be released, offer him the entire show. Ringo Starr played two songs off his new album, two Beatles classics, and sat for two interview segments, including answering three queries recorded by viewers via their webcams. Late night talk shows can have a cookie-cutter quality to them, but can you imagine any of them dedicating the entire hour to one guest?

Late Night's gimmicks and experiments don't always hit the mark (I haven't warmed to the wheel of carpet samples, for one), but I admire how Fallon and his crew are constantly trying to expand traditional notions of what a late night talk show segment is supposed to look like. Responding to the mess in NBC's late night schedule this week, Fallon related that both Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien advised him when he started the show to have fun and try new things, and I think it's fair to say that those two elements define Late Night perfectly. When I reviewed Fallon's debut week last March, I said he was fine, but that the program was just like any other late night talk show. Nearly a year later, I am amazed at how far Late Night has come. Simply put, the program has gone from something I caught on occasion, to something I TiVo every night.

(Besides, how can you not love any show that would produce this?)

1. ABC's Wednesday Night Comedy Lineup
I realize that it might seem strange that after regularly lambasting NBC (you can read about how they botched the whole late night disaster here), two of my three top pleasant surprises for this season came from the network. But don't let that fool you. The fact that Parks and Recreation went from poor to solid isn't going to save NBC, and considering that the network was ready to push Jimmy Fallon to 1:05, it's not like executives are maximizing that asset. Rather, while NBC's two minor successes took up the third and second spots in my roundup, in a way, ABC's victory in taking the top position is indicative of the larger problem facing NBC.

Simply put, while the other networks seem to have solid plans for targeting specific audiences with certain types of programming, NBC appears to be in an anarchic death spiral. From the outside, it would seem that NBC management's overriding goal is bankruptcy. A series of predictably bad decisions and a penchant for badly ripping off existing successes (in such a way that fails to attract audiences) has allowed NBC to go from the highest-rated network to the lowest in less than a decade.

While NBC appears rudderless, it's easy to identify what the other networks are doing: CBS has given up trying to court the 18-49 demographic, concentrating on programming high-quality, older-skewing one-hour dramas, mostly police procedurals, while offering a night-and-a-half of (mostly) quirky multi-camera sitcoms and occasional reality programs to moderate its otherwise exceptionally older median viewing age (for CBS, it's about total viewers, not viewers of any one age group). Fox looks for edgy programming to attract younger viewers while building around its handful of sturdy successes.

But for my number one pleasant surprise of the season so far, ABC takes the honors. Its approach has been interesting, in that even though the network is not averse to airing reality schlock (it is the home of The Bachelor and Extreme Makeover, after all), its executives are also not afraid to take chances on programs they view as being of high quality, even if the business prospects may not seem especially bright in conventional terms. And nowhere has this approach been more visible--or produced more unexpected success--then on Wednesday nights.

Comedy has been a bad business bet for networks in the last several years. While NBC has captured some younger viewers with its Thursday comedy lineup, legitimate new sitcom successes have been few and far between. CBS struck gold with the idiotic Two and a Half Men, and the network was rewarded for sticking with the quirky-but-quality comedies Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother, both of which have blossomed into hits (Big Bang has found a large audience this season). But on the whole, viewership for comedies has fallen, and new sitcoms have fared poorly.

And yet, ABC decided to program two full hours of new comedies on Wednesday nights this season. The network slotted in the Kelsey Grammer vehicle Hank at 8 p.m., following it with the family comedy The Middle, the multiple-family single-camera comedy Modern Family, and Cougar Town, about a newly divorced 40-year-old woman on the dating scene. Six weeks into the season, Hank was gone, a victim of low ratings and critical pans, but the other three comedies have not only garnered critical acclaim, they have generated strong ratings. And all three have already been picked up for a second season.

It would have been hard to predict ABC's success on Wednesday nights, especially with the second hour. Modern Family would be a tough-to-impossible pitch to sell to any of the other broadcast networks. The story of three linked families (the clan's patriarch, married to a much younger Colombian woman, who has a precocious son from a first marriage; his daughter, who has three kids, four if you count her adolescent-like husband; and his son, who, with his significant other, adopted a baby from Vietnam) is offbeat and lacks any major recognizable stars. And its sensibility is much closer to Arrested Development than Two and a Half Men.

Meanwhile, Cougar Town comes from Bill Lawrence, the creator of Scrubs. While I am a huge fan of Scrubs, for most of its run, it hasn't generated a large viewing audience. And Cougar Town is very much in the Scrubs mold, quirky, challenging at times, and all over the place, which is usually a formula for a devoted cult following, not a wide audience. At least Cougar Town has a legitimate sitcom star, Courtney Cox, as its lead, but as Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry and Matt LeBlanc can attest, being a former Friend doesn't guarantee success.

The success of Modern Family and Cougar Town is well-deserved. I feel the same way now about Cougar Town as I did when I gave it a glowing review in September. And Modern Family, created by sitcom veterans Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, is every bit as good. The three marriages at the heart of Modern Family all feel real, although none are ideal. You can't help think that Gloria (Sofia Vergara) married the much older Jay (Married With Children's Ed O'Neill) at least in part for his money, but you also feel the real affection she has for him, being one of the few people to look below his prickly exterior to see the well-meaning man below. I like how Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson of The Class) and Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) are not given an idealized relationship just because they are gay. Mitchell is easily embarrassed by Cameron's emotional displays (in a recent episode, Cameron's sympathy for their crying Spanish-speaking landscaper leads to him letting the poor guy marry his fiance in their house), while Mitchell's neuroses would be enough to drive away most potential mates, leading you to appreciate Cameron's patience and good nature.

I especially love the interplay between Claire (Julie Bowen of Ed) and Phil (Ty Burrell) and their three kids (ranging in age from 10 to 16ish). On the one hand, you wonder what they see in each other, as Phil is out of Claire's league, and Claire is often not especially nice to Phil. But at the same time, you feel that these two really do love each other, even if it's not in the traditional Hollywood romantic comedy sense, and they especially love being parents, even if they are often dysfunctional in the handling of their very different kids (a pretty, popular oldest daughter, a bookish middle daughter, and a not-too-bright youngest son). And they make a good match, as Phil's immaturity balances out Claire's by-the-book stiffness (and vice versa).

Modern Family, like its families, is funny and entertaining, while also feeling emotionally honest. ABC's risk has paid off in a new hit, and one that is sure to be a competitor come Emmy time.

ABC's success with new comedies on Wednesday nights is not only a pleasant surprise, but for those who want to see sitcoms endure on prime time, it might be the most important story of the season.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Equating Reid and Lott Is Flat-Out Wrong and Just the Latest Republican Game

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

Republicans are out in force calling for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's resignation over remarks he made in 2008 about Barack Obama. The argument goes that Trent Lott had to step down as majority leader after making a race-related comment in 2002, so what's good for the Republican is good for the Democrat. Sounds logical, until you look at the statements themselves, and then you see that this is just typical political game-playing by the Republicans, a party with nothing to contribute beyond trying to score political points against the president and the Democrats in Congress.

Let's be clear about what we are talking about here. Trent Lott made the following statement, in a public speech at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party:

"I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."

Lott was referring to Thurmond's 1948 run for president on a secessionist platform. During the campaign, Thurmond said:

"All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches."

So Lott was explicitly endorsing segregation as a policy.

Reid, on the other hand, in a private remark to a colleague, said in 2008 that Barack Obama could be elected president because he was “light-skinned” and had “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

There are two key differences between the two remarks.

First, Lott endorsed a specific policy that would directly effect how he would govern. By saying that America would have been better off had segregation been in place, he was supporting a policy on race--the separation of whites and African Americans, Jim Crow laws, etc.--that was anathema to most Americans. Since even the Republican party would not and could not (publicly) endorse such an extreme right-wing view of race, Lott was forced to step aside as the majority leader in the Senate.

Reid, on the other hand, did not endorse a policy. Rather, he made an observation about race in America (albeit using an outdated term to do so). He simply noted that a light-skinned African American who had the ability to speak in a manner that made some white Americans more comfortable would have a better chance of securing support from white voters. He wasn't endorsing the state of affairs, nor was he advocating any policy that was offensive or even unpopular. Instead, he was stating something that was absolutely true: Given the current state of race in the United States, someone with Obama's characteristics would be more likely to attract white voters. (And history proved Reid to be correct.) It would be impossible to make a convincing argument that Reid's statement was false.

And more importantly, while Lott could support and advocate segregationist policies as majority leader, what policy would Reid be in danger of furthering, based on his statement? What policy would he be in danger of advancing that would be racist or offensive? None. That's the difference.

Second, the two statements were made in very different forums. Lott made a speech in public. When you make remarks in a public forum, you should have no expectations of privacy, and you have to understand that your pronouncements will be viewed as a representation of your beliefs. When Lott told a large group of people that we would have avoided "all these problems" if segregation had remained in place, he was making a public statement of support for that policy.

Reid, on the other hand, made a private observation to a colleague of his take on an election race. Conversations like that one happen multiple times every day on Capitol Hill. If the Republicans want to hold Reid responsible for his private comment (and, again, he didn't say anything that in any way advanced any racist policies, nor was his remark itself racist), then how about they open up all of their public conversations about the president to the public. I'm willing to wager pretty much anything that the GOP senators have said far worse (considering what they've said in public about him).

The Republicans want everyone to think that this about Reid or some mythical double standard on how Democrats and Republicans are treated on race. But all of this has nothing at all to do with Reid or the way the parties are treated. Rather, this whole affair is indicative of where the modern Republican party is right now. The country faces myriad problems, many of them created by an incompetent Republican president enabled by a compliant Republican Congress. While the Democrats are proposing solutions (whether you agree with them or not, they are making efforts to dig the country out of the hole that George W. Bush and the Republicans in Congress created), from the stimulus bill to health care reform to policy initiatives in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Republicans don't care at all about solving the mess they made. Instead, everything is about scoring political points. From Sen. Jim DeMint's comments about Republicans trying to make health care reform into "Obama's Waterloo," to blocking confirmation of Obama's appointments (including in Homeland Security) as a way of fighting petty political battles, to even holding up funding for American troops to delay health care reform (even though Republicans questioned the patriotism of Democrats who didn't want to give Bush a blank check to further mire the country in Iraq without a plan), the GOP has put political games and protecting corporate interests well ahead of helping the American people and solving problems.

Who are the Republicans sticking up for here? It's not like African Americans are out protesting Reid's remarks. In fact, Rep. Barbara Lee, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, released a statement supporting Reid, writing:

''Senator Reid's record provides a stark contrast to actions of Republicans to block legislation that would benefit poor and minority communities -- most recently reflected in Republican opposition to the health bill now under consideration.''

So when Republicans manufacture a controversy over Reid's remarks, disingenuously comparing the situation to Lott's endorsement of segregation, I have no idea why anyone would take the nonsense so seriously. Especially as this is just the latest in a string of ridiculous statements made by the GOP, most recently their "collective pants-wetting" after the Christmas Day attempted terrorist airplane bombing, including Rudy Guiliani's very funny claim that no domestic terrorist attacks took place during Bush's presidency (even if, as he claims, Guiliani meant after 9/11, he still would be forgetting the shoe-bomber Richard Reid, the anthrax attacks and others).

The Reid and Lott statements are not the same, no matter how much the Republicans want you to believe otherwise. If the GOP would spend half the effort trying to solve America's problems that they put into lying to score political points, we would all be in better shape.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

NBC Botches the Leno-O'Brien Affair, But the Real Story is the Demise of Network Television

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

Yes, I know. I have regularly criticized NBC in this space, so much so that I wrote a column promising to be nicer to the downtrodden network. So it is not surprising that I would now come out of my grad-school-imposed temporary sabbatical to rip NBC over the Conan O'Brien-Jay Leno debacle. But, really, the whole game of late-night musical chairs is as much about the changing television landscape as it is about the incompetence of NBC's executives.

Let's get the easy part out of the way: Every inch of the Jay Leno-Conan O'Brien dealings, going back to NBC's announcement in 2004 that O'Brien would take over the Tonight Show in 2009, has been mishandled by the network. Executives didn't want to lose O'Brien, so they made a we'll-worry-about-it-in-five-years decision to push Leno, who consistently won his time slot, out of his successful perch. Back in 2004 it was clear that there were three huge problems with this decision: 1) NBC was creating a lame-duck scenario for one of its biggest stars; 2) Leno was young enough that it was unlikely the notoriously hard-working comic would be ready to be put out to pasture in 2009; and 3) O'Brien was not (and probably never will be, which is, of course, a compliment) cut out for the bland, older-skewing Tonight Show audience, and there was no reason to believe that younger, hipper fans of David Letterman would automatically abandon CBS upon O'Brien's arrival to the 11:30 slot. (O'Brien's move from the New York-based Late Show to the L.A.-based Tonight Show was more than just geographic. It represented a change in comic sensibility, and there is nothing in O'Brien's history that gave even a hint that he would be a good fit for the by-the-book, don't-offend-middle-America world Leno had happily inhabited, and I was a fan of the Late Night O'Brien.)

Nevertheless, NBC kicked the can down the road, resolving nothing.

So the five years come and go, and NBC finds itself in the position of having to replace its successful Tonight Show host while he is still winning his time slot AND possibly lose him to another network where he could compete against O'Brien and the Tonight Show (and, in all likelihood, blow NBC away in the ratings). So what does NBC do? It goes full steam ahead with the destined-for-doom plan to move O'Brien west, but faced with Leno's departure, the powers that be again panic, just as they had five years earlier, and once again made a poorly conceived decision: The network, which had seen its prime-time ratings crash in the previous decade, raised a white flag and surrendered the 10 p.m. time slot, Monday through Friday, to Leno, abandoning fiction and reality programming for those five hours a week. The thinking was remarkably short-sighted: Since Leno's talk show would be far cheaper to produce than traditional programming, the network would not need a large audience to turn a profit. Apparently, the executives looked past the idea that they would be voluntarily turning away viewers, the lifeblood of any network.

Well, it only took less than four months for NBC's panic decisions to blow up in its face. O'Brien, despite holding the advantage of attracting bigger stars to his L.A.-based program, slipped behind Letterman in the ratings. At the same time, Leno's audience, which was similar in number of viewers to his performance on the Tonight Show, was small by prime-time standards, a problem not only in itself, but in the diminished ratings of local news programs, which now had a far weaker lead-in. (A network can do a lot of things wrong, but the one cardinal sin is pissing off its affiliates.) And all of this was foreseeable.

So NBC is now panicking, trying to call a do-over on its 2009 move (something it could have avoided by leaving Leno in place in 2009 before it invested in Leno's and O'Brien's new gigs and, as importantly, did potentially irreparable damage by abandoning the 10 p.m. block). It wants to move Leno back to 11:35 after the Olympics, pushing O'Brien to 12:05. Reportedly, O'Brien can either accept the move or leave the network (Fox is a potential soft-landing spot). NBC might be able to pull off the move, but the damage has been done. Leno has been dented a bit, O'Brien becomes a potential competitor (one with a sympathetic storyline following him wherever he goes), and the network is far behind ABC, CBS and Fox in developing programming for 10:00 p.m. And who is to say that those lost viewers, at both the network and local level, will be so easily won back?

In short, for NBC, the whole thing is nothing short of a management debacle, one of Matt-Millen-in-Detroit proportions.

As I said, though, this is about more than NBC. Or maybe it is more precise to say that this whole mess, especially the Leno-to-prime-time experiment, is an example of a network not recognizing that the entire television system, as we've known it for the last 60 or so years, is falling apart.

Consider this: In November, ABC, CBS and NBC all saw double-digit declines in ratings from 2008's November sweeps in the key 18-49 demographic advertisers desire. (Even Univision fell 13 percent from 2008. Fox was up 17 percent, but much of that is due to the quirk that the 2008 World Series ended in October, while the 2009 edition, which was highly rated, slipped into November, thanks to World Baseball Classic delaying the start of the season). While ABC was off 11 percent from 2008 and CBS fell 12 percent from the previous year, NBC experienced a whopping 16 percent decline. Over all, from 2008 to 2009, prime-time ratings took a beating: CBS dropped 2.9 percent, ABC fell 9.7 percent, NBC was off 14.3 percent, and Fox experienced a 17.5 percent plummet.

Network television is in a free fall. Twenty-five years of growing cable television and 10 years of rampaging growth in Internet use, along with the rise of the digital video recorder (allowing viewers to bypass commercials) has taken its toll. (As has the niching of America, as cable and the Internet have allowed increasingly self-sorting Americans to seek out content that matches their specific interests, making it harder to attract a mass audience for nearly anything.) A slow erosion in ratings has started to spiral into an abyss. Bob Garfield, host of NPR's On the Media, argues in his book "The Chaos Scenario" that 40 percent of advertisers will reduce television spending when DVR penetration reaches 40 percent (in 2009, 32 percent of television households had a DVR). His prediction is that will happen in 2012.

The entire industry is in trouble. Television was once able to assemble a mass audience for advertisers, but with each passing year, that ability is eroding. And when NBC executives make questionable moves like they have in the Leno-O'Brien saga, it only accelerates the damage.

So yes, I'm here to once again say to NBC, "What the hell were you thinking?" But unlike the network's decision to air a whole season of Kath and Kim or program rip-off reality shows like Momma's Boys or Superstars of Dance, the botching of its late night and 10 p.m. blocks is indicative of a much larger problem. It will take smarts and creativity for television networks to adapt and prosper in the face of a rapidly changing media environment. Which must be terrifying for General Electric (and, soon, Comcast), since NBC's executives have not demonstrated much awareness and understanding in handling Leno and O'Brien.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

After the Underwear Bomber, Republicans Have Shown Their True Color: Weakness

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

Remember when Republicans portrayed themselves as tough guys? The party of John Wayne? Hard to picture now, right? Ever since an Islamic fundamentalist tried to blow up a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, Republicans have, as Steve Benen eloquently put it, engaged in a "collective display of pants-wetting."

The naked politicization of the attempted attack has been both shameful and hypocritical. (Can you imagine what these same Republicans, from Dick Cheney to members of Congress, would have done if Democrats criticized George W. Bush and sent out fund-raising mailers after 9/11?) As angry as the GOP response should make any American, what is even more important is that the Republicans are making us less safe.

It's as if the Republicans don't understand why fanatics use terrorism (something Bush definitely didn't seem to get after 9/11). The Islamic fundamentalists who wish us harm do not have the firepower to prevail against the power of the United States. But what they can do is try and unsettle us, so that we will hurt ourselves. When al-Qaeda leadership put together the 9/11 plot, there was no danger that the 19 terrorists who hijacked the four planes would defeat the United States military. But by perpetuating the tragedy, the goal was to unsettle Americans and the U.S. government, so that we would ourselves do the damage al-Qaeda didn't have the power to inflict.

And, sadly, the Bush administration played right into the terrorists' hands. It overreacted, plunging the country into an unrelated, unnecessary, draining war in Iraq. More importantly, Bush and his cronies attacked the very aspects of the U.S. that al-Qaeda could never touch: our freedoms and democratic principals. From the Patriot Act to illegal wiretapping to torture to holding people without charge, the president took an axe to the very freedoms that he said was the reason the terrorists hated us. Osama bin Laden himself could not have better choreographed what the Bush administration did after 9/11. And look at how the rest of the decade unfolded. Bush's missteps left our military stretched and more vulnerable than it had been in more than 50 years, and our surpluses had turned to deficits, all while our reputation and ability to influence the rest of the world slipped.

So here we are, a little more than eight years after 9/11. A Nigerian terrorist manages to get some chemical explosives onto a plane, but thanks to the bravery of some passengers and the limited capability of the attacker, the terrorist was unsuccessful. And, again, the Republicans play right into the terrorists' hands, engaging in a "collective display of pants-wetting," exactly what the terrorists want us to do.

Luckily, Barack Obama is not George W. Bush. As Obama's top counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, noted on Meet the Press on Sunday, charges from the likes of Cheney that Obama has not been active fighting terrorism are flat-out wrong. Obama understands that the way to beat al-Qaeda is to aggressively fight them, but also not to allow them to unsettle the United States, which is the terrorists' goal.

Clearly, after the disaster of the Bush presidency, Republicans have not paid any attention to history. But if you look at how Israel responds to terror attacks, or how the English handled IRA bombings, you can see how countries that understand the terrorists and their goals respond. No panic, keep living your life normally, but fight back with all of the power at your disposal. Somehow, Republicans seem to think that to fight back, you have to panic and surrender core American values to do so. As usual, the GOP is wrong.

As David Brooks persuasively argued in his New Year's Day column in the New York Times, there seems to be an unrealistic expectation in the United States now that human institutions will never fail. He wrote:

"Now we seem to expect perfection from government and then throw temper tantrums when it is not achieved."

Sound familiar? He might as well have been describing the Republican reaction to the underwear bomber. No reliable authority would argue that the Dutch authorities would have kept the guy off the plane had Bush, John McCain or (heaven forbid) Sarah Palin been president. And yet the first reaction of Republicans was to use the foiled attack as an excuse to win political points and blame Obama (and, of course, raise money).

It comes down to the very identity of being an American. Does being an American mean something? It used to. When America fought in World War II or opposed communism during the Cold War, it wasn't just about our team winning for the sake of winning. It wasn't Cubs-Cardinals or Celtics-Lakers. As Americans, we stood for something, namely a democratic society that respected the rule of law. We were right and they were wrong. As I've noted before, when Ronald Reagan told Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down that wall," he wasn't criticizing the architecture. He was saying, in effect, our system treats individuals correctly, and yours does not. We don't torture, we have open trials, and our citizens have freedom of speech and due process rights. Without the different principals, we would have been no better than our enemies.

The same holds true now. Of course we all (including Obama) want Americans to be safe from terrorist attacks, and we all want the government to do everything in its power to protect us. But we should want that done without giving up the values that make America special. Without these principals, we are no better than the terrorists. As Israel and England have shown us, you can fight and win and protect your people while holding onto your way of life. It just takes some courage and conviction, two things sorely lacking in the modern Republican party.

Where are the tough-guy Republicans now? When did fear and whining replace the gunslinger persona? If it was just hypocritical and repugnant, maybe we could just laugh at these cowards. But the Republican reaction has been to give the terrorists exactly what they want (just as Bush did after 9/11). And that's not funny at all.

It's times like these that I am very, very relieved that the president is Barack Obama and not George W. Bush. Obama has showed the courage that Bush lacked. Following the course of action urged by Republicans now (especially since they are, as Brennan showed, flat-out lying about Obama's policies) would be disastrous, handing the terrorists everything they want.