Rand Paul and Charles Blow Make Strange Partners in Voting Rights Advocacy (June 23, 2014)

Rand Paul and Charles Blow Make Strange Partners in Voting Rights Advocacy

Two men from opposing sides of the political spectrum, with different experiences of America, utilizing two divergent forums, arrive at the same conclusion: disenfranchising voters is harmful to our struggling democracy.

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul appeared on last Sunday’s edition of Meet the Press for an interview with moderator David Gregory. Paul gave several statements that would appear to be at odds with Republican Party talking points, including a stubborn refusal to fault President Obama for the administration’s current cautious approach to reengaging Iraq. But we already knew that Paul is a true libertarian on this issue. He values a nation’s right to live and determine its own system of government above his party’s interest in warfare and faux domination. I am not alone in wondering if this approach renders him unelectable in a national Republican primary.

But in the same interview, Paul drew attention to another fundamental plank in his platform – ending the war on drugs. This is another issue on which the Senator takes a truly libertarian perspective. Even so, I bolted upright on my couch when he said the following:

“[The war on drugs is] the biggest voting rights issue of our day. We’ve gotten distracted by a lot of other things. We think there may be a million people who are being prevented from voting from having a previous felony conviction…It prevents you from employment, so if we’re the party of family values and keeping families together, and the party that believes in redemption and second chances, we should be for letting people have the right to vote back, and I think the face of the Republican party needs to be not about suppressing the vote, but about enhancing the vote.”

I am not in the habit of rewarding politicians for uttering statements of obvious common sense, but given the toxic state of reason and discourse in the Republican party, it’s difficult not to view this as a little brave. After all, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor just got tossed for being viewed by his constituents as too liberal.

On the same day, The New York Times ran columnist Charles M. Blow’s piece, “The Frustration Doctrine.” Blow, a dyed in the wool liberal who writes from the perspective of an African-American man come of age in the deep South, has been critical of the broken prison system as well as voter disenfranchisement. This past weekend, while evaluating the nation’s general distrust in government institutions, he observed:

“As many Americans, particularly those in the middle, throw up their hands in disgust and walk away in dismay, hyperpartisans — particularly conservatives — exert more influence…moderates are the least likely to be politically active. The ambivalent middle appears to be the cradle of apathy. And while the consistently liberal are more likely to do things like volunteer for a candidate or a campaign, consistent conservatives are much more likely than liberals to vote.”

While Paul and Blow approached the issue of the vote from two different angles (Paul indicting a penal system that disproportionately disenfranchises minority men – who incidentally tend to vote Democrat, Blow trying to incite civic spirit in the malaised middle), the message is the same. Renewed access to and enthusiasm for the ballot is the only way to repair our fractured democracy.

It’s hard to remember a time when getting out the vote was not a polarizing issue, but so it was. Merely eight years ago, then-President George W. Bush celebrated the extension of the Voting Rights Act. The compassionate conservative and former Governor of Texas would likely find himself primaried over such an inclusive approach to the polls in 2014.

I’ll go back to impugning his other dangerous policies in short order, but for now, I thank Senator Rand Paul for challenging his party to live up to its long stated core values. Freedom for all – not just the moneyed white man. At the same time, it’s equally critical that those of us on the left and in the middle chant the same mantra: Don’t like where the country is headed? Get off the couch and vote – even if they make you wait in line. No hyperbole here. It’s the only way.

Republicans Don’t Actually Need Electoral Opponents in 2014 as They Wage Public Civil War (June 20, 2014)

Tax Refrom Presser

If midterm election years have a reputation for being tepid and boring, a typically alienating cycle where the opposition party stokes its base with a referendum on the sitting President, 2014 is bucking the script.

By now we’ve all had time to digest the “shocking,” “stunning,” “earthquake” (all terms culled from actual media coverage) that is lame duck House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s ejection from his post by the likes of Tea Party upstart Dave Brat. Brat, an economics professor at Virginia’s Randolph-Macon College, is doing his level best to upend quite a few paradigms. After unseating Cantor while leveraging an infinitesimal campaign budget (you’ve heard the statistic: Brat spent $200,000 – slightly more than what Cantor’s campaign dropped on steak dinners), the most cynical of us are taking another look at the assumption that mass money buys outcomes without exception.

At the same time, Brat demonstrates that earning a PhD in a scientific discipline is no guarantee that data will have bearing on political policy development. Brat won over his conservative district with a staunch anti-immigration position that flies against the express desires of three major constituent groups:economists, business leaders and religious organizations.

But in between Cantor’s surprise overthrow and the tragic and scary events unfolding in a foundering Iraq, another story of GOP cognitive dissonance was somewhat lost in the shuffle. I am speaking of last weekend’s GOP convention in Moscow, Idaho, managed by wannabe House Majority Leader Raul Labrador. I am not sure I could provide a synopsis of the disaster more succinct and factual than writer Betsy Z. Russell of The Spokesman-Review:

“Idaho’s state Republican Party convention degenerated into a fiasco Saturday after attempts to disqualify up to a third of the delegates attending appeared to be succeeding – and the convention ended up adjourning without electing a chairman, setting a platform or doing any of it scheduled business…Far from uniting the deeply divided party, the gathering in Moscow degenerated into dysfunction – though it’s the party that holds every statewide office in Idaho, every seat in the congressional delegation and more than 80 percent of the seats in the state Legislature. It also proved not to be the finest hour for Labrador, whom many looked to as the healer for the fractured party just a day after he announced that he’s running for Majority Leader of the U.S. House; instead, he ended the convention facing jeers and walkouts from his own party members.”

I must own that I gasped audibly at several points while reading the text. June 2014 is the month of conservative schadenfreude that keeps on giving. But once the gleeful laughter recedes, an obvious question presents itself. Why does the party continue warring with itself during the primary season in the absence of any logical reason to do so?

The fallout from the silliness appears to be forcing a premature end to Labrador’s national ambitions before they have an opportunity to gain traction. Boise State University professor emeritus Jim Weatherby, a longtime observer of Idaho politics, noted, “It’s hard to blame all this on Raul Labrador, but on the other hand, this does not strengthen his credentials for a national leadership position, either.”

These increasingly common and bizarre instances of Republican infighting have clearly been a longtime coming. “Mainstream” conservatives asked for this after President Obama’s first election, when they welcomed new radical and reactionary elements to the fold that predicted long-term implosion. And anyone who paid attention to the fall 2013 government shutdown will recall that heated rhetoric was just as often Republican on Republican as it was liberal versus conservative.

The larger lesson may be that the best Democratic strategy for the 2014 midterms is no strategy at all. Sit back, take it easy. Put up your local candidates and support them, but why bother exerting yourself or spending a ton of money to go negative? Conserve your resources and watch your enemies eat other.

Why Aren’t More Republican Politicians Following Charlie Crist’s Example? (February 10, 2014)

Charlie-Crist-to-run-as-Democrat-for-Florida-governor

Last week our own Justin Baragona wrote the insightful piece,Democrat Charlie Crist Continues To Hold Commanding Lead Over Rick Scott In Florida. My first set of reactions approached something like tentative relief that Floridian voters are showing an early preference for a left-leaning Governor in an otherwise dependably red state. My second thought was something along the lines of “Charlie Christ is looking pretty handsome for a man of 57.” (Sue me.) And in a shamefully distant third, the obvious questions finally occurred to me: Charlie Crist went Democrat? When? Why?

The politically-minded writer tries to canvass every issue of importance. But we often have day jobs, we have chores and errands, we have families. Still, I remain astonished that this one got by me. And apparently, it’s old news since Crist converted (religious language deliberately invoked) in early December of 2012, after he endorsed President Barack Obama in his successful re-election campaign. There was a lot going on at the time besides the newly-minted, second-term Obama Presidency. The Northeast was in early stages of Sandy recovery, and just one week after Crist’s announcement, the nation was jolted by the Sandy Hook Elementary school mass executions.

Yet and still this ought to have generated more buzz, back then as well as today. If only for its novelty. After all, Ranker’s list of Notable Republicans Turned Democrats has to reach for former NBA star Charles Barley to come up with 20. And though I didn’t just fall from the turnip truck and assume there’s more than meets the ideological eye to Crist’s metamorphosis (like say, lingering anger at Tea Party usurper Marco Rubio, who turned Crist into an unsuccessful third-party candidate in Florida’s 2010 Senate race), much of what Crist says about the change is worth hearing. In fact, given his newfound political relevancy and pop cultural ascension, the only remaining question I have is this: Why aren’t more genuine civil servants of the Republican ilk following suit?

Last week, Crist appeared as a guest on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher to promote his new book, The Party’s Over: How the Extreme Right Hijacked the GOP and I Became a Democrat (so we can also scratch altruistic reasons off the list of Crist’s  party-switching motivations). During the appearance, the once-and-hopefully-future-Gov paraphrased a well-worn quote that he’s offered to various media outlets as a catalyst for the transformation:

“I think I’ll quote my friend Jeb Bush. He said it better than I ever could…Today’s Republican Party, at least the leadership, is perceived as being anti-women, anti-minority, anti-immigrant, anti-education, anti-gay couples, anti-environment.”

Though the party is indeed perceived as largely the refuge of old, wealthy white men afflicted with an acute fear of change, this has not been enough to scare off the usual suspects. Rather than search for a new platform (even an independent one) that might serve to widen their individual appeal at the ballot box, most of these lemmings seem more than content to go over the cliff with their cohorts. When that lemming takes the form of a female or an ethnic minority (for now anyway), it just instills that much more scorn and pity.

The real question as I see it does not revolve around why Crist fled into the more inclusive arms of the Democratic Party. Rather I wonder why more Republicans of any social conscience, not to mention survival instincts, haven’t done the same. Just look at what breaking the chains of GOP messaging bondage has done for Mitt Romney’s image. That said, everyone across party lines like a winner and if Crist prevails this coming November, especially in a conservative state like Florida, the fair weather friends may just flock to the left en masse.

CVS Ending Sales Of Tobacco Offers Conservative Media Dual Dissembling Opportunity (February 5, 2014)

CVS_pharmacy

Unfortunately, nicotine addiction knows no political affiliation. I can report anecdotally that I am acquainted with as many liberal, free-thinking chain-smokers as those whose right-wing beliefs tend to set my teeth on edge. Be that as it may, the image of the big plantation tobacco farmer is inextricably linked to the Republican Party, and as long ago as 1998, GOP leadership began to understand that the inflow of lobbyist funds was not worth the long-term PR hassle.

During the month of March, 16 years ago, Washington Postwriters Ceci Connelly and John Mintz published a piece entitled,For Big Tobacco, a Future Without GOP Support. This trip through 20th Century history is fascinating for many reasons, not the least because former House Speaker-turned-CNN Crossfirehost Newt Gingrich seemed to declare the end of an era.  While ironically hitching a ride to California aboard a Big Tobacco plane, Gingrich is quoted putting his benefactors on notice:

“‘You guys have screwed us…The Republican Party has been saddled with tobacco.’

This time, said Gingrich, he wouldn’t allow President Clinton to demagogue Republicans on the tobacco issue in the same way he had outmaneuvered GOP leaders on the budget in 1995.

‘I will not let Bill Clinton get to the left of me on this,’ he said.”

And yet…

When CVS/Caremark announced its decision this week to cease the sale of tobacco products in its retail stores by October 1, it wasn’t the liberal media that seized on a perceived opportunity to protect donor dollars while creating another tenuous rebuke of Obamacare. I am fairly certain at this point that the GOP platform consists of blaming every conceivable worldly ill on health care reform. Shaun White withdraws from the slopestyle snowboarding competition at the Sochi Olympic games? Thanks faulty exchange rollout!

Though the tactics may have changed, conservative media figures have wasted little time spin doctoring, in sort of a shadow defense of the tobacco lobby. USAToday Contributor Katrina Trinko (also Managing Editor of Heritage Foundation publication,The Foundry) writes with evidence in hand (none) that the chain’s decision will have no impact upon the nation’s smoking patterns. She observes, “There’s no doubt that cigarettes are unhealthy — and that second-hand smoke has exposed non-smokers to health risks as well. But CVS’ decision doesn’t affect second-hand smoke, and won’t necessarily make a steep dent in overall smoking rates. Other chains, such as Target, haven’t sold cigarettes in years.”

So really then, CVS, why bother?

And in what I’m sure is 100 percent coincidence, wouldn’t you know it, The Foundry (yes!) ran its own piece attempting to tie CVS’ business decision with the desire of conservative-run corporations to exclude female employees from Obamacare’s contraceptive coverage mandate. Writer Amy Payne offers:

“Businesses want to provide products and services that customers want to buy. If they don’t, they go out of business. But CVS’s move to change the products it offers shows that plenty of business leaders consider more than just the bottom line—they consider the values they want their companies to reflect. This is another freedom they should enjoy in America—though it has recently been denied to businesses like Hobby Lobby that are trying to defend their right to do business in accordance with their values.”

Yes, the obvious connection between CVS’s decision to adhere to carefully cultivated healthy brand standards, versus Hobby Lobby’s assertion of religious freedom rights equal to American citizens. I don’t know how we missed it! White males seeking to deny female employees a full range of reproductive health options is exactly the same as a national chain deciding to discontinue harmful products that a customer can just go to another store to obtain.

So if you ask conservative media, CVS’s landmark decision is either a pointless public health move or an assertion of corporate entitlement that undercuts Obamacare. Sometimes you just have to step back and admire the other side’s contortionary skill.

Polar Vortex Underscores Frozen Congressional Activity (January 23, 2014)

Deep Freeze Washington

Oh the weather outside is frightful this winter, and this year there are very few places to hide. Last weekend as I boarded a flight to Nashville, visions of 50-degree temperatures danced in my head. The normal January range in the Music City is between 28 and 47 degrees, infinitely more tolerable than the climate in my hometown of Chicago. Alas, I deplaned in a disappointingly similar environment, where the thermometer struggled to reach the freezing point. Mother Nature is bitter and unforgiving all over.

Maybe she’s taking her cues from the inert members of Congress, who at the close of 2013 dared to make us consider the possibility of action. Briefly scared straight by the public backlash over the fall’s disastrous and ill-reasoned government shutdown, intransigent Republicans in the Senate (and to a lesser degree, the House) suddenly seemed in the mood to get things done. This led to the production of a bipartisan budget agreement, followed by feckless House Speaker John Boehner’s better-late-than never repudiation of right wing groups such as the Heritage Foundation, which have egregiously encouraged GOP games of chicken over the last six years. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid finally found the political courage to change the broken chamber’s filibuster rules so that an enormous backlog of Executive Branch appointments could begin to be cleared. It was a heady time when actual work once again seemed possible.

But the spirit of compromise didn’t last. Early into the New Year, thousands of long-term job seekers were cut off from sorely needed unemployment insurance benefits. No sooner did the holiday bills and winter’s cruelty roll in than the Republican Party doubled down on the suffering of the jobless. Despite the fact that respondents to a Fox News poll (!!!!) overwhelmingly favor the extension of benefits, to the tune of 69 percent, Congressional Republicans have continued to ignore the will of the people. Washington Post writer Aaron Blake rather charitably reports that “Congress is deadlocked over whether and how to continue funding unemployment insurance beyond that 26-week period.”

I would offer that there’s no deadlock about it. Democrats maintain some human empathy for the Great Recession-ravaged unemployed while Republican Party standard bearers like Kentucky Senator Rand Paul leverage pretzel logic to avoid helping that wretched 47 percent of “takers.” Paul famously said, “the longer you have it [unemployment insurance], that it provides some disincentive to work, and that there are many studies that indicate this.”

I am betting that these “many studies” were conducted by conservative research groups. As someone who has been on the layoff dole more than once in the course of a relatively short career, I can safely say that six months of roughly 30 percent the usual take home pay did not result in leisurely champagne and caviar consumption.

Only the party that brought us two budget and deficit busting wars, tax cuts and an unpaid for Medicare prescription drug benefit under the Bush II regime could have the absolute, unmitigated gall to demand fiscal responsibility when it comes to helping suffering workers. And naturally, the GOP has brushed aside numerous credible reports that extending the benefits actually creates jobs and saves the government money in the long run.

But let me not consume the entire column railing against Republican opposition to helping once hardworking Americans survive. As the great Gail Collins of The New York Times wrote today on her end of “The Conversation” with David Brooks: “to be honest, if the president told a reporter that he had great confidence this would be the year we’d see immigration reform, better gun control, tax reform and a hike in the minimum wage, I’d probably be less excited than worried about his mental health.”

Anyone who believed that late fall’s sudden flurry of activity would extend past the New Year, or counted upon the Republican obsession with opposition to die along with the party’s shutdown approval rating, is discovering that the polar vortex is both metaphorically and literally in charge.