Sunday, December 16, 2012

Gun Control Is Just the Latest Issue Where Facts Lose Out to Emotions and Paranoia

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

This is not another impassioned plea for immediate action to enact gun control legislation. Well, at least not entirely.

With each gun massacre this year (Aurora, Colo.; Portland, Ore.; Newtown, Conn., just to name the last three well publicized ones), it would seem obvious that any discussion of how to prevent these increasingly common horrific events would have to at least consider finding ways to limit access to especially destructive weapons, especially by those most likely to use them to kill. We lose thousands of people each year to gun violence (more in six months than all the casualties of terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined). But, with each tragedy, we are quickly warned by gun supporters that we can't have that discussion. To even bring it up is to be accused of politicizing a tragedy or infringing on gun owners' freedoms.

(A side issue: With shootings coming so quickly on each other's heels now, by this theory we could never have the discussion, because before the moratorium after a shooting on discussing gun control ends, the next gun tragedy will have already taken place, leaving no accepted time for discussion.)

So we're left with an obvious problem--the prevalence of mass shootings--as well as hard data relating to the problem, but discussion of the problem is off the table.

Today it's gun control, but we're told this again and again. Climate change is an obvious problem, but we can't talk about it, so much so that the topic wasn't even raised in the three presidential debates. Why? Because one side of the political divide has perpetuated a lie that there is a lack of legitimate scientific consensus on the issue, when, in fact, there is near uniform agreement that climate change is real and man-made. Unprecedented hurricanes and tornadoes hit with horrific impact, killing people and costing billions of dollars, the polar ice is melting, sea levels are rising, but the issue can't even make it into a presidential debate.

Health care? You utter the terms "single payer" or "public option," and you are called a socialist, barraged with cherry-picked statistics about care in Canada or Europe, and told it's not up for discussion. What about the statistics that show we spend more on health care than any other country but grade poorly in quality of care (including last in a Commonwealth Fund study behind, in order, the Netherlands, the U.K., Australia, Germany, New Zealand, and Canada)? Nope, can't discuss it. John Boehner says the U.S. has the "best health care delivery system in the world," so don't bother us with your facts and evidence. If you disagree with him, you are just not a patriot.

I could go on, but the point is the same. How can we debate issues when we're not allowed to acknowledge the facts?

Back to gun control. What most people are talking about is not banning guns completely, but putting in place some reasonable restrictions that would provide a line of defense against mass killings like the one in Newtown without infringing on what most people consider reasonable uses for guns. Assault rifles, automatic weapons, weapons that don't need reloading, megaclips, etc. aren't meant for hunting or sport. They are specifically designed to do as much damage as possible to the human body. It is amazing we can't even discuss limiting these types of weapons.

And there are certain people, namely felons and those with mental illness, who should not be allowed access to guns, so we need to be careful to whom we are selling weapons. After all, we require people to take three tests (eyes, written, driving) to get a driver's license, so I'm not sure why increased scrutiny for gun licenses (or the need for them at all) is so controversial. Don't we want to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill and those with criminal records? Don't we want a system that makes it as easy as possible for gun sellers to identify these classes of individuals?

The problem is that opposition to reasonable gun control is irrational. What I mean is that the arguments of opponents come from a subjective place (feelings, tradition, paranoia, etc.) with no basis in empirical reality. The arguments I'm seeing on social networking sites and in news stories since Newtown are evasive, looking to push the discussion away from facts and figures and toward appeals to emotion. The main problems with gun control seem to be:

- People will get guns anyway, no matter the law. The problem with this argument is that you can extend it to a world of things most of us agree should be illegal. Few argue we should decriminalize heroin and meth, but they are readily obtained by those who want them. Same with counterfeit bills, insider trading, and stealing cable television. They all still exist, but that doesn't mean we would want to make these things legal.

When we, as a public, choose to make something illegal (like, if we were to say that people can't buy assault weapons), we are making a statement that the item in question is dangerous and doesn't belong in our society. Doing so makes it harder (not impossible, but harder) for people to get the item, and it provides law enforcement with an opportunity to act. We don't make things illegal with the expectation that in so doing we will completely obliterate the underlying problem. We make the thing illegal to help cut down on the problem the best we can.

Yes, eliminating weapons that don't need reloading as often would not have made Newtown impossible to happen. But that is a straw argument. The real question is would a ban on certain types of guns make it harder for disturbed individuals to get their hands on these devastating weapons and engage in mass killings. And the answer is unquestionably yes.

- Guns don't kill people, people kill people. Yes, but people kill people a lot more effectively with guns. Remember, a man went crazy in China earlier this month and slashed 22 students with a knife. Nobody died. What does that attack look like if the same man has an assault rifle? A lot like Newtown. Similarly, there has been a statistic running around the Internet in the last few days showing how gun deaths in the U.S. far outpace those in countries with stricter gun laws. It's a nice quick-hit attention-getter, but the breadth of evidence that lax gun laws lead to more shooting deaths is deep and persuasive (the Brady Campaign has collected a ton of relevant statistics on its website).

Again, the "guns don't kill people" argument completely misses the point. Of course people can kill in all sorts of ways. Limiting the sale of assault weapons wouldn't eliminate mass attacks. But it would make it harder for those contemplating these kinds of killing sprees to succeed. It's not brain surgery to figure out that the harder you make it to kill people, the fewer people will be killed.

- I want guns to defend myself/The solution to guns is more guns. I've seen all over the Internet people saying they want to be able to protect their family in case someone breaks into their home. (And let's put aside for a second the issue that the kind of gun control legislation Americans favor would not stop people from having a gun, only certain types of weapons, and only in the hands of certain people.) If we go to facts rather than gut feelings, the argument doesn't hold water. The fact is that, statistically, a gun in a home is more likely to end up harming someone in the home than an intruder and raises the chance of a homicide in the home.

This is why I say opponents of reasonable gun control are irrational. They may think that having a gun makes them safer in their homes, but the evidence points to a very different conclusion.

As for the "more guns" argument, we had a sitting member of Congress make the claim Sunday that things would have been better in Newtown if the teachers were armed.  Think about the implications of the congressman's statement: Do you want to live in a perpetual cross-fire? Again, such a view is irrational. A gun in the hands of an amateur during a highly stressful firefight is as likely to kill an innocent person as it is the assailant. And how does law enforcement sort out who is whom?

- Taking away my guns is the first step to taking away my freedom. This one is my favorite. It sounds so compelling, but it is completely without substance. How is having a gun the symbol of freedom? The only partially historically accurate facet of this argument goes to the Second Amendment's opening language: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State ..." So the argument is that the Second Amendment was intended to allow for militias to fight a suddenly tyrannical government. But in 2012, if the government decides to become tyrannical, I don't think an assault rifle is going to help, given the arsenal at the disposal of the U.S. armed forces. A semi-automatic pistol isn't going to do much against a drone attack or a bunker-busting bomb.

And, call me crazy, but I don't think a suddenly tyrannical government is something we have to worry about right now. We have way bigger problems, which include madmen going into public settings like movie theaters and elementary schools and shooting innocent people.

The "freedoms" argument is nothing more than a rhetorical smoke screen. It is, again, irrational. If the federal government were to enact a ban on assault rifles, the only people who would have their freedoms infringed would be those trying to carry out a Newtown-like attack.

- The Second Amendment doesn't allow for any limitations on the right to bear arms. Most constitutional scholars would disagree with this argument, for several reasons. First, again, the amendment begins with the reasoning for the right, the need for militias. So the right is not absolute.

Second, it took until 2010 for the Supreme Court to agree that the Second Amendment provides a personal right to bear arms. In other words, for 207 years after the Supreme Court affirmed the right of judicial review in Marbury v. Madison, no such right was recognized by the Court. It took an extremely conservative majority to do so as part of a larger agenda to establish far-right readings of everything from voting rights to the Commerce Clause. The Court's reading of the Second Amendment is not inside of the mainstream approach to the amendment of the last 200 years.

Finally, none of the rights in the Bill of Rights are absolute, so why should the Second Amendment be different? You have the right to free speech under the First Amendment, and yet the states and the federal government can prohibit defamation, speech that incites violence and obscenity. The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from warrantless searches and seizures, and yet there is a long list of exceptions (borders, airports, exigent circumstances, etc.) recognized by the Supreme Court. The Fifth Amendment protects our right to due process and against double jeopardy, but, again, there are exceptions. Same goes with the Sixth Amendment right to counsel (try asking for a court-appointed lawyer the next time you get a speeding ticket).

The point is, even if you accept that the Second Amendment limits how far the government can go in preventing citizens from acquiring guns, the right is not absolute. Surely banning convicted violent felons from buying guns would not violate their Second Amendment rights. The Court never accepted a challenge to the assault weapon ban that expired in 2004, but I'm sure most mainstream legal scholars would admit the Second Amendment would be no impediment to such a ban.

The bottom line is that arguments against reasonable, limited gun control are not based on empirical positions but on subjective gut-feelings. The reasons offered to oppose gun control are emotional responses meant to divert the argument from the evidence. And we are all suffering from the refusal to engage in a rational discussion on the topic.

It is also important to note what it is and is not being proposed, so that the paranoia of the most ardent gun supporters does not take over the debate. Nobody is talking about banning all guns. As Sen. Charles Schumer noted today, nobody in power is pretending that the Second Amendment doesn't exist. And I certainly am not dismissing the reality that guns have different geographic meanings (e.g. the family traditions and day-to-day realities of someone growing up in a rural area are very different than those of someone raised in a city), and we have to recognize those predispositions while addressing the epidemic of mass shootings.

What people are proposing are reasonable limitations on certain types of weapons and licensing procedures. The vast majority of gun control advocates are asking for common sense measures to help make it harder for someone like Lanza to brutally murder 26 people, 20 of whom were between 5 and 10 years of age.

My point here, again, is that the opposition to these reasonable measures is not rational. They don't come from reasoned arguments, the marshaling of (truthful) opposing data and evidence. Rather, those opposing reasonable gun control measures can only make lousy arguments (e.g. people would kill anyway) to cover up for gut-level reactions (e.g. "I feel safer" or "This is my culture") that are not based in evidence.

What I am asking for is that we at the very least be able to have a discussion on the issue based on reality. But I don't think we'll get one. Because in the current political environment, we don't get to have reasonable discussions based on facts. We can't talk about the effect on guns without being told we are taking away people's freedoms, even though a majority of people now support reasonable gun control measures. Just like we could not talk about the public option, even though close to 60 percent of people supported it, or global warming, even though there is virtually unanimous scientific agreement that it exists and is man-made.

I'm fine with losing an argument when both sides stick to the facts. I just think democracy can't work if we don't even have a reality-based argument in the first place.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

One Lesson from Sandy: We Can't Afford to Have a President Who Irrationally Hates Government

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

I lived virtually all of my life in the Northeast, mostly in the New York area, and the majority of my friends live there. Hurricane Sandy is more than just a political football to me. It's about as close to personally affecting me as something can be without me and my family actually living through it. So it is only natural that I am going to pay close attention to how President Obama and Mitt Romney handle the storm.

With the election a week away, it's not playing political games to look at the responses of the two candidates to Sandy and what they tell us about the two men who are asking us to entrust them with the executive power of the nation over the next four years.

I think the best way to make the comparison is by looking at two telling quotes, both by Republicans, one from yesterday and one from June 2011.

Quote 1: "The president has been outstanding in this, and so [have] the folks of FEMA."

Republican New Jersey Governor (and ardent Mitt Romney supporter) Chris Christie said this Tuesday about the response to Hurricane Sandy.

I am not making the argument that President Obama has done anything extraordinary here. He did what a president is supposed to do, what, for most of the 20th century, any president, Democrat or Republican, would have done. He competently responded to the storm, as did the agency tasked to intervene in these situations, which is led by someone qualified to do so. It's pretty basic stuff if you don't have a disdain for government that is so irrational and intense that you neglect to even take seriously the basic services expected from the federal government.

Now, you would think that should be the standard position of anyone running for president. Unfortunately, it is not. Because the modern Republican Party has a hatred for government so intense, and takes the responsibility of government to provide basic services so loosely, it is unable to take care of the basic health and safety of Americans in a time of crisis.

Don't believe me? We don't have to go too far back in history to see what the new GOP thinks of its obligations. In August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, FEMA's feeble response was on display for all to see, and people died and suffered as a result. Why was FEMA so incompetent? Because the president, George W. Bush, thought so little of the agency's role (you know, saving lives in a disaster) that he did not appoint someone to head the organization who had experience with these kinds of situations. Instead, he tapped the director of the Arabian Horse Association (a job he was fired from, apparently). In Bush's view, the government is a bad thing (short of its functions of waging unnecessary wars, apparently), so government jobs exist to reward cronies for their support.

Remember, it was under Bush that Nancy Nord, the acting head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, testified to Congress that it should not give her department more money to inspect products after a spate of Chinese exports--from dog food to children's toys--were recalled after doing damage. And Nord was the acting head because Democrats refused to confirm Bush's first choice, Michael Baroody, who as a lobbyist for the National Association of Manufacturers pursued anti-consumer policies and was about to receive a $150,000 payment from the group before taking his government position.

Reasonable people can differ on the best way to get the economy going. But a president with disdain for the basic protecting functions of government is a threat to the safety of Americans.

Now, you may be asking, how does this pertain to Mitt Romney? Well, that's easy. Let's go to the second quote:

Quote 2: "Absolutely."

The speaker of this one-word quote was Mitt Romney at a Republican presidential primary debate on June 13, 2011. The question? Should FEMA be eliminated. Romney's proposal? Privatize it. That's right, let profit-making corporations be in charge of disaster relief.

Okay, that was over a year ago. What is Romney's position on the FEMA issue now? Silence. He refused to answer questions about the debate statement after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Northeast.

Watch it yourself. Mitt Romney is asking you to vote for him to be the president of the United States, and he believes it's not the federal government's job to provide assistance in times of disaster. This isn't the hysterical ramblings of liberal blogger. It is the words of the man himself.

Romney's politically motivated, photo-op response to Sandy is especially distressing in light of the fact that he is still on the record opposing a federal response to the suffering.

Bush taught us the lesson of putting someone in charge of the executive branch with a disdain for government. It results in damage to the health and safety of Americans, as the government can no longer effectively carry out its basic protecting functions. In light of the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, we can see what a competent, reasonable chief executive means to the lives of those affected (so much so that a Republican governor with eyes on the White House is nevertheless forced to praise the sitting Democratic president).

One last thought: I am sure some of you will be saying, "Well, when Romney said he would shut down FEMA, he was just pretending to be "severely conservative" (his words) to win the nomination." But the facts just don't back up that claim. Romney's lie-fueled (debates 1, 2 and 3) race to the center didn't happen after he sewed up the nomination, nor did it happen at the convention. No, it happened at the first debate, just over a month before the general election, when he was down in the polls and had been left for dead by even some Republicans. Romney's decision to act like a moderate is a desperate campaign maneuver, nothing more.

Actions speak louder than words, and Romney chose Paul Ryan to be his running mate, the author of the far-right House budget that would slash Medicaid and Social Security and essentially destroy Medicare (turning into a voucher program that would leave tens of millions of seniors without insurance), all while giving massive tax cuts to the rich (but raising taxes on the middle class). And Romney didn't just pick Ryan; he endorsed his budget. (I wrote more about the significance of Romney tapping Ryan in this space in August.)

If Romney was just acting severely conservative, he would not have given a huge platform to the poster child for far-right, Tea Party positions.

Sometimes, in the heat of an election, it is easy for voters to forget about the bigger picture. With three debates, endless soundbites, and, if you live in a swing state, a ceaseless barrage of television ads, it is hard for some to remember the context and history of the candidates' claims. It is this hectic environment that allows Romney to, suddenly, turn his back on two years of campaigning (all caught on video) on far-right positions and shake the Etch-a-Sketch and call himself a moderate.

But sometimes, an event happens that shakes the electorate up and forces it to concentrate on who the candidates really are and what they stand for. It happened when the financial crisis hit in September 2008, and it is happening again in 2012 with Hurricane Sandy. The responses of the two candidates are symbolic of where they stand: President Obama's competence forcing a Republican rival to praise him, and Mitt Romney's silence when asked about his declaration that FEMA should be shut down and disaster relief should be privatized.

You just can't put a guy in the White House who hates government so much, he will not even take seriously its basic function to protect the American people. We have seen that scenario before, and it meant pain and suffering for too many of us.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Ben Folds Five at the Newly Renovated Capitol Theater

I headed to New York for Game 3 of the ALDS (for you baseball fans, that's the game Raul Ibanez pinch hit for Alex Rodriguez in the bottom of the 9th inning and hit a game-tying home run, and then hit a game-winning home run in the 12th), and my friend asked if I would go see Ben Folds Five with him the night I arrived. I was always a take-or-leave guy with Ben Folds, but I thought it would be fun, especially since the show was at the newly renovated Capitol Theater in Portchester in Westchester County, which previously most notably served as the spot Bob Dylan used as his rehearsal venue before going on tour (fittingly, he played the first show there when it re-opened in August; the NY Times did an article about the place).

First, the theater. It is an ideal venue for a show. Beautiful, great sound, and although the main floor is general admission (no seats), the balcony, which hangs close to the stage, has reserved seats (see photo for view) and great sight lines.

On to Ben Folds Five. This is a reunion tour for the band, as Folds has played solo (with a backing band) the last 15 years. Ben Folds Five (which, contrary to the band name, has three guys: piano, bass and drums) is one of those acts that is impossible to describe through comparison to other artists. The band's sound is unique, taking elements of pop (but with slightly off-kilter melodies), jazz (but more accessible) and rock (the bass player employs an Entwistle-like approach, with distorted sound and active lines that fill the space normally occupied by an electric guitar), all with slice-of-life, quirky lyrics that often go for a laugh, sung by Folds's expressive, higher register voice. The songs range from angsty, dark slow-tempo meditations like "Brick" (great song, not a highlight at the show, though, as Folds had trouble with some of the extreme high notes in the chorus), to mid-tempo rock songs that play like slightly-off 70s California rock songs (like "Landed," which was a highlight of the live show), to louder, faster burners like "Draw a Crowd" from the band's latest album (my favorite song of the night) and the strong show opener, "Michael Praytor, Five Years Later."

The band is a vibrant presence on stage. Folds stands at the piano on the faster songs, and the whole band plays with an urgency that energizes the crowd. Folds is funny, in a nerdy way, in his between-songs banter. And the band's harmonies were surprisingly strong. I liked every song on the night except the experimental, weird and dissonant "Narcolepsy," which was the only hiccup in a five-song finish of fast-tempo songs that really rocked the end of the set.

(The whole set list is available here.)

I was really glad I got to see Ben Folds Five (and the newly renovated Capitol Theater). The band is certainly worth checking out if you get the chance.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

George Will Says the Republicans Should Be Winning, But Here Is Why They Are Not

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

Unemployment is still high, and President Obama's convention speech was solid but not spectacular, and yet he has a small but significant lead in the polls. Obama received an an approval bump after the convention, and a bounce bigger than Mitt Romney's after the Republican convention, which wasn't much of a bounce at all.

Reacting to the unemployment situation in light of the latest disappointing jobs report, conservative columnist George Will said on Sunday's "This Week": "[I]f the Republican Party cannot win in this environment, it has to get out of politics and find another business."

But Romney is not winning. Generally, when the economy is doing this tepidly in September, it spells doom for the incumbent president. What's going on? Why is Obama winning?

Implied in Will's remark is that the Republicans are somehow not running their campaigns correctly. That is, a GOP candidate doing a good job would win in the current economic environment. I would argue that in the modern Republican party, it is impossible for Will's conception of a good candidate to secure a nomination. That is, the very qualities necessary to get a GOP nomination, especially for president, are the very characteristics that are giving Obama (and a surprising number of Democratic U.S. Senate and U.S. House candidates) the lead despite the unemployment numbers.

The current Republican argument is, essentially, this: There is too much government, so if you elect us, we will cut taxes for the wealthy and remove regulations, which will lead to a stronger economy and jobs for everyone.

I think there is a reason why this argument (offered by this GOP presidential candidate) just isn't flying with enough swing voters right now to put Romney ahead. Simply put, they don't trust him.

We live in a time of decreasing public faith in institutions, including the government. The Republican argument asks voters for an awful lot of trust. That is, a president and Congress cannot legislate the economy directly, but rather they can only make law and policy that they hope will result in positive economic developments. What Romney and his party are asking the American people to do is to trust that the policy they are offering (tax cuts for the wealthy), which will have no direct impact on middle class and working class voters struggling in the current economy, will eventually help them, because these candidates say they will.

(It should be noted that Romney and Paul Ryan are also asking the American people to trust them on the specifics of their tax policies, since they won't disclose details on what they intend to do. Such an approach can be problematic when, according to a recent Pew study, 58 percent of Americans think the wealthy currently pay too little in federal taxes, making the argument for additional tax cuts even harder to sustain.)

For this approach to work, the voters have to trust that they will benefit from the policies that will initially only help people like Romney and Ryan. And right now, enough voters don't trust the Republicans on this issue.

When the Republicans in the House brought the country to the brink of financial collapse in 2011 by holding the noncontroversial debt ceiling extension hostage, Americans had far more trust in Obama than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner or House Whip Eric Cantor to do the right thing, and it wasn't even close (48 percent v. 30 percent v. 33 percent v. 26 percent, respectively). So going into the 2012 elections, trust may not have been a strong suit for the Republicans.

And then in the Republican convention, the main takeaway from Ryan's speech was that it was filled with lies, a fact acknowledged from sources ranging from progressive media watch dogs (like Think Progress) to a columnist for the Fox News website. Ryan's subsequent lie about his marathon time (first reported not by a liberal media source but by Runner's World) only solidified his public image as a first class pervaricator.

Ryan's lies fit in well with Romney's seeming inability to tell the truth, a frequent problem for him dating back to the GOP primary campaign. More recently, Romney was nailed for running patently dishonest television commercials about Obama's welfare policy, and Rather than apologizing and pulling the spots, the Romney campaign doubled down on the lie, with an aide saying, "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers."

Clearly, Romney and Ryan aren't the guys to make a successful "trust us" argument to the electorate.

Meanwhile, one of the most lauded speeches at the Democratic convention was given by Bill Clinton, and the bulk of it found the former president debunking the assertions made by Romney, Ryan and others at the Republican convention.

It's no wonder then that the undecided voters in key swing states who will determine the winner in November are not ready to trust Romney and Ryan enough to buy into a policy that doesn't help them initially, but only will based on the promises of those who would benefit immediately. They don't trust Romney and Ryan to deliver.

Throw in the GOP's shift to the extreme right on social issues (as I discussed last month in the context of Todd Aiken's "legitimate rape" statement), which is scaring away some women voters, and the president's ability to hold a lead in the polls despite the economic conditions starts to make clear sense.

George Will may think Romney should be able to win in the current economic environment, but what he is missing is that given the hard shift to the right the Tea Party-dominated Republicans have taken in the last few years, GOP candidates are stuck with a platform and policy agenda that alienate the voters they need to reach the most. Will says that if Romney loses in November, Republicans should get out of politics, but by embracing an extreme right-wing agenda and then lying about it, it is as if the party already has.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Why Akin's Crazy Claim of "Legitimate Rape" Matters

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

Republicans have spent the last few days furiously trying to distance themselves from Missouri Rep. Todd Akin's assertion that women who are victims of "legitimate rape" do not get pregnant. They've tried to get him to drop out of his U.S. Senate race, even as polls say he's leading. But they have a tough case to make, since the real takeaway from Akin's ludicrous charge is that his approach to women's rights (if not necessarily the "legitimate rape" claim itself) is entirely consistent with the ideology of the modern Republican party.

GOP concern that the rape exception to abortion bans would be used to allow too many abortions is not new. In 2011, Akin was one of 226 sponsors of the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, which, among other things, sought to rewrite the definition of rape (to change the language to "forcible rape") in an effort to make it harder for women to get a post-rape abortion. Who else was a sponsor? Rep. Paul Ryan. With millions of Americans out of work, 226 members of Congress (nearly all Republicans) were laser-focused on abortion and limiting the definition of rape (the bill was H.R. 3, so it was among the first pieces of legislation offered that session). And Paul Ryan was one of them.

Given the waves of condemnation (as well as fundraising efforts) resulting from Akin's "legitimate rape" claim, it's no surprise that Ryan is now trying to walk back his sponsorship of H.R. 3, cutting off a questioner about Akin's claim with the statement, "Rape is rape. Rape is rape, period. End of story."

Ryan would desperately like his answer to the be the end of the story, but it won't be. It's just the beginning, as it becomes clear that Akin's "legitimate rape" charge was in keeping with the Republicans' "war on women" since taking control of the House in the 2010 midterm elections. (I detailed some of the aspects of the GOP assault on women's rights in June.)

Akin's assertion isn't problematic for Republicans because it is outrageous. It's a disaster for them because it shines a light on the GOP's disdain for women's rights.

Firedoglake recently put together a piece on Ryan's record on right-to-life issues. He voted to ban the FDA from approving any drug that could be used to abort a fetus. He voted for numerous "fetal protection" acts, including some that would criminalize a mother's behavior (not just a doctor's). He supported intervening to keep Terri Schiavo alive. He supported a bill requiring a doctor to tell mothers that the fetus could experience pain after 20 weeks. He spread the myth that health care reform legislation funded abortions. He opposed the president's requirement that health care plans provide birth control coverage. He sponsored a bill that would establish in law that life started at conception.

Ryan also sponsored the Sanctity of Human Life Act, which, if strictly interpreted, could ban not only abortion but also in vitro fertilization and some forms of birth control. He voted to defund Planned Parenthood four times. And he sponsored a "fetal personhood" bill, a concept so outside the mainstream it was voted down by the people of Mississippi last year.

And on women's issues that don't pertain to abortion, Ryan's record isn't much better. He voted against the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. And he supported the watered-down version of the Violence Against Women Act authorization that would have gutted the original law.

When it comes to women's rights issues, Ryan's record is closer to Akin's than it is to the beliefs of a majority of Americans.

And it's not just Ryan. The 2012 Republican platform supports a constitutional amendment banning abortion with no exception made for incest or rape.  Not surprising, given that Rep. Steve King of Iowa said he hadn't "heard" of someone getting pregnant from incest.

(Given Mitt Romney's epic inability to tell the truth and comic record of flip-flopping on most issues, it's hard to pin down his views on abortion. So his choice of Ryan as a running mate and willingness to run under the GOP platform will have to speak for themselves.)

The bottom line is that the Republicans have spent the last two years conducting an all-out assault on the rights of women. So when Akin made his high-profile, obviously offensive and ridiculous charge about "legitimate rape," it didn't stand as the ranting of a looney on the fringes, outside of the boundaries of his party. Rather, he made his claim under the backdrop of a history of people who really believe the nonsense he spouted. And his assertion is in line with the approach of his party, who only a year ago sought to redefine rape to make the term cover fewer attacks.

Akin isn't an outlier. He is more accurately described as sitting on the right side (but fully inside) of a party that wants to legislate a return to a 19th century view of women's rights. Akin's looney claim didn't come from nowhere. It is a product of the far right's attempts to roll back women's rights, a view that has taken over the Republican party.

Ryan and Romney desperately want voters to see Akin as outside of the GOP mainstream. But the record shows that Akin and Ryan are more in tune than divided on women's issues. Akin speaks with a Republican voice, not a fringe one, and that's something that most Americans, I'm guessing, will not see as a good thing.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Pick of Ryan for VP Slot Tells Us More About Romney Than His Campaign Speeches

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

Mitt Romney says a lot of things on the campaign trail, many of which turn out to have no relationship with the truth. But in selecting Rep. Paul Ryan to be his running mate, Romney made a statement as clear, unequivocal and truthful as he's made since announcing his run for the presidency: No matter what he says for the next nearly three months, the only path he genuinely cares about following should he be elected president is to pursue a far-right economic policy that cares only about the success of the wealthy and corporations, and takes no account on the outcome for all other Americans. Because in selecting Ryan, in effect, Romney can be saying nothing else.

Romney's severe 1920s business conservatism has always been his core belief as a politician, even beyond his Mormon faith. That's why he so easily flip-flops on so many issues. He doesn't really care about abortion, gun control, immigration, stem cells, foreign policy or even health care reform, so it was easy to take whatever position was politically expedient at the time. To Romney, these issues are just obstacles he's forced to address so he can gain power and pursue his corporate-centric, Bain Capital agenda.

Which brings us back to Romney's choice of Ryan as his running mate. Romney is making his statement loud and clear: He doesn't care about the middle class. He doesn't care about women's rights. He doesn't care about those who aren't doing as well in the current economy. He only cares about cutting taxes for the wealthy, cutting spending and providing an environment for the rich to get richer while income inequality gets worse, the middle class continues to collapse and the ranks of the unemployed and working poor swell to Hoover-era levels. In embracing Ryan, he is casting his lot with a public figure who has aggressively fought to redistribute wealth upward, from the working and middle classes to the very wealthiest.

After all, that set of values is exactly what Ryan is all about. Republicans might want to sell him as practical or intellectual, but he is nothing more than someone who Nate Silver documented as the most conservative VP nominee of the 20th and 21st centuries. He is nowhere near the mainstream, even (especially) on non-economic issues. This is a man who worships at the altar of Ayn Rand, gave a thousand dollars to Tom DeLay's defense fund, and supports fetal personhood (a concept so fringe it was voted down by the people of Mississippi), which would ban certain types of birth control.

In short, Ryan holds the positions of a right-wing extremist who poses a threat to basic American values that have sustained the people of this country for the last 80 years (and the welfare of lower, working and middle class Americans, not to mention the basic rights of women), tucked neatly behind a pleasant looking facade. Don't believe me? Okay, how about listening to Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who, as reported by Jonathan Cohn in the New Republic, called Ryan's budget: "Robin Hood in reverse — on steroids. It would likely produce the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history and likely increase poverty and inequality more than any other budget in recent times (and possibly in the nation’s history)."

This is the guy Romney chose to run by his side. Why? It's all about Ryan's far-right economic values, which match those of Romney. In April 2011 Ryan's proposed budget (which was passed by the GOP-controlled House) included provisions to phase out Medicare, drastically cut taxes for the wealthy (beyond the levels of the Bush tax cuts), raise taxes on the middle class, and gut a range of programs meant to aid the working and lower classes (62 percent of his cuts hit these vulnerable Americans, including things like cutting Pell grants). After an epic backlash (and some GOP losses in races in which Democrats ran against Ryan's plan to end Medicare, including a special election for the House in New York's GOP-leaning 26th district in 2011), Ryan revised his Medicare plan, this time turning it into a voucher system (rather than guaranteed insurance) that would leave millions of seniors without adequate health care, as well as turning Medicaid into a block grant system that would, according to a study funded by the Kaiser Foundation, leave 14 million to 27 million Americans who currently receive care without health insurance. Oh, and of course, Ryan supports the privatization of Social Security.

Robin Hood in reverse, indeed.

(Paul Krugman was in early on the dangers of Ryan's policy positions, expertly exposing Ryan's lies in a 2010 column that demonstrated how awful Ryan's policies would be for the middle class.)

The only reason for Romney to choose Ryan is that he agrees with Ryan's economic policy ambitions. There is no other explanation. Tapping Ryan was clearly not a strategic choice. While Marco Rubio might have helped attract voters in Florida (as well as Latinos in other states), and Rob Portman may have been helpful in the key swing state of Ohio, Ryan's value in his home state is virtually zero, since the only way Romney wins Wisconsin is if it's part of a massive landslide. Other than making some in Romney's right-wing base happy (and they were going to vote for him anyway, since they hate the president so much), Ryan doesn't deliver a single electoral vote to Romney. And as Ryan's out-of-the-mainstream, sure-to-be-unpopular positions make their way to the American people, he will be a hurdle for Romney to overcome in attracting moderate voters, not a candidate who helps deliver votes. (The ads targeted at seniors informing them of Ryan's plan to end Medicare as we know it virtually write themselves.)

No, the only explanation for Romney's selection of Ryan is that he actually agrees with his positions on economic issues (which is all Romney really cares about). That is the takeaway from Romney's pick. And that is the reveal of the selection: Romney is telling the American people, loudly and clearly, what he believes in. And if you're not a member of the wealthy elite, a Romney-Ryan administration will be devastating for you.

Of course, the rhetoric coming from the Romney-Ryan camp for the rest of the campaign will all be about helping the middle class get jobs and improving the life of ordinary Americans. But don't believe these lies (and they are lies) for one second. Ryan's record (it's hard to pin a "record" on Romney, since he has been on both sides of so many issues aside from his business conservatism) demonstrates exactly what a Romney-Ryan administration would do in power, and it would be an utter disaster for anyone not in the top two percent of wealth in the U.S. In announcing Ryan as his pick, Romney made the laughably dishonest claim that he and Ryan would “protect Medicare and Social Security." If by "protect" he means eliminate the popular programs and replace them with vastly inferior versions under the same name, then yeah, he wants to protect them. The disconnect between what the Romney-Ryan ticket says it wants as outcomes and the policies it advances will be massive.

By picking Ryan, Romney is telling the American people what they can really expect if he wins: The end of Medicare as we know it, the privatization of Social Security, massive tax cuts for the wealthy, tax increases for the middle class, and a general approach to governing that considers the wealthy and corporations first, and everyone else not at all. That is Romney's true religion. And by choosing Ryan, he has decided to run for the White House with the very symbol of these far-right economic policies.

Romney's choice of Ryan speaks far louder than any (usually dishonest) words that have come from his mouth. Let's hope the American people are listening.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Romney's Foreign Policy Attacks on Obama Live in a Land Without Facts

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

Imagine former Yankee shortstop Fred Stanley said Derek Jeter was a bad hitter, and he, not Jeter, was the greatest slugging shortstop in team history. You would smile at the silliness of the statement. Stanley is, of course, entitled to his opinion, but the overwhelming weight of evidence would say he is wrong. After all, aside from the fact that Stanley batted only .222 in his eight seasons in pinstripes, there is a mountain of career data to attest to Derek Jeter's greatness: 3,215 hits, an OPS+ of 117 (or 17 percent over league average), a batting average of .313 and an on-base percentage of .382, just to name a few pieces of evidence.

Put another way, in a world of facts, it is patently ridiculous for Stanley to argue that Jeter is a bad hitter and he is, in fact, better. Such a statement would be met by snickers and maybe some media coverage meant to amuse, but nobody would take Stanley's assertions seriously.

(My apologies to Mr. Stanley. I'm just using his record to make a point. I have no doubt he is a very nice guy and would never claim to be better than Derek Jeter.)

Why have I subjected you to three paragraphs filled with baseball geekery? Because in criticizing the president's foreign policy record, Mitt Romney is the Fred Stanley of presidential politics. He is making statements that go against the facts, hoping to score political points with those who are either too lazy to find out the truth or too ensconced in the right-wing, facts-optional media echo chamber to care.

Romney made a stink Tuesday, blaming the president for leaks that he found "contemptible" and "a betray[al] of our national interest," and criticizing him for his policies, including not standing up to China and Iran. Much like my imaginary Fred Stanley outburst, I found Romney's hissy fit entertaining.

After all, Obama's foreign policy record is hard to assail, if you stick to facts (something Romney doesn't like to do). Even David Brooks, who on July 16 slobbered all over Romney as the embodiment of good capitalism while criticizing the Obama campaign's attacks on Bain Capital, devoted a column to the president's stellar foreign policy record (just three days later). Brooks wrote:

"Barack Obama has been a good foreign policy president. He, Vice President Joseph Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the rest of his team have created a style of policy making that is flexible, incremental and well adapted to the specific circumstances of this moment. Following a foreign policy hedgehog, Obama’s been a pretty effective fox."

And, unfortunately for Romney, Brooks directly addressed Obama's dealings with China and Iran:

"Obama has also shown an impressive ability to learn along the way. He came into office trying to dialogue with dictators in Iran and North Korea. When that didn’t work, he learned his lesson and has been much more confrontational since.  ...

Obama has managed ambiguity well. This is most important in the case of China. When the Chinese military was overly aggressive, he stood up to China and reasserted America’s permanent presence in the Pacific. At the same time, it’s misleading to say there is a single China policy. There are myriad China policies on myriad fronts, some of which are confrontational and some of which are collaborative.

Obama has also dealt with uncertainty pretty well. No one knows what will happen if Israel or the U.S. strikes Iran’s nuclear facilities. Confronted with that shroud of ignorance, Obama has properly pushed back the moment of decision-making for as long as possible, just in case anything positive turns up. This has meant performing a delicate dance — pressing Israelis to push back their timetable while, at the same time, embracing their goals. The period of delay may be ending, but it’s been useful so far."

It's easy for Romney to jump up and down and prattle on about how the president has to stand up to bad guys, but, as Brooks points out, these matters are complex and nuanced. Watching Romney's faux tough guy hysterics becomes even more entertaining when you find out that key members of his foreign policy team were instrumental in urging the U.S. to invade Iraq. So the guy oversimplifying complicated problems, backed by a team that was colossally wrong a decade ago and ushered the country into one of the greatest foreign policy blunders in its history, is criticizing the president, whose record is so impressive a conservative columnist who had just praised the first guy as a master capitalist wrote a love letter to the president's foreign policy acumen. You can't make this stuff up!

When you throw in how much more aggressive the president has been than his predecessor in seeking out and killing Islamic militants (including stepping up drone attacks and conducting a cyberwar campaign against Iran), not to mention authorizing the daring mission to take out Osama bin Laden, who George W. Bush wasn't concerned about finding, for Romney to accuse Obama of betraying the country's interests is nothing short of laughable. And Romney's fake aggressive stance looks idiotic next to the president's actual hard line (if only Obama showed the same backbone in battling Republicans in Congress).

And, of course, the cherry on the sundae is Romney's disastrous performance today in London on the first day of his first big international trip as a candidate, which was designed to show the country that, despite having zero experience in foreign policy, he is fit to conduct the country's business abroad. (Again, you can't make this stuff up.) Romney's spectacular diplomatic gaffe, coming so early in the trip, only spotlights how silly his criticisms are of the president's foreign policy record.

(And to anticipate a right-wing talking point: Even the relatively inexperienced Obama had some foreign policy experience from his time in the U.S. Senate. Romney has literally none.)

When Romney stumbles his way through London after attacking the president's foreign policy record, he clearly has left the world of facts and truth and entered a never-never land of political accusations that pander to the values--and tap into the fears--of his base.

I have no doubt that as the campaign starts to really heat up, we will see a steady flow of equally ridiculous accusations flying from Romney on a range of issues. Hopefully, most Americans, come November, will see that Romney is the Fred Stanley of American politics. Otherwise, we'll be stuck with the equivalent of a .222 hitter in the White House.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Roberts May Have Voted to Uphold the Affordable Care Act, But His Maneuver Protects His Conservative Agenda

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

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act Thursday, and I, of course, am very happy about that. It means that tens of millions of Americans without insurance--from kids in their 20s who can stay on their parents' policy to people with pre-existing conditions who are denied insurance to those who can't afford coverage--will receive health care in the years ahead. The Affordable Care Act may not have been the best way to go (a system with a public option or simply offering Medicare for all would have been better in many ways), but the Affordable Care Act is vastly superior to what we had before.

The Court's decision has resulted in a steady flow of excited, congratulatory proclamations from those who support health care reform. I wish the story was as uniformly positive as it seems.

In the Affordable Care Act ruling (National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius), Chief Justice Roberts joined the Court's four liberal justices to uphold the individual mandate. But it's important to note that he did not do so under the Constitution's Commerce Clause, as the government asserted and as the four liberal justices accepted. Roberts explicitly found that the act would NOT be constitutional under the Commerce Clause, something on which the four other conservative justices agreed. Instead, Roberts found that the individual mandate was a constitutional exercise of Congress's power to collect taxes.

Some will ask: Who cares? That is, the Court let the act stand, people will get medical care, so what's the difference which legal principle the chief justice used to uphold the law? The answer is that while Roberts's approach worked in the Affordable Care Act case, it actually furthers the Court's politicization and increasing hostility to Congress's power to enact legislation.

The Commerce Clause is a tool through which Congress has traditionally been able to legislate on matters conservatives would rather they stay out of. Congress's taxing power covers only a limited array of issues. So it's clear that by choosing taxation over commerce, Roberts was able to vote to uphold the act without doing anything to endorse Congress's ability to make laws under the Commerce Clause, which would have gone against his conservative agenda.

Since Roberts took over in 2005, he and his allies--Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and, often, Anthony Kennedy--have sought to move the Court not just to the right, but so far to the right that the rulings are reminiscent of the late 19th century/early 20th century era in which the Court was hostile to government and protective of corporations. The Court's limits on federal authority would have been viewed as being on the conservative fringe just 20 years ago.

The political/ideological question at the center of the Affordable Care Act challenge was the limit of federal power. The Tea Party-owned Republicans in Congress and state legislatures across the country have been pushing to limit the power of Congress to enact laws, especially those that affect business. And the Court, which has grown increasingly political under Roberts, has been doing everything it can to help.

As a recent study by the Constitutional Accountability Center found, the Roberts court, since he took over in 2005, has largely ruled in a manner that has been pro-business and anti-consumer/individual. While the Burger court's rulings upheld the position of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 43 percent of cases, and the Rehnquist court sided with the Chamber 56 percent of the time, the Roberts court has backed the Chamber on 68 percent of its cases, including every decision in the 2011-2012 term through the date of the release of the study (June 21, 2012).

The political nature of the Roberts court was on full display in 2010 in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, in which the Court, in the ultimate pro-corporate opinion, overturned decades of Court precedent on campaign finance regulation to give corporations virtually untethered power to spend money on elections. The majority opinion makes the laughable assertion that heavy financial contributions do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption, and the Court stood by that laughable premise when it struck down a Montana campaign finance law last week without benefit of full briefing and oral argument in which the state was prepared to provide empirical evidence of corruption.

Even the manner in which Citizens United was decided was political in a way that would have seemed unthinkable in recent Supreme Court history. The original oral argument and briefing was on the exceedingly narrow question as to whether a documentary would fall under the purview of the challenged provisions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (also known as McCain-Feingold). But the Court instructed the lawyers to reargue and rebrief the case on the larger question of the provisions' constitutionality.

As Jeffrey Toobin put it in his account of how the Citizens United decision came together: "So, as the Chief Justice chose how broadly to change the law in this area, the real question for him, it seems, was how much he wanted to help the Republican Party. Roberts’s choice was: a lot."

The blatantly political approach employed by Scalia (as well as his frequent allies Thomas and Alito) was on full display on his dissent in the Court's recent decision overturning key provisions of Arizona's draconian immigration law. Scalia's attack on President Obama was so direct and political (and non-judicial) that mainstream publications, which often are so uninterested in the inner working of the Court that they don't even name any of the justices in reporting on decisions unless they write the main opinion, started questioning Scalia's naked practice of politics. The Los Angeles Times reflected this sentiment when it asked in a headline: "Did Justice Scalia Go Too Far This Time?"

It seems to me that the negative public reaction to Citizens United and a recent New York Times/CBS News poll showing the lowest approval rating for the Court in decades might have played a role in Roberts voting to uphold the Affordable Care Act. After all, if the Court had found the mandate unconstitutional, it would have been largely viewed as an overtly political decision, an example of legislating from the bench. But even in upholding the constitutionality of the mandate, by basing his vote on Congress's taxing power, Roberts was allowed to dodge the charge of being political without impeding the Court's ongoing commitment to the Republican/Tea Party goal of limiting federal power (including under the Commerce Clause). Roberts was able to take a loss in this one case without hurting his larger pro-business, anti-federal agenda.

So through the lens of health care policy, the Court's decision upholding the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act is both important and welcomed. But we shouldn't lose sight of what Roberts's maneuvering on the case means for the Court's future decisions. While Roberts might have reluctantly opposed the GOP on health care, his vote on the case did nothing to slow down his fringe right-wing, anti-federal, pro-business agenda from moving forward, full steam ahead.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Why Republicans Punishing a Rep for Saying "Vagina" Matters

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

When the Republican-controlled Michigan House of Representatives banned a Democratic representative from speaking because she used the word "vagina" in debating an anti-abortion bill (which has been called the "most extreme" in the nation), the story went national. Progressive sites like Huffington Post and TPM jumped on the issue, but even mainstream media like the Washington Post also covered the controversy. 

But the Michigan Republicans' reaction to the simple word "vagina" was more than just a quirky one-off story that would anger reasonable Americans and provide fodder for late-night talk show monologues. Rather, the aversion to a woman in a position of power daring to utter the word "vagina" during a debate on legislation meant to curb abortion rights is symbolic of one of the festering abscesses (yes, there are more than one) infecting the modern GOP: a destructive obsession with turning back the clock to the 1950s on the role of women in society. This obsession is not only damaging to women and our country, but it has had a disproportionate influence in directing the Republican policy agenda.

The context of Rep. Lisa Brown's use of the word is illuminating. She said: "I’m flattered you’re all so interested in my vagina. But no means no." Brown's comment was squarely at the center of the issue under examination, and the word was not slang or an expletive, but rather the anatomical description of a part of a woman's anatomy that the proposed legislation would directly affect.

There was nothing offensive, off color or controversial about Brown's remark, unless the listener has an unhealthy obsession with women's vaginas, as Republicans seem to (specifically, in controlling what they and their owners can and can't do).

This obsession is apparent in the GOP agenda after the 2010 elections, which led to the party taking control of the U.S. House of Representatives and many state legislatures. The Republicans campaigned on two primary claims: 1) health are reform would hurt seniors and others (based on lies about the legislation), and 2) Democrats were to blame for unemployment, but Republicans would create jobs. So they arguably walked away from the 2010 elections with a mandate to vote to repeal health care reform and to introduce measures to create jobs.

But that's not what happened. Instead, the House of Representatives offered nothing to address unemployment, but moved quickly to institute a decades-old, right-wing agenda, including what came to be known as a "war on women." The first bill offered by the new Republican-controlled House (H.R. 1) included a provision that defunded Planned Parenthood (which provides non-abortion-related health care, like mammograms, to millions of women), a move that would be followed by several states. H.R. 3 sought to ensure there would be no taxpayer-funded abortions. And the anti-abortion fervor was, again, followed in state legislatures across the country.

It wasn't just abortion, however, when it came to the GOP war on women. From dragging their feet and trying to weaken the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act, to blocking the Paycheck Fairness Act (again, also true at the state level), to holding a hearing on contraception coverage that primarily only included religious men (and opposing the Obama administration's decision to require health insurers to cover contraception), Republicans in Washington spent an awful lot of time, effort and political capital trying to control women's bodies, roles and options.

When Rush Limbaugh called a woman who testified in support of contraception coverage in health insurance a "slut," it was more than just a typical Limbaugh publicity-seeking, right-wing-riling stunt. The attack and the term Limbaugh used shined a light on how many Republican men think of a woman's role in society. To them, a woman who sits in front of a congressional committee and demands contraceptive coverage is a slut, because women should not be discussing such matters in public. These Republican men think women shouldn't demand equal pay, because, really, they should be at home. They can't say it out loud, but Limbaugh articulated what they think.

It's not a coincidence that three female Republican senators--Lisa Murkowski, Olympia Snowe and Kay Bailey Hutchinson--all expressed dissatisfaction with the Republican attacks on women.

The Tea Party-driven modern Republican party glorifies a 1950s role for women in society (not working, not having sex outside of marriage, not controlling their own bodies). It's inherent in their legislative priorities. And this vision was on full display with the Republicans in the Michigan House, who were so put off by a woman, who was serving as a member of the state legislature, using the anatomical/medical term "vagina," they felt they had to shut her up.

It makes one wonder: Would the Michigan Republican leadership have banned a male conservative representative for using the term "vagina" in the debate? Somehow I doubt it.

Voters will have to decide in November if this is the vision of women in America they want to be in control of the levers of government. Given that roughly half the electorate is made up of women, I'm guessing that the Republican obsession with women's sexuality and 1950s role in society won't go over too well. Many might take inspiration from Brown and say, "I’m flattered you’re all so interested in my vagina. But no means no."

Monday, May 7, 2012

Romney Blows His Chance at a "No, Ma'am" Moment

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

Mitt Romney had a chance Monday to demonstrate to the American people that he was more than an opportunistic mercenary who would say anything to win the White House. And he failed. Miserably.

Put another way, he blew his chance at a "No, ma'am" moment.

On October 10, 2008, less than a month before the presidential election, and with his standing falling in the polls in the wake of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, John McCain fielded a question at a town hall meeting in Minnesota from a woman who said, "I can't trust Obama. I have read about him and he's not, he's not uh — he's an Arab."

McCain didn't hesitate. He politely but firmly took the microphone from the woman and said, shaking his head, "No, ma'am. No, ma'am.  He's a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that's what this campaign's all about."

McCain chose the high road. He wasn't above smearing Barack Obama's character during the campaign.  He was also willing to be dishonest about Obama's record and policy positions. But there was a line of basic decency he wouldn't cross. (I am not saying that to be Arab is to be un-American, of course. But that generalization was certainly imbedded in the statement of the woman at the town hall.)

In the heat of the battle, McCain showed his basic decency with his "No, ma'am" moment.

Romney had his chance Monday to prove his integrity. At a town hall event in Cleveland, a woman, in a question to Romney, said, "We have a president right now that is operating outside the structure of our Constitution," adding, "I do agree he should be tried for treason." How did Romney respond? Did he take this moment to say, "Wait a minute. I don't agree with the president's policies, but he clearly is not trying to overthrow the U.S. government"?

Did Romney have his "No, ma'am" moment?

No. Romney stood in silence while she made the baseless and incendiary accusation, and when she was done, he just answered her question about the balance of powers, talking about how great the Constitution is. In doing so, Romney gave the impression to the crowd that either he was not going to set the woman straight or, worse, that he endorsed the speaker's ridiculous comment. And that's reprehensible.

Yes, I know after the town hall, while greeting supporters, when asked if he agreed that Obama should be tried for treason, he said, "No, of course not." But at that point it was too little, too late. McCain didn't wait to tell reporters after the town hall that Obama wasn't an untrustworthy Arab. He set the record straight, there and then, in front of the audience.

McCain knew the difference between attacking your opponent and accusing him of looking to overthrow the American government. Romney, clearly, sees no such distinction.

We're still six months away from the election, and Romney and his supporters (armed with hundreds of billions of dollars in post-Citizens United super PAC money) will no doubt unleash a fusillade of lies and fear-mongering statements aimed at smearing the president. But what we can now surmise, this early in the campaign, is that Romney, unlike McCain, will make no attempt to set the record straight on the most inflammatory, extreme (and obviously false) statements of his supporters.

That says a lot. It shows that Romney is the say-anything-to-anyone-to-get-elected mercenary so many Americans think he is. Worse, he is the human Etch a Sketch his advisor says he is.

If Romney can't stand up to nutjobs calling the president treasonous, what can he stand up to? Seemingly not anyone or anything that might cost him a vote. And that's the last thing we need from a leader, let alone the president of the United States.

We already knew it was going to be an ugly six months ahead, filled with lies coming from Romney and his supporters. But we now know that when the most inflammatory of the lies are unleashed in Romney's presence, he won't have the integrity to simply say, "No, ma'am."

Sunday, April 1, 2012

An Open Letter to Russ Feingold: Why You Have to Run for Governor

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

Dear Sen. Feingold:

As you know, the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board Friday officially certified a recall election for far-right Governor Scott Walker. This was not a close call, as the board found 900,939 valid signatures, far more than the 540,208 minimum needed to force an election.

I know you've said you won't run against Walker, but I am writing to plead with you to change your mind. I would humbly suggest that if the values you stood for in 28 years representing the people of Wisconsin--standing up for the middle class and seeking to prevent undue influence from corporations--were honest and not a campaign ploy (and I fully believe you were genuine), than running for governor in this year's recall election would be vital to protect those values, which Walker has assaulted for the last year.

I admit I fully understand why you would not want to run.

First, after 10 years in the Wisconsin State Senate and 18 years in the U.S. Senate, you have earned the opportunity to explore alternative, less-stressful ways of promoting causes you believe in, especially through heading Progressives United, which is dedicated to "stand[ing] up to the exploding corporate influence in our political system by organizing and amplifying the voices of those who believe that corporations have too much power." You have served your state and your country with distinction. It's understandable that you would like to move on.

Second, I'm sure you feel angry and betrayed by the people of Wisconsin for voting you out of office in 2010. After all, you spent three terms in the U.S. Senate standing up for the values of Wisconsin while not operating as a close-minded partisan, comfortable working with Republicans when appropriate (like McCain-Feingold) and even bucking progressives by often voting to support gun rights because you knew that such a position was consistent with the beliefs of a large number of your constituents (even if progressives like me disagreed with your stance). And your reward was not only to be rejected as part of a "wave" election in 2010, but to have the electorate choose over you a truly unimpressive, far-right ideologue who, as I wrote in October 2010, "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." I would be very angry if the people of my state chose a guy like that over me, and I'm sure you are, too.

Third, with the Koch brothers and others dumping millions of dollars into the state to defend Walker, you know that the Democratic nominee will find himself/herself in a tough spot of either making use of the same post-Citizens United issue-ad financing that you abhor or going into the election at a colossal financial disadvantage.

But here's the thing: Despite your valid reasons for staying out of the race, you need to change your mind and run for governor (and do so ASAP). I base this conclusion on two basic principles that should trump your valid concerns:

1. You (and maybe only you) can beat Walker. With Walker's buckets of corporate money and name recognition, along with the hesitancy some voters may have about the recall process (something I discussed in November), it is going to be a tough task to defeat him in the election. To do so will take an exceptional candidate, someone with statewide name recognition, a stellar record of service and the ability to appeal to moderate independents. And as the field is shaping up right now, you are the only person who would fit that description. Former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett are good executives, but Falk is unknown and has what some in Wisconsin see as the stigma of being from liberal Madison, and Barrett already lost to Walker (and Walker's team has already started blaming him for raising taxes in Milwaukee and presiding over a poor economy, a strategy that worked in 2010, even though Walker himself has been at the helm as Wisconsin has lost jobs and underperformed in the economic recovery compared to the rest of the country).

Recent polls support my take on your electability. In late February, Public Policy Polling had you ahead of Walker 52 percent to 45 percent. None of the eight other potential candidates PPP polled got 50 percent or more. Falk only edged Walker, 48 percent to 47 percent, while Barrett did only slightly better, 49 percent to 46 percent (both within the margin of error).

It seems clear that you would be, by far, the candidate most likely to beat Walker, and you may, in fact, be the only candidate that can be Walker at all. You are certainly the only candidate that has a chance to win without making use of Super PAC money.

Which brings me to the second reason you have to run:

2. This recall election will determine whether Walker continues to damage the lower and middle classes in Wisconsin. As you know well, since Walker's so-called "budget repair bill" passed, gutting collective bargaining for state workers and slashing education budgets across the state (something that has had a devastating effect on Wisconsin school districts), all while cutting taxes for the wealthy, Wisconsin's economy has been in a free fall. Specifically, the state was one of only six to contract during this period, losing tens of thousands of private sector jobs, especially in manufacturing, as neighboring states have gained jobs (especially in manufacturing). The recovery seen in the rest of the country has bypassed Wisconsin.

The center of Walker's 2010 campaign was his promise to create 250,000 jobs, but, once in office, he sacrificed the economic well being of the middle class to enact a far-right-wing wish list of initiatives that had nothing to do with creating jobs, including, in addition to union busting and gutting education spending, new laws to suppress low-income and elderly voters, no-bid privatization of energy interests, and an attack on women's right to choose and access to birth control.

Wisconsin's (non-wealthy) citizens are under siege by a governor uninterested in them. The only way to stop this attack is to vote Walker out of office.

It would certainly be a defendable assertion to argue that nobody has done more than you in the last three decades to protect the Wisconsin middle class and limit the influence of corporations. So if these causes are as important to you as you've always said they are (and I fully believe you do hold these causes dear), than you have to do what is necessary to try and stop Walker, which means running against him.

I think it's pretty clear that you can do more good right now in the Wisconsin governor's mansion than you can at Progressives United. You can drive from power a governor steadfastly pushing policies that damage most Wisconsinites.

As a result, I beg you to reconsider your decision and throw your hat into the ring for the Democratic nomination to oppose Walker in the recall election.

Submitted with nothing but respect and admiration for what you have done in three decades of public service,

Mitchell Bard
Madison, Wisconsin