Friday, September 18, 2015

Someone should turn the Republican debates into a reality series called “Politicians say the stupidest things”

By Marc Jampole

CNN structured the second Republican debate to maximize the amount of time the candidates spent sparring with their opponents, as opposed to stating their position on issues. The moderators were looking for zingers that could serve as sound bites and for contentiousness that could animate headlines. They seemed to care more about churning personal disagreements among the candidates than guiding the candidates to explicate their positions.

The CNN strategy relied solely on one rhetorical device: the phrasing of questions. Many if not most of the questions asked candidate A what he or she thought of comments that candidate B had made in the past either about candidate A’s position, experience or character/personality, or sometimes about an issue. Thus every answer started with a defense that almost by definition required the candidate to go after one of the other candidates. This form of questioning tended to fragment the debate. It also enabled Donald Trump to get the most face time, since he has uttered the highest number and the most obnoxious statements about other candidates. The moderators made sure to stoke a number of personal feuds, just as they might do if they were writing—excuse me, scripting—a reality show. Instead of seeing the Kardashian or Braxton sisters bickering, we saw Donald and Carly, Donald and Jeb, Chris and Dr. Ben, Donald and Rand, Donald and Chris, Carly and Scott, Johnny-boy and Ted and various other combinations go at it.

Thus the debate between 11 contenders devolved into a series of often petty duets, or pas de deux. These various twosomes hid the fact that the candidates agreed on almost everything; see yesterday’s OpEdge blog entry for details.

The Donald and Jeb songs were particularly amusing, as they insisted on talking over and interrupting each other. For the most part, both these candidates were polite to everyone else, but when they became involved together in one of the endless twosomes CNN set up, they were like two dogs with a bone, except the bone was the sound system. Except for the “he-said-he-said” squabble about building a gambling casino in Florida, both remained true to form as they spoke at the same time: Jeb stuck mostly to his version of the facts, whereas Trump made outrageous or unsubstantiated statements and hurled insults.

Perhaps the best line of the day came from Scott Walker, who as part of his answer to whether he would feel safe with Donald Trump’s finger on the nuclear button, said “Just because he said it, doesn’t make it true.” Unfortunately for the country, Walker’s comment could have applied to any of the candidates, since all told at least one fib.

Some would say that lying is part of the job description for any politician, but some of the whoppers were also hilarious, if absurd.

For example, Fiorina said she would not talk to Putin. Hey Carly, you can’t freeze out a foreign leader like he’s a husband who forgot to take out the garbage.

Ben Carson said that the progressive income tax is socialism, even though socialism is typically defined as an economic system in which the government is the primary or sole employer.

Trump looked like a clown when he said he strengthened the four companies he took into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. He forgot to mention that the shareholders and bondholders got screwed because they lost all or part of their investment in the bankruptcies.

Ted Cruz’s zealous attack on Planned Parenthood and the Iran nuclear deal resembled a spoiled and self-centered child in an Our Gang short. If a known comedian had said exactly the same words with the same sky-is-falling tone in a skit, most people would convulse with laughter.  But spoken by a serious candidate with tens of millions of dollars in backing, Cruz’s temper tantrum was scary. His peak of stupidity came when he stridently asserted that the Iran nuclear deal would accelerate the time it would take to build a viable nuclear weapon. Cruz’s math skills are so low that he thinks 15+ years is a shorter length of time than 18 months.

Jeb compared himself to a battery brand when asked what his Secret Service code name might be. Trump thought it was such a great line, he tried to high-five Bush, a moment that revealed that on a certain level, Trump considers the debates to be more entertainment than civic affairs. 

More revealing of Trump’s mentality was his contention that he could negotiate better deals for the United States than Barack Obama, and by implication both Bushes and Clinton, too. But his assertion that he is the superior negotiator revealed an almost fascist mentality: He assumes that he, Putin, Xi and other world leaders have 100% control of the countries they rule and are free to do whatever they want with their respective country’s assets. He’d negotiate like a chief executive officer in the commercial real estate industry, not like a president.

So much of the stupidity expressed by the Republicans had to do with foreign affairs. Jeb tried to convince us that the Iraq War was won and that country was well under control until Obama pulled out the troops, creating a vacuum for ISIS. It’s a rewriting of history that ignores the thousands of killed and injured Americans, the hundreds of thousands of killed, injured and displaced Iraqis, the trillions of dollars wasted, the decline in America’s stature in the eyes of other nations and the destruction of a natural counterweight to Iran and Saudi Arabia. Whenever a country cobbled together from disparate parts loses its strongman, years of civil war always ensue. Don’t blame Obama for extracting us from the process that we single-handedly created by toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Was Chris Christie being stupid or merely rewriting history when he defended President Bush II’s action after the 9/11 attacks? Bush never caught Osama bin Laden, Obama did. Bush linked Saddam to 9/11, which was wrong, and most certainly a lie. Bush’s Afghanistan expeditions got nowhere.  Has Christie forgotten about the torture gulag Bush built?
I’m beginning to think that the candidates had a side bet as to who would make the stupidest statement. My money would always be on Cruz, but really, there were many contenders. It seems, however, as if Donald Trump was lying in the weeds until well into the last third of the debate to drop the ultimate stupid bomb, which was also assuredly a lie. I’m referring to Trump’s statement after moderator Jake Tapper brought up that Trump believes that vaccinations cause autism and Ben Carson, the physician who doesn’t believe in evolution, explained that there is absolutely no link between autism and vaccination. Carson continued with a great explanation of the benefits of vaccination. It was the first time I have ever seen the good doctor express a point using facts.

Trump’s answer: “I am totally in favor of vaccines. But I want smaller doses over a longer period of time.” As if Trump has any standing to voice an opinion on a technical matter. We’re not talking about whether or not we build an airplane, but how the exhaust system should be designed. The ultimate in stupid is overruling trained experts on technical matters.

Trump went on to say that he knew a healthy baby who was vaccinated and soon after was diagnosed with autism. It must be a lie, and we know it’s a lie. Polls and voters punished Michele Bachmann for telling the same fib in 2012. But it might just roll off Trump’s back, like rain off a duck’s feathers. Because after all, it did make for a very entertaining moment.   

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The longer GOP candidates debated, the more they agreed with each other, except on Iran & taxes

By Marc Jampole

We won’t know for a few days—and maybe weeks—who won last night’s debate between 11 Republican candidates for president.

What we did learn is that they overwhelmingly agree with each other on most issues, including:
  • Build a wall on the Mexican border, and then get tough with illegal immigrants, but not legal ones.
  • Reverse Obamacare.
  • Defund Planned Parenthood, but give its funds to women’s health organizations that do not do abortions. That not all of them thought it worth threatening a government shutdown to achieve this goal seems to me to be trivial in the vast scheme of things. Those interested in shutting down the government over three-tenths of one percent of the budget would find another reason to make the threat even if Planned Parenthood were not an issue.
  •  Build a stronger military, although none talk about how to fund the increase in military spending.
  • Restore respect for the United States abroad by throwing our weight around unilaterally. They also all believe the absurd notion that the world does not respect the United States under President Obama and that Obama is to blame for our current slow-growth economy.

On all of these issue, at least eight and sometimes all of the candidates were in agreement. In many cases, candidates had to back down or rewrite their positions to get to this consensus Republican platform. For example, by the middle of the debate, Trump was agreeing with Bush that many of the illegals kicked out should be in the country and that he would let them back in. Bush ignored a reference to his recent questioning of the amount of money spent by the federal government on women’s health and talked about the great things for women he wants to do with the money.

The two major areas of disagreement among the candidates were what to do about the Iran nuclear deal and taxation policy. The adults in the room like Bush and Kasich essentially said that they would honor the agreement with Iran and five other nations that postpones Iranian efforts to build a nuclear bomb for 15 years, although they avoided doing so explicitly, instead preferring to say that they would keep a careful eye on Iran and slam it hard if it did anything against the agreement. The crazies in the room like Scott Walker and Ted Cruz said they would rip up the agreement on the first day in office.

On the surface, it seems as if the tax proposals were all across the board—flat taxes of varying rates, replacement of taxes on income with taxes on consumption, simplification of the current system, new taxes on hedge fund managers. But when you take a look at the net effect of each of the Republican’s tax proposals, they break into two groups:
  • Those, like Donald Trump and Jeb Bush, who want to increase taxes on some of the wealthy and reduce taxes on the rest of the wealthy.
  • Those who want to reduce taxes on all of the wealthy.

Along the way, the 11 candidates all told a number of lies. Either Trump or Bush were lying when Bush said as governor he kept Trump and Casino gambling out of Florida and Trump denied it; I’m inclined to agree with Jeb on this one. Carson lied when he said that a progressive tax is “socialism.” Christie, Fiorina and Trump all mischaracterized their repeated failures as successes, in Christie’s case a particularly enormous lie. They all lied about the status of America in the eyes of the world.

I could go on for pages analyzing the falsehoods uttered in the second debate, but I want to focus on the two worst lies, which were the same lie. Carly Fiorina said that only in American could a woman like her rise from secretary to CEO. Marco Rubio repackaged the lie when he said that only in America could the son of a bartender and a housekeeper become a Senator.

The lie in these statements is to aver that it could “only happen in America,” when at the current time it is harder to rise in socioeconomic class in the land of the free and the home of the brave than in virtually any other industrialized country of the world: Someone born of humble circumstances—as Fiorina and Rubio say they were—is less likely to become rich, or even to make it to the middle class, in the United States than in France, Germany, the Scandinavian nations, Japan, Spain, Pakistan, Canada and many other countries. Of industrialized countries, in only the United Kingdom and Italy is it harder than in the United States to make and have more than your parents did.

Behind the statement, “only in America” are two concepts that are equally pernicious: First is the idea that there is something exceptional about the United States that makes it inherently better than other nations in all areas. We constantly use American exceptionalism to excuse imperialist actions abroad or to take attention away from those areas in which we lag such as healthcare, mortality rates, education and social mobility.

The second hidden message when Republicans say “only in America” is the idea that government should focus always on creating opportunities as opposed to protecting the weak, old and poor. None of the Republicans believe in giving people a helping hand—lifting them up. They all want to make it easier for the wealthy—nouveau or established—to make and keep more money. All ignore the growing inequality of wealth and income in the United States.

Tomorrow I’m going to look at the style of the candidates in the second debate. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Editorial: Executive Action for Labor

President Obama on Labor Day unveiled a new executive order requiring federal contractors to provide at least seven days of paid sick leave for employees. He also renewed his call on Congress to pass the Health Families Act, which would provide sick leave to most of the private sector.

Obama has relied on executive orders to help American workers since Republicans not only have refused to cooperate with Obama on labor issues but have been openly hostile to the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively.

Obama has raised the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for federal contractors. He’s bolstered overtime pay protections for all private sector workers. Under Obama, federal employees are also guaranteed up to six weeks of paid paternity or maternity leave.

During President Obama’s first year, with Democrats in control of the White House and Congress, unions had hoped to get approval of a “card check” bill, which would let unions organize a workplace if they could get a simple majority of employees to sign union cards, rather than allowing employers to insist on a secret-ballot election. That hope was dashed as several moderate Democratic senators, under pressure from business leaders, balked at supporting the Employee Free Choice Act when a united Democratic caucus would have been required to overcome the Republican filibuster.

Republicans are fond of needling Democrats for failing to accomplish much during Obama’s first two years. Oh, they managed to pull the economy out of the nose dive George W. Bush had left it in, they rescued General Motors and Chrysler from bankruptcy and they passed the Affordable Care Act, but Republicans put the stopper on progressive initiatives such as the DREAM Act for young immigrants, a climate-change bill and the union card-check bill because Dems had to muster 60 votes to overcome Republican filibusters on practically every item of business in 2009-2010.

Democrats didn’t have those 60 votes until July 7, 2009, when Al Franken finally was sworn in as senator from Minnesota after seven months of disputes over his narrow electoral victory. Even then, Sen. Ted Kennedy was housebound due to illness and died a few weeks later, and while Democrat Paul Kirk was appointed to fill in for Kennedy Sept. 24, Republican Scott Brown won a special election and took the seat Feb. 4, 2010, setting the Democratic majority back to 59. The Senate Democratic majority fell to 53-47 after the 2010 election, so Democrats had a 60-vote supermajority in the Senate for a grand total of 72 working days under Obama.

Obstruction of the National Labor Relations Board was a priority of Republican senators, who blocked Obama’s nominees to the board as well as appeals court judges. Obama appointed two NLRB members in March 2009 during congressional recess, as the Constitution allows, but Republicans blocked other attempts at recess appointments and the five-member board never got the three members it needed for a quorum until July 2013. That’s when Republicans agreed to end the impasse over NLRB and judicial nominees after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid threatened to invoke the “nuclear option” and change Senate rules to let a simple majority end filibusters. Obama not only filled the NLRB and other administrative vacancies but also filled four seats on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, reversing what had been a 4-3 Republican majority into a 7-4 Democratic majority on the court that reviews the actions of many federal agencies.

Two of those new judges were on a D.C. Circuit Court panel that this past August revived a rule that the Department of Labor adopted in 2013 that made two million home health care workers eligible for minimum wage and overtime. A district judge had struck down the DOL rule earlier this year.

In December 2014, the NLRB adopted a rule that sped up the union election process, depriving management of a stall tactic that unions claimed allowed bosses to intimidate workers into voting against the unionization. Since its April implementation, the rule has shortened by 40% the time it takes to hold a union election, according to the Wall Street Journal.

In June, Obama, acting under the authority of the Fair Standards Act of 1938, announced a new set of overtime rules that will boost the pay of an estimated five million workers, or about 40% of the country’s full-time salaried workforce. The changes would more than double the salary threshold for automatic overtime eligibility from the current $23,600 a year to those making $50,440 or less and put an extra $1.3 billion in workers’ pockets.

In August, the NLRB issued six pro-labor decisions. The biggest one changed the standard for when a corporation may be designated a joint employer of workers hired by its contractors and franchisees, which may make it easier for workers at chains, such as McDonalds, to organize. The board reversed a Reagan-era ruling.

Among the other actions, the board ruled that a worker may demand that a union rep be present during a drug test, and an employer may not exclude union reps from voluntary peer-review committees.

The NLRB is challenging the use of “mandatory arbitration” clauses in employment contracts that sign away employees’ rights to sue their bosses. Courts have said such clauses are legal; Obama’s NLRB has ruled, repeatedly, that they are not, even when workers are given the chance to opt out.

Larry Cohen, who recently stepped down as president of the Communications Workers of America, told Politico, “The quality of this board is the best ever,” adding, “The NLRB appointments is one place where President Obama would get a perfect score.”

Obama outraged many labor advocates with his push for a proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would remove trade barriers (along with health and labor standards, many fear) among 12 Pacific-Rim nations, on the model of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has been blamed for increasing US trade deficits, losses of manufacturing jobs and a downward pressure on wages as US workers compete with labor in Malaysia, Peru and Vietnam.

Republicans — in their only major cooperation with Obama — drove the approval of the Trade Promotion Authority, which puts the free-trade agreement on a fast track to an up-or-down vote by Congress without amendments. The House passed Trade Promotion Authority June 18 on a 218-208 vote while the Senate approved it 60-38 June 24. Since then, talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership have stalled, but fast-track authority remains in effect for trade bills for the next six years.

Since most of the gains made for labor by the Obama administration could be rolled back by a Republican administration, it is important that progressives join organized labor in making sure that a candidate friendly to organized labor advances toward the Democratic nomination.

Any of the Democratic candidates would be preferable to any of the Republican candidates who have surfaced so far. Of the top two Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton is a friend of labor, with a 94% lifetime score from the AFL-CIO, but Sen. Bernie Sanders is the most outspoken pro-labor candidate in the Democratic race, not only with a 98% lifetime score with the AFL-CIO, but also with his introduction of federal $15 minimum-wage legislation, his opposition to cuts Republicans are demanding to the unionized US Postal Service and his consistent opposition to the TPP, which Clinton promoted as secretary of state but has since backed away from.

The AFL-CIO is not expected to make an endorsement in the primary and President Rich Trumka has tried to keep union leaders neutral in the primary race, but Sanders has received endorsement of the 185,000-member National Nurses United while Clinton has been endorsed by the 1.6-million-member American Federation of Teachers. Other unions may be holding off to see if Vice President Joe Biden, who has an 86% lifetime score with the AFL-CIO and is thought to be popular among the rank and file, enters the race. — JMC
From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2015

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Selections from the October 1, 2015 issue

COVER/David Dayen
Inflation hawks would douse the economy

Executive action for labor


When unions, civil rights worked together

RURAL ROUTES/Margot McMillen
The smell of someone else’s money

Jeb doubles down on W’s tax cuts for rich;
How Bush tax cuts stack up against Obamanomics;
GOP strategists fret about extremism;
Louisiana defunding Planned Parenthood is public health disaster;
Unions critical to economic mobility;
Anybody with a job can celebrate Brady win;
Stats undermine 'war on police' demagoguery;
Why doesn't US have seat at Law of the Sea talks?;
Lessig plans prez race for campaign reform ...

Just desserts for GOP's ‘Southern Strategy’

The populist agenda is electable 

Donald Trump, economic populist?

Bernie opens new path to the presidency

Rock bottom: brain death in the heartlands 

Greening America’s energy workforce

HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas 
Fast track to disaster

Vote Sanders but don’t rule out compromise

The big con: privatizing medicare

Recasting democracy

Greece’s crisis is more twisted than ever

New Orleans: the week after 10 years after

BOOK REVIEW/Seth Sandronsky
Standardize this

BOOK REVIEW/Heather Seggel 
Creative cuisine on a food-stamps budget

Trump’s no outlier

and more ...