Archive for category 2012 Election
The right wing has been obsessed with doing all they can to vilify and attack Obama. But if you pay attention these attacks are either broad and empty (personal attacks on him, his experience or motives) or simply wrong. The right wing was all over Obama because Putin attacked Crimea, showing real ignorance about Russian interest and world affairs, for example.
My goal here is not to argue against the babble on talk radio or the right wing blogosphere, but point out that President Obama is amassing a record that all but assures that his Presidency will be remembered as not only a success, but one of the greatest. The reasons full into four categories: 1) Policy success, including fundamental changes in the nature of public policy; 2) A successful foreign policy, shifting US interests to adjust to new political realities while extricating the US from two painful wars; 3) Economic success, preserving through the deepest economic crisis since the great depression; and 4) Personal and cultural factors – who he is, and the shifting culture of the times.
Domestic Policy: The White House was almost giddy as enrollments in Obamacare reached over 7 million, a number nobody thought they’d reach after the problems with the website roll out last year. It is almost inconceivable that this law will be repealed – the cost and disruption of doing so would be immense, and it would create a massive health care crisis. There will be reforms; once the GOP realizes the law is here to stay they’ll work on fixing problems in it rather than waging ideological jihad. But President Obama did what Nixon, Carter, and Clinton all failed to do: achieve a major health care overall to expand coverage to tens of millions (ultimately) uninsured, and slow the rate of health care cost increases.
Obama has amassed a series of other major policy victories that often get neglected, but will shape the nature of US politics in the 21st Century. He turned around the auto industry which stood on the brink of collapse in 2009. He got an economic stimulus package passed that started creating jobs, including for the first time in decades an increase in manufacturing jobs. Wall Street reform is major improvement on what we had before, and likely will protect the US from the kind of Wall Street induced crisis like that of 2008. Relatedly, the recapitalization of banks, while controversial, avoided an entire collapse of the credit market in the US and allowed for a quicker recovery than I expected – I thought in 2008 we were looking at a decade before the economy would come back.
He repealed “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” and his justice department gave considerable support to the growing move to legalize gay marriage by recognizing such marriages at the federal level, being on the right side of an irreversible cultural shift. He also worked to get the banks out of the student loan business, increase Pell grants, and make student loans easier and more accessible at a time when education is becoming more expensive. Also under Obama’s stewardship the US became the world’s leading producer of natural gas and oil for the first time since the early 70s.
Other policies involve significant education reform, toughening fuel efficiency standards, major credit card reform, improved veterans benefits, food safety, an emphasis on nutrition that may be turning around the obesity epidemic among the youth, federal regulation of tobacco, expanded national park service, massive investment in green technology (which will pay benefits long after Obama leaves office), new sentencing guidelines, and more. Obama has reshaped the policy landscape. That’s one reason the right is so beside itself hating him: he’s an effective leader that has altered the political environment and put the US on a fundamentally different path than had been the case six years ago.
Foreign Policy. The US has undertaken a quiet but very successful shift in foreign policy, including military downsizing, the Asian pivot, support for nascent democratic movements in the Mideast, and an effective effort to collaborate on international financial regulations. He ended the war in Iraq and is ending US involvement in Afghanistan, reoriented US missile defense, helped topple Gaddafi in Libya, and supported South Sudan independence. Osama Bin Laden was eliminated, and al qaeda is a shadow of what it was in 2008. Due to unprecedented cooperation between countries (even ones not exactly friendly with each other) on intelligence about terrorism, terrorism has gone from being a threat feared by Americans daily to just a nuisance.
Perhaps most importantly by ending torture policies and having two very capable Secretaries of State – Hillary Clinton and John Kerry – US prestige and clout is at its highest point since the end of the Cold War. President Obama is respected internationally, and has shown himself capable of engineering significant breakthroughs with Iran and – if reports are right – soon in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. When people claim that Putin’s taking the Crimea is a failure of Obama, they are grasping at straws. That is, as I noted, a sign of Putin’s weakness and desperation. Obama has reinvigorated US international leadership.
Economic success. When President Obama took office, the US was bleeding jobs, and the budget was out of control. Now the deficit is far lower than anyone predicted (federal spending has grown much more slowly than during the Bush Administration), and more jobs have been created than during the entire Bush Administration when the US was experiencing a bubble economy. The economy looks set to take off with increased job creation this summer, meaning that the book ends of Obama’s Presidency will be an inherited economic crisis of immense proportions at the start, and a growing and revived economy by the end.
Finally, when the GOP tried to hold the US economy hostage on the debt ceiling, Obama starred them down, refused to bend, and ultimately the GOP was forced into a humiliating retreat, being blamed for a government shut down, a downgrade in the US credit rating, and playing Russian roulette with US jobs. That was an example of the successful leadership that defines Obama’s stewardship of the economy.
Personal/cultural factors: Although the right has tried to find one, Obama has had a clean and scandal-free Presidency. He has shown himself to be a strong personal leader, using speeches, visits, and his own influence to guide policy. He is, of course, the first black President, and reflects an America that is more cosmopolitan, tolerant, and diverse. Just 20 years ago it would have been inconceivable that a black man named Barack Hussein Obama could win the Presidency.
The so-called Tea Party in the US, made up of mostly older white folk (my demographic), reflects shock at the scope of this change. They believe they are losing America to some strange force which Obama – the black President with the funny name maybe born in Kenya – personifies. He’s not “one of us,” he went to a radical church, he travels, he’s well educated, he’s not a good old boy like “W”. In that, Obama is indeed symbolic the emerging culture shift. The process is just beginning, and Obama is destined to be associated with these changes. He took office as the old order collapsed in an economic crisis and failed wars; he’ll leave office with the country revived and heading down a different path. He symbolizes a pivot to a new direction for the 21st Century.
Just as most people now forget the attacks on Reagan by the left, or the vicious attacks on Clinton by the right – the two are both remembered fondly by most Americans – the attacks on Obama will fade from the collective memory. Within ten or twenty years it’ll be clear that his Presidency was not only successful, but ranks alongside America’s greatest Presidents.
“We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.” ” Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.)
In a thought provoking piece in The New Republic, John Judis argues that the Republican party is causing one of the worst crises in American history. “Welcome to Weimar America,” he chides before launching into an entertaining and persuasive reflection on American history and the roots of the current crisis. While I’ve diagnosed the “tea party” as a nostalgic movement resenting the changes in American demography and culture, Judis argues its actually a continuation of earlier movements, including the Calhounist nullification movement that led to civil war.
We’re not likely to have civil war, but there is a real danger that the current crisis reflects growing political fragmentation destined to weaken both American democracy and strength.
But Weimar America? The electoral system of the United States works against the kind of extreme fragmentation of the German system before the rise of the Third Reich. The Weimar Republic was a straight proportional representation system which allowed dozens of parties to compete and get representation in the Reichstag. That required a Chancellor gain support from a large number of parties before being able to control a majority bloc of the parliament and govern. That worked OK until 1929, then after the Great Depression hit Germany became ungovernable. For years no government could form and President Hindenburg ruled by emergency decree. Adolf Hitler rode the unrest, instability and confusion to power, even though he never actually was elected by a majority in a free election.
That won’t happen here. Our system of single member districts assures we’re likely to stay a two party system; it’s a structural feature of how we run elections, and it does create a kind of stability. Yet other aspects of our system of government create possibilities that make the Weimar metaphor plausible. Since we do have a government divided between the executive and legislative branches (not the norm in most democracies), and the legislative branch is divided into two separate bodies of independent power, it is possible that if the culture of compromise and tradition is broken, gridlock and division could become the norm. That would destroy the essence of systemic stability that has brought us freedom and prosperity.
“Republicans have to realize how many significant gains we’ve made over the last three years, and we have, not only in cutting spending but in really turning the tide on other things. We can’t lose all that when there’s no connection now between the shutdown and the funding of Obamacare. I think now it’s a lot about pride.” Dennis Ross (R-Fl)
Ross, like other Republicans skeptical of the tactics being undertaken, recognize that the shut down and threats to default are being taken by people who have no clue what those things mean. They mutter things like “Oh, good, shut down that horrible government,” not recognizing the real consequences for the country. “The debt’s too high, let’s not increase the debt limit,” some bemoan, utterly clueless to what the impact would be of going into default. These people aren’t stupid, they’re ignorant. They are so blinded by ideology that they don’t take the time to study the real implications of what’s happening.
Luckily, John Boehner does not fit into that category. Yet he’s dealing to what one pundit called, a Republican civil war. Both parties have their ideological extremes, but usually they are kept in check by the establishment center. The extremists hate the pragmatic centrists because they “compromise on principle” and aren’t driven by ideological fervor, but they’re the ones that assure stable governance. The extremes pressure the centrists and that’s important, but in the GOP they’ve taken over the party.
And they’re mad, certain they are right, and they don’t care about the system because they’ve decided it’s “crashing and burning” anyway, and only big government lovers would suffer if the whole thing collapsed (since presumably a more “pure” America would rise from the dust). OK, not all are that extreme, but the mix of extremism and ignorance has allowed one party to put the country and the world dangerously close to catastrophe over….pride. Being ‘disrespected.’ Trying to change a law they couldn’t change the usual way.
As noted last week, the President cannot let that tactic work. That would be damaging to the Republic in the long term; as bad as the short term consequences are, it would really become Weimar America if parties started to make these games the norm. Yes, there have been government shut downs before, but the circumstances here are unique.
So the ball’s in Boehner’s court. He has to find a way to walk the tightrope of avoiding all out insurrection from his tea party wing, but not being the man who dashed the American dream by refusing to hold a vote. He understands the consequences. While Obama can’t negotiate, perhaps he can give Boehner a face saving way out. Perhaps Harry Reid and Boehner can figure out a path that gives Boehner “peace with honor.” Because right now the Republicans are risking damaging the country immensely at a time we least need it. This has to end sooner rather than later.
House Republicans are miffed that the President refuses to negotiate with them about the government shut down. “He’s willing to talk with Iran, why not us,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell bemoaned. Yet the truth of the matter is that there is nothing to negotiate. For the good of the political process, for the sake of future Presidents Republican and Democratic, and for the country, the President must remain resolute.
The Republicans are trying to gut or delay the Affordable Care Act, and using a threat to shut down the government as a means of doing so. That is, a group of people do not like a law that was passed a few years ago, and are threatening the entire country’s economy and well being in order to try to stop that law. That’s not how you do it.
In a Democratic Republic, if you don’t like a law you make the case to the public. You get your people elected, and then you change or rescind the law. You do it through a constitutional process whereby the House and Senate vote, confer, and then pass a bill. The President can sign or veto it. Congress can override the veto if they have the votes.
In this case, the 2012 election had Obamacare as a main component of the campaign. Candidate Romney vowed to rescind or at least dramatically alter the act if elected, the President vowed to maintain it. The votes were counted and the President won by a large margin. The Democrats gained seats in the Senate. And though Republicans took the majority in the House, more votes for the House went to Democrats than Republicans.
If it becomes possible for a minority to get their way and undercut laws simply by threatening to shut down the government, a horrible precedent will be set. Rather than letting the democratic process operate, dangerous and destructive games of chicken will become common place. Today it may be the GOP and the Affordable Care Act, but sometime in the future the Democrats might threaten to do the same to stop changes in Social Security.
It’s even worse than that. If the Speaker of the House allowed a free vote on conscience, the government shutdown would be averted. A number of Republicans disagree with the extremist approach being taken. But they are being silenced by a large minority, which has not only stymied the legislative process, but put the world economy at risk.
Whatever one’s view on Obamacare, there should be agreement that blackmail and threats to the very fabric of our country are not the way to oppose it. A case in point: on October 1, the first day that exchanges were up to sell insurance for Obamacare, lots of glitches and problems arose. The GOP could use that in their favor to argue against Obamacare. Instead those stories were under the radar as everyone focused on the shutdown.
I’m not saying the glitches are truly a reason to oppose Obamacare, only that the GOP should be focusing on substance to make their case before the 2014 election rather than playing Russian roulette with the economy and the jobs of nearly a million federal workers.
Today is a gorgeous day in Maine, and one of the most beautiful parks in the US, Acadia National Park, is closed thanks to the fact Congress can’t do its job. When a young child wants to watch TV and a parent says no, often the child throws a tantrum. If the parent gives in, then the child learns that tantrums work, and will more frequently and more vigor go ballistic to get his way. If the parent holds firm and there are negative consequences for the tantrum, the child soon learns that tantrums don’t work and it’s better to follow the rules.
The tea party wing of the GOP is throwing a collective tantrum. To give in would assure that shutdowns, crises and other threats to our stability become more frequent – the tactic will have worked. The President cannot let that happen.
The Republican party is congratulating itself for following through with the sequester and avoiding any new taxes — this time in the form of closing tax loopholes which most Republicans once favored — but the continuing crisis risks putting the country into a double dip recession while the American system appears dysfunctional.
The GOP wants to blame Obama for “not leading.” That’s false. We have a divided system of government and the President has never been able to lead Congress. The President can and has over the decades negotiated with Congress, made compromises, and cut deals, but divided government means checks and balances. When it works, extremes are avoided and pragmatic compromise is reached. When it fails, gridlock ensues.
So what next?
The Republicans are internally divided, as everyone knows. But that’s nothing new, in a two party system there will be vast divisions as a matter of course. Usually parties gravitate to the center, where most voters are. This isn’t happening with the Republicans, at least not yet.
The pragmatists want to move towards the center and relegate the “tea party” wing of the party to the sidelines. They think the core problem for the GOP is that the far right has had too much a say over GOP policies and made compromise seem a bad word. Symbolic is the way the far right torpedoed the effort by President Bush and John McCain to get comprehensive immigration reform passed in 2007. If they had passed that, voting patterns today might be much more friendly to the Republicans.
The most insipid slogan from the far right is that “compromise is a violation of principle.” To pragmatists, strict adherence to “principle” is mindless; context matters and compromise is a virtue. They hope to attract candidates that are moderate, reasonable, likable and able to get things done.
The jihadists don’t want to compromise. Bring on the sequester! Hell, many wanted the US to default on our debt and would be happy to shut down the government. Ted Cruz of Texas acts like a little McCarthy calling people “communist” (note to tea party: calling people communist ceased to mean anything after the end of the Cold War). Believing they represent what America “should be” they are waging a holy war to save the country. They are convinced global warming is a fraud – and due to cherry picking of dubious claims some actually believe that evidence is on their side! Some on this wing of the GOP wants to simply burn everything. They’re holy warriors!
Though it appears that while the jihadists hold the House Republican caucus hostage for a moment, the pragmatists are gaining the upper hand, especially after the unexpected defeats of 2012. Democrats gained in the Senate, kept the Presidency despite economic difficulties, and though the GOP held the house, Democrats got more votes overall. But the pragmatists need to change too – they need to learn how to connect with all voters.
The core problem of the Republican party was on display in the recent interview by Mitt and Ann Romney with Fox News. While most of the time Romney was gracious and reasonable, when they talked about their defeat it was clear they don’t get it. Mitt claimed that Obama appealed to minorities because of Obamacare — get it, that “minorities want free stuff, the government is bribing them” line. That disdain and disrespect for a large chunk of Americans — the core of the 47% quote — is a mindset that destroys the GOP brand. They want to think they are virtuous hard working self-reliant Americans while those Democrats and minorities are lazy moochers who want a handout. That is not only wrong, it’s so idiotic that it borders on the delusional.
Of course, Ann wasn’t much better, blaming the media, acting as if it were self-evident that her husband was right for the job. If anything their interview showed why the country dodged a bullet by not electing him – and how the GOP blame game prevents them from confronting real problems within their message and policy preferences. And Romney is one of the pragmatists!
In an ideal world the Democrats would be coming to the debate demanding tax increases while trying to defend so-called entitlements and aid to those already suffering the most. The Republicans would counter demanding spending cuts and deep entitlement reform.
After a process of negotiation the result would be a compromise. Entitlement reform and spending cuts that piss off the left wing of the Democratic party alongside tax increases that piss off the right wing of the Republican party. The idealists would be trumped by the pragmatists on both sides, that’s how our system is supposed to work.
But that won’t happen. The jihadists have hijacked the Republican party and they won’t compromise. It’s all spending cuts and deep entitlement reform or nothing. And of course, with a demand like that they’ll get nothing. The deficit will grow faster than if they compromised, they’re shooting themselves in the foot.
So President Obama needs to make them an offer they can’t refuse. He needs to offer them real cuts through a restructuring of programs that brings about significant savings, in exchange for a mix of tax reform to increase revenue and investments to have our economy competitive for the new century.
The President should be specific. He should expect but not fear criticism from his own left flank. He should tell the American people “these are the cuts and reforms the Republicans want, and we’re willing to compromise and give them that, but they won’t take yes for an answer because they’re protecting tax breaks for big corporations and wealthy fat cats. They care more about protecting the rich than cutting the deficit and reforming wasteful programs.”
At that point, Republican pragmatists will realize that this is the best they can possibly achieve and will be good for the country. They will be able to undermine the jihadists. Without a compromise, it becomes the big campaign issue of 2014. To tea partiers thinking 2014 will be another 2010, think again. The Democrats learned their lesson, they’re already targeting districts for a ground game more like a Presidential year than an off year election.
After all, if the GOP can’t compromise at all, well, all the President has is the bully pulpit and the powers of the executive branch. Expect him to use both.
”With a convincing re-election under his belt, it is more difficult to paint President Obama as illegitimate, but the unhinged, hate-fueled impulse still exists. The Birthers may have been finally sidelined from decent conversation, but the essential disrespect and near-dehumanization of this president keeps bubbling up. History will be harsh in its judgment against these peddlers of conspiracy theories – they won’t be seen as the patriots they imagine but as crackpot reactionaries who ended up hurting the credibility of their fellow conservatives.” – John Avlon, Daily Beast
Avlon was writing about the latest conspiracy theory: a claim that Obama hates guns and thus would never shoot skeet. But he raises a larger point: the anti-Obama venom of the far right has been over the top and bordering on the bizarre. That harms the Republican party and those conservatives who decry and condemn such wild accusations. The left didn’t like Bush, but didn’t have such outlandish paranoia.
Those who cannot respect and accept that Obama is President, who need to try to claim he’s anti-American, fascist or some kind of foreign agent, are not conservative but reactionary. This is the same segment of the political spectrum that spawned the KKK, fought against interracial marriage and de-segregation, and wanted to keep women in the kitchen. It represents a minority on the right, but is quite vocal.
Expect it to get worse. As gay marriage becomes ever more mainstream, women serve in combat, the ethnic make up of the country continues to change, and the information revolution further pushes traditional ways of doing things into the past, these people will feel that they’re losing everything. They’ll think their freedom is being taken. The masses who don’t agree with them will be derided as “sheeple” complicate in the destruction of America. They’ll the minority poor and immigrants as parasites who suck up our tax dollars. They’re warn against internationalists who want to have the US part of a broader global network rather than being in control – fear of the UN and international treaties will continue apace.
Consider the vitriol against Obama. It’s not just that he’s liberal. There are many mainstream conservatives claiming that he’s moving too far to the left and questioning his agenda. That’s legitimate. It’s when suddenly there is a conspiracy everywhere – the birthers, skeet shooting, Hillary faking illness because of Benghazi (and I’ve never figured out what they thought the conspiracy about Benghazi even was), etc. – there is a loss of contact with reality.
Why would people fall for that sort of thing? People tend to think emotionally rather than rationally. No rational look at Obama’s policies, speeches or plans could warrant any kind of paranoia. He’s been establishment Democrat, left of center, but also severely criticized by the left wing of his own party for being too moderate. He ran an election based on his record, and the people approved of his leadership.
What drives that emotion is that just as many of them thought for sure Romney would win, four years ago they were convinced Obama would fail. They didn’t realize he’d show strong leadership skills, deftly handle the economic crisis, restore America’s reputation globally, successfully disengage from Iraq and avoid real scandal.
That creates cognitive dissonance. They expected an incompetent radical but got a politically gifted moderate. Most conservatives, sometimes grudgingly, have come to admit that Obama does have excellent leadership skills and has deftly handled the politics of his office in a time of economic crisis and war. That’s no easy task, and winning re-election under those conditions is impressive. Just as liberals in 1984 started to admit that Reagan was not the light weight they had believed, conservatives now realize Obama has what it takes for the job of being President.
But some can’t do that. It’s not just because of cognitive dissonance, but the recognition that their world view is being falsified by how history is unfolding. In issue after issue America is changing, the latest being states voting to implement same sex marriage and Congress increasing taxes on the very wealthy. Immigration reform is coming. Globalization is real and it restrains US power and alters the nature of sovereignty. Some are used to a black and white Cold War world with America the leader of the “good.” While after 9-11 some tried to see a similar Islam vs. the West dynamic, that view has faded. Instead, the world is more complex and interdependent.
Obama symbolizes these changes. He is a minority. He has a strange name, Barack Hussein Obama. He doesn’t seem to be what they consider a good American to be – he’s urban, sophisticated, spent many years growing up outside the country, and doesn’t look like a traditional President. Obama symbolizes what reactionaries fear.
What they don’t know is that they’ve already lost that battle. The religious extremists have been slapped down even within the GOP. The country is changing – just as the KKK and southern conservatives couldn’t stop blacks from getting equal rights, cultural change cannot be held back by a handful of reactionaries.
Expect the talk to drift towards “armed rebellion” and paranoia that small limits on ammunition and types of weapons is some kind of wild governmental gun grab. Paranoia, extremism, anger, hate, vitriol — all kind of defense mechanism against having to accept that their world view is not going to prevail.
Conservatism began in Great Britain as an effort to protect the aristocracy and traditions from democracy, capitalism and the masses. It morphed as society morphed, ultimately accepting capitalism and democracy. Modern conservatism has always been progressive – but with the caveat that change in policy should not outpace changes in culture. Conservatives thus have traditionally been pragmatic and very skeptical of ideology.
The extremists and Obamaphobes are not true conservatives. They are reactionaries wanting to cling to a past that is already gone. When they steer the GOP and don the conservative label they damage real conservatism and contribute nothing to solving the problems this country faces moving into the 21st Century.
Many Republicans, including RNC Chair Reince Priebus, think that it would be a good idea to change the way we award electoral college votes. A state is allocated electoral votes based on the number of Representatives and Senators they have. So Maine, with two Congresspeople and two Senators, gets four votes. In most states whoever wins the state gets all of that state’s electoral votes.
Republicans would like to change that to award electoral votes by district, which is currently the practice in Maine and Nebraska. So in Maine one vote goes to the winner of the first district, and one to the winner of the second. The final two go to whoever wins the most popular votes in the state.
However, there is a dark side to this idea. While Maine and Nebraska choose their system in a bi-partisan manner, without one party wanting to use a change in rules to rig the election in their favor, plans now are pushed only by the GOP with the specific goal of trying to improve their chance to win the Presidency, even if they lose the popular vote.
Simply, the purpose is to undermine the democratic will of the people so one party can get and hold on to power regardless of whether or not they have popular support. That is the kind of plot one expects to see in third world states rather than a country that claims to be the world’s greatest democracy.
As the maps above shows, even though President Obama easily won the popular vote by a four point margin, with a hefty 332 electoral votes, awarding them by district would have given Mitt Romney the Presidency. Democratic districts tend to be urban and overwhelmingly Democratic – sometimes over 90%, some precincts get no Republican votes! Republican districts in the suburbs and rural areas have a significant number of Democrats, rarely below 30%.
Another problem has been gerrymandering. That’s when the party in power redraws the districts with the intent of using district boundaries to make it easier for their party to win. Consider: the Democrats got far more votes for their candidates for the House of Representatives than did the Republicans. But the GOP easily maintained their majority of seats.
Virginia was the first state to seriously consider changing how it awards electoral votes after the 2012 election. The Republican party there hatched a plan to not only award electoral votes by district, but to give the two extra votes each state has (based on two Senators) to the person who won the most districts rather than to however won the popular vote. That would be different than the Nebraska and Maine systems, and mean that although President Obama won Virginia by 3%, he would have gotten only 4 electoral votes to Romney’s 9! Again, that’s the kind of shenanigans you’d expect in some banana republic.
The Virginia plan appears dead for now, thanks to opposition from two Republican State Senators and the Governor, but many said they didn’t like the timing rather than the idea. Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan are also considering such action – all of it very partisan and with intense opposition from the other side. Those are also “blue” states in which awarding by district would give the Republicans a majority of electoral votes.
What would the ramifications of the change be? If a few “blue” states changed their system then it would increase the chance for a Republican to win the Presidency in 2016, even if he or she fails to win the popular vote. But just as the cuts in early voting led to a backlash against the Republicans in states like Florida, the unintended consequences of such a move could hurt the GOP.
Democrats would be forced to compete more intensively in areas they now cede to the Republicans. That could ultimately expand the Democratic party and endanger currently safe Republican House members. Beyond that, state politics would be injected with more anger and partisanship.
One can imagine that Democrats would undo the changes if they managed to get power, and the issue could make it harder for parties to cooperate in times where problem solving is necessary. It is time for Republican leaders to say that changing the way we elect our President is a serious matter and should not be done on a partisan basis to try to use the rules to rig elections.
The Republicans should follow the lead of people like Bobby Jindal who recognize that the party needs to appeal to the majority, rather than looking to change the laws in order to grab power. It is a sign of desperation that some Republicans would even consider trying to change the rules so they can win power even if they can’t win vote. It is also an opening for people like Jindal to take the lead and recast the Republican party to be able to compete to win a majority of votes, not just electoral districts. America needs two strong, competitive parties.
I have long felt that President Obama is destined to be remembered as one of the great Presidents in US history. He came into office during a crisis, he is governing in a period of intense national and global transformation, and has true challenges to overcome.
In his second inaugural address President Obama made it very clear he’s not just looking to defend accomplishments of the past or stop Republicans from undermining social security or medicare. Instead he made the case for moving forward, and tackling problems such as climate change, advancing causes like gay rights, and working to undo the slow deterioration of the middle class as wealth gets every more concentrated at the top.
Obama’s speech — and his re-election — might ultimately be remembered as the time when the US shifted from the path of deficits, tax reduction and distrust in government towards a new progressivism, rooted not in ideology but American values.
A few important snippets from Obama’s speech:
“For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship. We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”
This is a clear indication that over the next four years the President isn’t just going to cut spending and/or raise taxes, but challenge Congress to rethink the core of our economic policies. The path we’ve been on has lead to the most severe crisis since the Great Depression, and has left the middle class battered and bruised. We must rethink economic conventional wisdom for an era of globalization. Another:
“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.”
People have been bemoaning the lack of attention given by the President to an issue many consider the most important of our time – preserving the planet for coming generations by preparing for already evident climate change. There is no reasonable way to deny human caused climate change. There is a self-contained alternative narrative that tries to posit everything from scientists as being frauds to get government funds or cherry picked data, but even one time skeptics are admitting that the evidence is overwhelming. Moreover, not acting will cause us to fall further behind the development of future technology. Another:
Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.
The President’s words, coming after a reminder of the message of Martin Luther King 50 years ago, makes gay rights just as important a civil rights issue as any. Just as you don’t deny marriage, housing, service or care to people on the basis of color, the days are ending when bigotry against gays was tolerated because people thought there was “something wrong” with them.
We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years, and four hundred years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.
A recognition that movement forward will often be slow, and in small steps. That even if we set goals, we cannot get there unless we are pragmatic, and recognize that change builds over time. Some activists see pragmatism or compromise as surrender, a violation of principle. The President is telling those activists that’s not how our nation works. We move slowly, and we always have. Partial victories beget more partial victories, and with issues such as gay marriage change grows until it becomes inexorable.
President Obama has the chance to grab the mantel of greatness in his second term. His vision is there, his leadership has been proven effective, and the country is in the midst of transformation. I wish for him the wisdom to make the right call in ambiguous situations, to use the Presidency as a bully pulpit to continue to talk about American values, and to forge a path forward into the 21st century!
Notice anything interesting about this map? The US is in a lighter shade of blue then New England, which is off colored and unlabeled. This map is from a Republican guide to finding one’s Senators and representatives. To the GOP New England appears to be persona non grata.
Indeed, with a few exceptions (Senators from Maine and New Hampshire) the region has become very Democratic. New England along with the upper Northwest were the only regions where white males supported Obama in the election.
Not only that, but New England Republicans are distrusted in their own party. They are often pro-choice, moderate and labeled RINOs (Republican in name only) by ideological conservatives. Maine Senators Collins and Snowe voted to acquit President Clinton after his impeachment, breaking with their party. Senator Snowe’s retirement this year was in part a reaction to all the anger and partisanship that has overtaken the Senate. Yes, Maine has a tea party governor, but that’s only because of a three way race in which 39% could win.
This is interesting because New England does not fit the usual left-right demographic patterns. Maine is the most white and least diverse state in the union. New Englanders are pragmatic and rather conservative. But there is one thing that sets the region apart: ideology is distrusted. Here in Maine the tea party governor couldn’t get his fellow Republicans to impose a true conservative agenda when they had control of both houses. Instead they continued the tradition of trying to build consensus, often angering Governor LePage. I supported President Obama, but voted for many Maine Republicans – it’s not good vs. evil here!
It’s a part of the pragmatism – a sense that the difficult problems we face can’t be addressed by looking to fancy theories and ideologies, but by compromising with a goal of solving problems. In that New Englanders are more conservative than many Republicans who have a radical ideological world view – to implement ‘true capitalism’ or some other ideologically motivated “solution” to our problems.
Ideologies are seductive. The present truths in simple terms and make seem like all you have to do to solve our problems is follow the ideological precepts. People who want to be right, who don’t want to deal with complexity and uncertainty, often find ideologies very comforting. They are a kind of secular religion, you can interpret the world through an ideology and avoid cognitive dissonance. As Communism demonstrated, people can cling to ideologies even when it’s absolutely crystal clear that the evidence proves them wrong.
An example of that taken to the extreme can be seen in this over the top interview of Alex Jones by Piers Morgan:
Ideologues can ignore reality because its so complex that you can always find some other reason to explain what went wrong. Communist ideologues blamed the West or others for making the ‘path to socialism’ more difficult. Capitalist ideologues embrace the market, and find reasons to dismiss evidence that shows markets can be inhumane and corrupted when not regulated.
I don’t think Republicans or Democrats outside New England are all ideologues. Rather, media plays a role to socialize people to embrace ideological thinking by creating a narrative that makes it seem natural. Powerful corporate actors like the “Club for Growth” use money to manipulate the process and create an ideological political climate.
The classic example of media narrative is the last election. On the right there was a widespread belief that Romney would easily beat Obama this year, a belief held by even people high up in the Romney campaign. The narrative seemed logical: the polls over sample Democrats, Obama’s supporters aren’t as enthused, Republicans are angry and want Obama gone, the 2010 spirit still exists, the media is overstating Obama’s chances because they like him, etc.
If you looked at the evidence it was pretty clear that those arguments were weak – that the expectation had to be that Obama would win. However, FOX news, talk radio, conservative blogs, and media outlets on the right stated that case over and over like it was a fact, and then added that the mainstream media was untrustworthy, in the pocket of Obama and even trying to demoralize the right. In other words, rather than rationally analyze the narrative, they found excuses on why not to take the counter arguments seriously.
This happens on many issues – climate change, taxes, the economy, guns, terrorism, the debt ceiling. There is an ideology-driven understanding of reality that is spread by talk radio, FOX, and a host of blogs and pundits that is designed not to analyze a perspective but to promote and defend it because it is deemed true – the ideology is unquestioned.
This penchant for ideology-based understandings of reality is destroying the Republican party. I do not believe John Boehner or Mitch McConnell are ideologues, but they are held captive by the fringes of their party. Moreover, there are signs many on the left want to emulate the ideologues on the right by embracing partisan war. That has to stop. It is time for pragmatism, pragmatism is the enemy of ideology.
Ideologues claim they are embracing principle, but that’s an illusion. They are embracing simple rules. Reality is complex and simple principles don’t work. Context matters, it changes the meaning of every act. Ideologues left and right will use terms like freedom, social justice, equality and even peace to give their causes the air of moral authority. But beware any theory-driven understanding of a complex reality, and beware of those who interpret everything through their ideological lens rather than comparing and contrasting different perspectives.
Pragmatism is messy, but it’s the only way forward in difficult times.
Rachel Maddow of MSNBC said that many on the far right are getting rich on “impotent rage,” firing up their listeners to be angry about Obama’s re-election but unable to do anything about it. Well, you might say, that’s Maddow, she always chastises conservatives. Yet conservatives William Kristol and Joe Scarborough have also decried the way some on the right — talk radio, especially — are getting rich off a style that pushes for an uncompromising and unrealistic stand on absolutist “principles.”
The problem in the GOP is that the reasonable people of the party are having to deal with a large, media savvy group of conservatives who have fostered a cult like thinking.
That is not only un-American, it is also un-Conservative and irrational.
It is un-American because our system is based on the idea that no individual or group has an absolute claim on truth. Democracy is a way to get people to debate, learn from each other, and try to figure out the best compromise. We learn as we go based on what works and what does not. The idea that we should focus simply on ideology or principle would be foreign to the founders. Their principles were broad based and open to diverse ideas.
It is un-Conservative because conservatives value tradition, social stability and a sense of community. Conservatives have adopted a strong free market perspective but have always recognized that markets have limits and that the good of the country trumps any ideological stand point. And, given that tradition involves compromise and deliberation, the extremism of Neil Boortz and Rush Limbaugh is distinctly anti-conservative.
It is irrational because it focuses on pushing a party line with the vehemence of a religious extremist. The “true” conservative values are XY and Z. Those who seek compromise and moderation are “RINOs” (Republicans in name only). This desire for conservative purity has cost them the Senate. Ideology-based thinking leads them to embrace clearly false claims – that there is no human caused climate change, the earth is 9000 years old, women’s vaginas magically shut down the possibility of pregnancy when they are raped and other such non-sense. Truth is not based on science and evidence, but on what would be true if their ideology was infallible.
Here are some questions. Answer yes to any of them, and you just might be a conservative cultist:
1. Do you believe Obama has a secret agenda to push the US towards socialism and away from a market economy?
2. Do you believe that Obama hates America and wants to give our sovereignty to the UN?
3. Do you know who Alinsky is, and do you think somehow Obama is following some kind of plot of his making?
4. Are you convinced that the Democrats simply try to buy votes by giving people stuff?
5. Do you secretly (or even openly) wish women couldn’t vote because they aren’t truly rational?
6. Do you think votes should be weighted by wealth, since the poor have ‘no skin’ in the game?
7. Do you believe that Obama is an incompetent narcissist who has no leadership capacity?
8. Do you believe there is a nefarious “agenda” out there that gays, internationalists, liberals and other types are following, which would stab America in the back and move us away from our core values?
9. Do you think the country is on the road to collapse, and figure the GOP should just let Obama have his way so the Republicans aren’t co-responsible – the “let it burn” argument?
If you said yes to more than one of these, you just might be a member of a cult!
I’ve even read blogs where someone seriously posts that people should keep any pledge they have made (meaning the Norquist pledge) no matter what, because you never break a pledge. However, what if they decide that under current conditions the Norquist pledge would lead them to actions that do harm to the country? Should our elected representatives really be more concerned about keeping a pledge than doing what’s right? Or is Peter Parker aka Spiderman right – sometimes the best promises are those we are willing to break? After all, many German soldiers didn’t turn on Hitler even when they saw what was happening because they took an oath to Hitler. I think its simple minded blindness to keep an oath just because you took it, no matter what.
True conservatives won’t play that game. They recognize that they have something to bring to the table and they can force Obama to compromise (and Obama has shown a willingness to compromise). They don’t demand strict adherence to “principles.” An uncompromising devotion to absolute principles is for the narrow minded. Principles are simplified general ideals, but in the real world those simplification break down. Blind adherence to principle is the mark of someone unwilling to embrace real world complexity – a cultist, in other words.
You see it on blogs and talk radio especially. I’ve been in many debates, sometimes heated, with conservatives. But usually we don’t take it personally, nor do we ridicule each other and say the other person is somehow evil or bad. In fact in most cases we find we agree on core values — Americans are more united than divided. Go to a cultist blog and try going against their party line and they respond with ridicule and personal abuse (and yes there are cultists on the left too). That’s how cultists protect their message, they don’t allow it to be questioned, especially not by people who may have good arguments.
Republicans have tolerated the cultists because they brought energy and a solid voting block to the party. As long as party leaders (whom cultists deride as the hated “Republican establishment”) could control the real policy actions of the party, the cultists were an asset. But in 2010 they crossed that line.
The most recent example – rejection of the UN People with Disabilities treaty even as John McCain gave his support and Bob Dole was on hand to persuade skeptics to vote for it. Senators who recently supported it voted no, fearful that the cultists would put up hard core conservative primary opposition.
Republicans need to purge the cultists from their ranks, or at least render them ineffective. They inspire rage, but a rage that cannot win – you’ll never have a pure Demint style conservative government any more than you’ll ever have a pure Kucinich style liberal government. Or if we do it’ll only be a gradual change reflecting the whole culture. Our system is designed to avoid sudden lurches to such extremes. It’s designed for compromise and loyal opposition.
I wanted to blog about something other than politics today but I can’t ignore a local story gone viral.
Farmington’s own Charlie Webster, who runs a successful heating company, got into some hot water this week. Webster, who serves as the state Republican party Chair, made a claim that “dozens” of black people had registered to vote on election day at rural polling places where none of the poll workers knew them.
Immediately he was attacked for making a charge that seemed racist — black people voting in rural Maine? They must be from away! I think, though, it was more stupid than racist.
Here’s the context: Charlie Webster has long thought that Maine’s same day registration policy makes fraud likely. He once produced the names of 206 college students in Farmington who had registered on election day and had the Secretary of State Charlie Summers investigate. No wrong doing was found, though many students were sent semi-threatening letters warning them that they shouldn’t vote in a community if they had cars registered elsewhere or otherwise did not plan to become long term members of that community. Maine law has no such provisions, but Summers had to show some deference to his party Chair.
The Republicans grabbed control of both houses and the Governorship in 2010, and one of the first things they did was push through a law ending same day registration. Reports are that in a state legislature where individual independence usually trumps party loyalty, this was one issue where intense pressure was put on legislatures to vote in favor of ending the practice. This was a priority for Webster.
In Maine the people can overturn legislation through a referendum and that’s what happened. By an overwhelming margin of 60% to 40% Mainers voted to keep same day registration. Many on the right, buoyed by early polls showing support for the ending same day registration, thought having an off year (2011) vote would help them win. It did not.
If 2012 was like other years, about 50,000 people state wide registered on election day. They must have ID and a piece of mail addressed to them showing that they have a Maine address. Part of what irks Webster is that often college students in his town of Farmington (where I also live and teach) come and vote in elections even though those students probably don’t really consider Farmington home. His view: they should vote in their own localities, or if they are out of state, in the state in which their parents live.
That is a legitimate argument. To the extent that local representation in the state house in Augusta gets decided by students with no real “base” in Farmington, local residents may feel like their vote is being usurped by students from elsewhere corralled to vote by campus activists.
Counter arguments would note that these students live at least a good nine months in Farmington and add significantly to the local economy. The strongest counter is that it’s unlikely the campus determines election outcomes. Students tend not to vote, and many who do vote Republican. Republican candidates such as the State Rep Lance Harvell and State Senator Tom Saviello actively campaign on campus and have strong levels of student and faculty support, including from Democrats.
The point: same day registration irks Webster, he thinks it damages the electoral process and should be done away with. Yet dozens of black people going to rural Maine?
Most people would be skeptical. Busing black folk to rural locations would be an expensive and rather odd way to try to influence elections! \ The Sardine report did a nice satire on this, claiming “thousands of mysterious white people voted in Portland, Lewiston, Auburn, Brunswick, Bangor, Brewer, South Portland, Waterville, Ellsworth, Sanford, Saco, Westbrook, Augusta, Orono, Belfast, Bath, Rumford and Newport.” An excerpt:
“It was an ingenious plan, really,” commented Maine Democratic Party Chair Ben Grant. ” We were only able to get a few hundred black people up from Massachusetts, and we had them voting in places like West Norridgewock, where they kind of stuck out. In retrospect, it wasn’t the smartest way to undermine the electoral process.”
Rumford town clerk Corinne McLaughlin said they were definitely some shady European-looking types registering on election day in her town. “I make a point of noticing and remembering all the white people in town, and there were definitely a few that I had not seen before,” she said.
After the Webster story went viral on Drudge, Politico, Talking Points Memo, Think Progress, and most political websites he backed off. He apologized for making it sound like he was disparaging a racial group, and withdrew his claim that he’d send out postcards to see if people really did live where they registered.
In the end, it was a bit absurd. I’m not sure how it went down, but I can imagine Webster hearing rumors about black people voting, taking them seriously and then blurting it out while being interviewed. He hates same day registration and thus is predisposed to believe stories that show it to enable fraud.
Here in rural Maine there are not many black people. Therefore we sometimes forget to think about how what we say might sound. Heck, my six year old son in looking at a picture of Barack Obama once said, “dad, do you have to have black skin to be able to become President?” I suspect Webster was so focused on the issue of same day registration fraud that it simply went over his head just how racially charged his claim was.
So in the end it was just a minor gaffe that gave this part of the country some national attention for a day or two. It wasn’t even the worst gaffe of the week – that honor belonged to Mitt Romney who channeled his 47% video self to decry how Obama won by “giving gifts” to various demographic groups. Republicans reacted to that by distancing themselves from Romney even faster than Maine Republicans fled Webster.
I’ll take Webster at his word that he didn’t mean to focus on race and is genuinely sorry about how careless his comments were. The gotcha gaffe game is a poor excuse for political discourse in any event. And as much as I hate to admit it, I think it’s sort of fun when something silly puts Maine and especially my part of Maine in the national spotlight.