Saturday, November 8, 2014

Buddy Bullies Boehner

Art by Kevin Kreneck

Dems Need Populist Pitch

Give the Republicans this: They did a much better job of focusing the rage of the American electorate than Democrats did. Republicans have succeeded in their strategy of blocking President Obama at every turn, and then blaming him for not accomplishing his goals.

The conspiracy started on the night of Obama’s inauguration, Jan. 20, 2009, when 15 GOP leaders met in the upscale Caucus Rooom in Washington, D.C., at the invitation of Republican strategist Frank Luntz. They agreed to obstruct the new President, regardless of the impact on the nation, in the hope that gridlock would tarnish Obama and sabotage his re-election.

Despite the precarious condition of the nation’s economy in the first two years, Republicans opposed Obama on the stimulus; they opposed him on rescuing General Motors and Chrysler; they opposed him on developing a national health reform bill, even though it was based on a Republican proposal; they opposed Obama on reforming Wall Street. And the obstruction worked! Even as the economy began to stabilize, Republicans complained that the economy wasn’t improving fast enough, despite their almost unanimous opposition to the measures designed to save jobs and stimulate business, and they won control of the House in 2010.

Since then the Republican House has blocked virtually every Obama initiative, but the economy has continued to improve from the stimulus that Democrats passed during the first two years of his term, and Obama managed to win re-election in 2012. His approval rating has dropped to the low-to-mid 40s in the process, about the same as the Democrats, who had 42.2% approval going into the midterm election, but Republicans have become even more unpopular, with a 36.2% favorable rating going into the election. That makes the Republican sales job in this election all the more remarkable.

Loss of the Senate is more damaging to the lame duck president, because the Senate must approve judicial nominees and new members of the Obama administrative team. Every two-term president since Dwight Eisenhower has had to deal with a Senate in opposition hands. Eisenhower and Bill Clinton both lost the Senate in their second year as president and never got it back. Richard Nixon never had a Republican Senate and didn’t make it to his sixth year before he was forced to resign for his perfidy. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush both lost the Senate in their sixth years, as Obama has, but it probably is fair to say that the Senate has never been so polarized along partisan lines in the past century.

Among the most disappointing Senate losses was in Iowa, where Rep. Bruce Braley (D), a four-term congressman and chair of the House Populist Caucus, entered the race favored to win the seat Sen. Tom Harkin (D) was giving up, but he ran a flawed campaign and was virtually unseen in Western Iowa, which re-elected Rep. Steve King (R) but has a history of supporting populist Democrats, including Harkin. State Sen. Jodi Ernst (R) won the race by 8.5 points with not much more to recommend her than her experience castrating hogs. NBC News exit polls showed that Braley got only 34% of the vote in rural Western Iowa. Statewide, he carried cities over 50,000 population, with 55% of the vote, but lost suburbs 58-40 percent and rural voters 60-38 percent. He virtually broke even with Ernst among families with under $50,000 income, nominally leading 49-48 percent. Those are the people who should gain from “Obamacare” expansion of Medicaid and subsidies for health insurance for the working poor and middle-class families.

Democrats should not overreact to the loss of the Senate majority and the 14-seat Republican gain in the House. Republicans won’t have a veto-proof majority in either chamber and after a couple years with no excuses for the Republican Congress not passing the crazy legislative initiatives that appeal to the GOP’s right-wing base, voters should be looking forward to kicking Republicans out of power. But it would help if the Democrats offered a more appealing choice.

Democrats also must do better in appealing to rural white voters if they want to reverse their fortunes for 2016. Democrats ought to be able to make the case that they are the better choice for the working class, not with appeals to social issues but with the populist pitch that Republican priorities are to benefit the rich and giant corporations at the expense of the middle class and mom-and-pop businesses in small towns and big cities. It would help if the Obama administration would send a few banksters to jail.

Texas Democrats hoped that former organizers for Barack Obama, operating as Battleground Texas, would register voters and get out the vote in growing minority communities, as they did in competitive states such as Colorado, Florida and Nevada in 2012, but their efforts were not the game changer Dems had hoped for.

In the race for governor, Wendy Davis (D), a state senator from Fort Worth who gained fame leading a filibuster against a bill severely restricting abortion services in Texas, hoped that women would carry her to victory, but Republican nominee Greg Abbott, the state’s attorney general, actually won 54% of the female vote en route to a 20-point victory margin over Davis. NBC News exit polls showed Davis got 49% of voters under 44, narrowly beating Abbott in that age group, but only 14% of that young electorate were 18 to 29 and 27% were 30 to 44. Among voters 45-64, which was 41% of the electorate, Abbott beat Davis 67-32 percent.

In Texas, fully 56% of the population is non-white, and Democrats hope a new generation of Latino voters will restore them to power, but the Nov. 4 electorate was still 66% white and Abbott carried them 72-25 percent. Blacks (12% of the population as well as the electorate) voted 92% for Davis but Latinos (38% of the population but only 17% of the electorate), voted 55% for Davis. Republicans blanketed Latino South Texas with ads emphasizing Davis’ support for abortion “on demand,” as well as running ads of Abbott’s Latina mother-in-law saying what a nice guy he is — and Davis failed to make a case for how a Democratic governor would make a difference in their lives. (Texas Latinos had voted 70% for President Obama in 2012 when Mitt Romney won the state by 16 points.)

Obama Should Go For Broke

Progressives should be wary of President Obama’s interest in reaching centrist deals with Republican House and Senate leaders. The day after the election, Obama said he would be willing to work with Republicans if they are interested in infrastructure projects or other measures that will create jobs that pay well — they have resisted such projects so far. He also suggested he would be open to corporate tax reforms that close loopholes, while Republicans insist on tax breaks. He also is willing to work with Republicans on immigration reform, but we saw what happened to the bipartisan deal the Senate passed in 2013. House Speaker John Boehner, intimidated by the white supremacist wing of the GOP, has refused to allow the House to take up the bill.

Of course, Latino voters were upset that Democrats had failed to enact the immigration reforms, possibly depressing their turnout Nov. 4. That may have been fatal to Colorado Sen. Mark Udall’s re-election hopes. Democrats will need those votes in 2016.

The election results have only emboldened the white supremacist wing of the GOP, so Obama might as well go ahead an implement as many immigration reforms and regulations to address climate change as he can by executive order and dare the GOP to do something about it.

The rabid Republican base will settle for nothing less than impeachment on trumped-up charges. Obama should welcome that overreach. The House can impeach with a simple majority — and the Republican caucus has a bunch of simpletons who are rarin’ to go with that radical remedy — but removal from office requires a two-thirds vote by the Senate, and Democrats should be able to muster the 34 votes to preserve the incumbent and expose the charlatans running the partisan process. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2014
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Selections from the December 1, 2014 issue

Friday, November 7, 2014

Our worst fear should be an accommodation between President Obama & Republican legislators

By Marc Jampole

Typically I would take with a grain of salt the consensus analysis of the midterm elections: that the voters repudiated President Obama. But it’s hard to come to any different conclusion when you dig into statewide and local initiatives, which show a landslide for social and economic progressives. From medical marijuana to gun control to higher minimum hourly wages, the left side of the issue won most of the votes.

Thus many people in a sense “split the ticket” by voting with Democrats on particular issues but against the President.

Obama has certainly had a bad year, some of it of his own making. Saying that the Administration had no plan to combat ISIS was a big PR mistake—a Romneyesque (Romneytic?) moment from which he never recovered. He should have just shut up until he had a plan. Not having a plan is how we roll. In the 21st century: not having a plan didn’t stop the United States in Iraq or in Afghanistan. Most Americans don’t realize yet that U.S. foreign and military policy is going to be the same no matter who is president—we’re going to keep having these small wars so we can keep paying the defense contractors. No one who isn’t with that program will ever have a chance to become president, given the current structure of both parties and the election finance laws.

But the head of the Center for Disease Control had no business apologizing because one hospital in Texas screwed up treating an Ebola patient. What did he hope to gain, unless he is a secret Republican who wanted to throw more gas on the editorial flames?  The CDC and all health institutions have been doing a wonderful job keeping Ebola out of the population. The news media keeps us scared, but the government health agencies have kept us healthy. So why apologize?

I’m not saying Obama has been a great president, but he doesn’t deserve the disapprobation he received in the news media and among politicians before the election, and I don’t think he would have gotten it if he were white. Over the years in Pittsburgh I watched several African-Americans do average work in highly visible jobs and get fired after replacing whites who had done average jobs for decades. The most egregious case was the Pittsburgh Board of Education who fired an African-American superintendent for his plan to downsize the schools and then praised his successor—a white—for taking the same plan and implementing it. I have to think that the same standard applies in many if not most regions across the country.

It wasn’t just an insidious kind of racism that swung the mid-term elections to the Republicans: most of the key races were close, and in many states such as Wisconsin there were new laws restricting the right to vote. Even where court decisions had stopped enforcement of these laws, the publicity must have discouraged many citizens from voting.

Let’s also not forget the power of money. Large corporate interests and the Republican Party hammered voters for weeks with anti-Obama nonsense. ISIS and Ebola. Ebola and ISIS. You saw it in rightwing news coverage. You saw it in political ads. You saw it reported as part of the centrist balance of mainstream news media. Ebola and ISIS.

What’s next has been a subject of great speculation in the mainstream news media. Everyone seems to be rooting for a true coming together of the President and the Republicans, but it’s what I fear the most. The President has shown himself ready to capitulate just to get a deal. I could see him go for Social Security reform that cuts benefits, raises the retirement age and allows people to privatize their Social Security investment, while not lifting the cap on the income that’s assessed the Social Security tax. I could also see him agreeing to a deal that lowered corporate taxes and cut more social welfare, education or infrastructure programs.

What’s so odd about this election is that even though it signified a resounding repudiation of President Obama, Democrats still received more votes than Republicans nationwide. That bodes well for whoever the Democrats nominate for President in 2016. Of course by that time, the team of Republicans and Obama may have done a lot of damage that it will take the country years from which to recover.

Let’s hope that the Republicans and Obama can’t agree on anything and that gridlock continues—at least until 2016.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Foreign Affairs writers all learn the same thing from recent wars—unfortunately, it’s how to fight future wars

By Marc Jampole

The current issue of Foreign Affairs exemplifies one of the most common of all propaganda devices: selection of possibilities. It’s a simple yet powerful tool for fooling people: you say you’re going to get experts to discuss an issue, but all the experts either agree or agree with some highly nuanced differences. The audience gets the idea that the discussion has covered the waterfront, when it fact it has only analyzed one narrow possibility.

Foreign Affairs is the highfalutin quarterly journal in which political science professors, think tank gurus, government officials and other hired hands of the ruling political elite argue foreign policy strategy. The first part of the current issue focuses on what we as a nation can learn from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as far as military and foreign policy goes. Funny thing is, though, all we learn from the distinguished panel of six foreign policy experts is how to fight wars more effectively or efficiently in the 21st century. The broader questions of whether we should be fighting wars is never asked, because the viewpoint of all the panelists is interventionist, by which I mean they all want to intervene in the affairs of other countries through the use of military force.

Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations starts things off with a statement of befuddled frustration: “If only a nation as powerful and vulnerable as the United States had the option of defining exactly what wars it wages. Reality, alas, seldom cooperates.” To Boot, not being able to define the war means one thing only: being forced to fight non-traditional armies, such as al Qaeda or IS. Boot gives us a number of tips for waging these wars, all learned from the Iraq and Afghanistan fiascos, such as: be prepared to occupy the country after we win; don’t assume the best case scenario; do better strategic thinking; do a better job of managing mercenaries; and train troops for more than just short conventional operations. At no time does Boot question the idea that we will have to fight these wars. He assumes we will and will do so with mercenaries. He just wants us to do a better job of it.

Richard Betts, director of a foreign policy institute at Columbia University, advocates that the United States fights fewer wars but do “more decisively, erring, when combat is necessary, on the side of committing too many forces…” Betts also wants us to stop “fighting in places where victory depends on controlling the politics of chaotic countries” and focus military planning on fighting wars against great powers. Betts says that we are living in an era of permanent war, but evidently wants us to focus our militarism on China and Russia.  It’s not so much that Betts thinks the so-called small wars in Iraq and elsewhere have been worthless but that they have not prepared us for “bigger wars for bigger stakes against bigger powers.” What that means, by the way, are wars in which not thousands but hundreds of thousands of Americans die. By the way, it’s rare when the loser of a war does not descend into the kind of chaos Betts wants us to avoid in our opposition.

Rick Brennan, a political scientist at the private think tank, RAND Corporation, reviews in detail the events that led to and followed the departure of U.S. troops (but not U.S. mercenaries) from Iraq at the end of 2011. His article lists the lessons we should learn from what he sees as the bungling of the exit from Iraq. It was inevitable that such an article would appear from the day that the troops hit the ground in 2003. Chaos, partisanship, terrorism and revolt were going to be the fate of Iraq no matter when we cleared out our troops, be it 2011 or 2121. That’s what happens when a country cobbled together by outside forces loses its strong man. It happened in Yugoslavia. It’s happening in Syria. And the United States made it happen in Iraq. It’s an endgame predictable to anyone in the reality-based community, which unfortunately never included those who started the war. I think it took a lot of guts on Obama’s part to stick to his pledge to get the troops out of Iraq, even though he knew what would likely ensure. He didn’t pass the buck down the road so that the next president—or the one after that—would be left holding the bag when Iraq disintegrated after U.S. forces left. 

What is most interesting about Brennan’s article, though, is that he never mentions learning the lesson not to invade. No, his teachable moment from the exit from Iraq only concerns exiting dirty little wars that destabilize countries, thus assuming we’ll be fighting more of them.

An article by Daniel Byman of Georgetown and Jeremy Shapiro of the Brookings Institute next warns us not to overreact to the threat of Islamic extremists living in western countries immigrating to fight for IS. After telling us why the threat is overblown, the good professors propose some changes to make it harder for would-be IS fighters to leave their respective motherlands. It seems like a small-bore article for a special segment dedicated to the big issue of learning from past wars. When we think of the number of innocent civilians killed, injured or displaced in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, the problem of a couple of fanatics making their way into the IS ranks seems trivial. 

Finally Peter Tomsen, a former U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, reviews three books about the bungling by all sides of the Afghanistan war. At the end of the article, Tomsen expresses a fear that, once all U.S. troops vacate Afghanistan, the country will descend into a full-scale civil war. Of course it will, just like Iraq has. That’s what happens when you break something and try to put it together with spit and string. It falls apart as soon as you set it down.
None of these distinguished scholars considers for even one paragraph an alternative to the military imperialism that we have called our foreign policy for decades now. They all take it for granted that we are going to get into wars. They are just trying to make sure that we’re fighting the right wars and that we win them quickly and with a minimum of hassle. No one ever considers that maybe we shouldn’t be fighting any wars. Certainly the last several we have fought have had no strategic value to us—unless we somehow improve our safety and access to raw materials by throwing one of the major oil producers into permanent disarray. These esteemed gentleman all take it for granted that we will need to fight wars to protect our political and economic interests in the future and that these wars—or at least most of them—are just and necessary.

Readers can come away from the pages of Foreign Affairs thinking that they have learned every imaginable lesson they can from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflagrations.  But in fact, readers will learn nothing but the ways of military imperialism.