Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas

This is not my holiday, but it is hard to miss the signs that it is one celebrated by many others in this country, though Bill O'Reilly and his colleagues think otherwise. Oddly, by mystical coincidence, Shabbat and Christmas coincide this year. To many confused people, Chanukah is a supposed equivalent holiday to Christmas, but it's not. Shabbat, on the other hand, means Jews and Christians will be praying at roughly the same time. My faith in faith is not sufficient to think this is going to make much of a difference except maybe more people will be a bit more spiritual today than otherwise. (Wonder if anybody is being bar/bat mitzvah on what some of us call "December 25").

As has become customary, Regina Spektor has posted a view of the Christmas season which is shared by your blogger:

i'm one of the many jews who really love when the christmas spirit gets everyone to light up New York all pretty...

but it is also the sense of generosity of spirit, the idea that we have an obligation to one another and the sense that we have a higher calling than to make as much money as possible. The formal religious rituals which move another wise person worth consulting, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, may not be as meaningful to all of us but, as Rabbi Yoffie says, it is a time when people

despite frenetic preparations and gift buying -- [are] simply friendlier, more relaxed, more outgoing and more inclined to smile at holiday time... [T]here is such a thing as the spirit of Christmas, and the goodwill of the season always manages to extend its reach, in a lighting-fast and almost effortless way, to Americans of all faiths and religious traditions.

Let's not get confused, though. The last weeks of the 111th Congress moved this country forward not because of Christmas spirit, but because Republicans would rather go home than keep fighting, and, the masquerade they have worn for almost two years seemed to be fraying at the egdes. Paul Krugman made a good point this morning about where the Republicans fit in as part of Dickens' Christmas Carol, and, as noted by many, you really cannot miss today's congressional struggles as portrayed in It's A Wonderful Life either.

Last week, those of you gathering as families were implored to start trouble by telling those who cannot see it, what has been going on, and why none of it is in anyone's interest, except that of the very wealthy and, frankly, not them either. (The czars had plenty of money, but things did not work out for them and the New Deal would not have been possible if the wealthy among us did not understand how all of that could apply to them. They hated and still hate FDR, but they know how he saved them, too.)

This week's offering is pointed more at the progressives or liberals at your dinner table: the ones quick to tell you how disappointed they are in the President, the ones who stayed home in November, or are mumbling things such as "Nader," "Kucinich" or, absurdly, "Hillary." And, of course, it is Rachel Maddow who, again, sets the stage:

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Getting [the START] treaty ratified is a huge victory for President Obama and something that republicans said they would deny him. It is a political win for the president because it has been on his agenda for a long time.

It is a signature issue for him, a tactical win because Republicans said he wasn't going to get it. It is a save the world win because if you care about, oops, it's the nuclear end of the world you care about treaties like this getting passed.

[Its ratification] caps an astonishing period in American political history.
For the last two years, democrats have held the White House as well as big majorities in the house and senate. The record of achievement in that time, even in the face of unified at times totally random Republican opposition, Republicans had proposed in the first place, unified Republican opposition to their own ideas?

Their track record even in the face of that is historic. Whether you agree or disagree with what democrats have done in the first two years of President Obama's presidency, they have freaking done it.

The Fair Pay Act for Women, expanding children's health insurance, new hate crimes legislation they said could not be done, tobacco regulation, credit card reform, student loan reform, the stimulus -- which in addition to helping pull this country back from the brink of a great depression, was also the largest tax cut ever, the largest investment in clean energy ever, the largest investment in education in our country ever.

There was also a little thing you may have heard of called health reform. Also, Wall Street reform, the improvements to the new G.I. bill, the most expansive food SAFETY BILL SINCE THE 1930s.

And tomorrow, president obama will officially sign a repeal of don't ask, don't tell....President Obama not only made a commitment to get it done and refused to cave on that commitment but he devised the strategy by which it could be done.

From the beginning of the term he worked to create the conditions in Washington, painstakingly to create conditions under which it was more likely that don't ask, don't tell would be repealed than not.

The conditions under which killing that policy was more possible than keeping it.
It took two years of solid work. He did not waver and in the end made it happen.

There are big things this administration said that it wanted to do that it hasn't done yet. Energy reform, immigration reform, the bush tax cuts for the rich were extended, closing Guantanamo.Those are some of them. Today it looked like one of the important judicial nominees will not get a vote to become a judge this year.

There is territory the White House has said it would like to cover that it has not yet covered. By my estimation it is halftime, right, in the first term and with this vote tomorrow they will have gone 85% of the distance they said they wanted to go in the first term of the president.

This is tough sledding, folks. We are a nation of happily ignorant people, with a government that goes where the money is, often in the face of public opinion. We are broke, angry, and watching a country in decline with little faith that we can reverse that slide.

But we have elected a man suited for the presidency as none have been since President Johnson had to leave after the war took over his presidency and as inspirational and well read as President Kennedy who told this blogger, and many others, what are our responsibilities as a citizen in a republic.

This president can be maddening, of course. He looks for the better angels in people trying to destroy him and harm us. His election was made possible by disgust in the fool who preceded him, but that man has been forgotten by a public that otherwise is made uneasy by a president who looks the way this one does and who has a name that sounds so foreign. We are not in a post-racial period, my friends, as much as we wish we were.

On top of all that, he is opposed by a political party which controls a television "news" outlet, which would rather endanger our national security than give the President a victory. There was less substance to the pig headed opposition to a treaty every reasonably serious person knew to be important, than in the absurd opposition to the League of Nations by roughly the same idiots who by keeping the United States out of it all but guaranteed the horrible events which followed.

Our fate, our hope lies in his presidency and in our efforts to support what we all want to happen. This will not be easy, and there will be days when it looks hopeless. As discussed last week, reforming the Senate rules, even if it is possible, will not turn the tide unless people get behind the issues before the Congress.

Nothing said here is meant to suggests one may not criticize the president. That criticism must, though, recognize his importance to this nation and to our cause and the imperative that he be re-elected and able to restore the House to Democratic control. A discontent that suggests we made a mistake in 2008 is both absurd and not in anyone's interest.

So, there are your marching orders. Nobody should be complacent and everyone has an assignment. It's really very important and the best Christmas present you could give to our posterity.

Again, Merry Christmas and, well, Shabbat Shalom.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Road Ahead or Barth Wants to Ruin Family Get Togethers

There is nobody on "our side" of the political gulf who did not cheer, feel vindicated, or thought of the many people in their lives who just have to read the University of Maryland study of the misinformed viewers of what is laughingly called "Fox News." When we calm down a bit, it might occur to contemplate that a) what is being done is a deliberate political strategy and b) is working.

The general stupidity of our fellow Americans, and their consequent disdain for facts, history or context is a constant refrain in these pages. It can be tsked, tsked here, and can lead to all the pain that comes from banging one's head against a wall, but it is as much an operative fact about the country in which we live as any of the well accepted truths which Fox viewers are either not told about or about which they are taught falsehoods.

Your faithful correspondent has fallen into the trap of arguing against the obvious way too many times. Most egregiously , while railing against the foolishness that passes for political thought, the foolish blogger pointed to the comments of a high level member of the Bush II White House to Ron Suskind during their mysterious heyday following the 9/11 attacks

the reality-based community, [defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from ... judicious study of discernible reality' don't understand that t]hat's not the way the world really works anymore...We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do

as if this was the craziest, most foul thing ever uttered in the White House when, in fact, it was pure wisdom. Cynical, maybe, but the observation which seemed so shocking to this dense fool, was, in fact, the exposition of a brilliant political strategy.

It is by following that strategy that these forces of the the right, the protectors of all that is wealthy, the defenders of those who, in Senator Sanders' memorable words, want it all, win even when the are in the minority and then, by preventing anything from being accomplished, can run against Democrats by arguing that they have not done anything.

Once again (or, "as usual"), Dr. Maddow is called upon to frame this point:

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What you‘re looking at there is the breaking of the United States Senate as an institution. What these are is filibusters. This is when the Senate decides to take the extraordinary measure of making something take 60 votes to pass instead of 50 votes.

And that‘s impossible. Supermajorities are impossible. You cannot actually pass things with supermajorities in an ongoing way. This is not the way that legislatures function. It is never the way that America‘s legislature has functioned.

If you‘re going to require a supermajority, it means that effectively this body has ceased to function. It has ceased to function as a normal majority rules legislature.

This is how Republicans broke the Senate. They have turned the Senate into a Republican stronghold not while they were in the majority, but since they‘ve been in the minority. Since they lost the Senate, they have turned it into a stronghold for their own party by using power that the Senate minority is usually entrusted not to abuse. They‘ve used that power to break the institution.

Even though they are the minority, even though there are less than 50 of them, significantly less than 50 of them, they exert all of the leverage. They get what they want. Which not only means that policies get changed to try to appeal to them, it also means that the calendar just stretches on and on and on and on with nothing ever getting done. That is -- that‘s their preference.

They are filibustering the funding of the military right now. That‘s passed every year for 48 years. It is being filibustered by Republicans right now. It‘s on the docket.

They are filibustering the appointment of people to relatively low-level political jobs at middle management levels at cabinet agencies you cannot remember the names of—people who are not famous, people who are not controversial, but who are nevertheless subject to this extraordinary supermajority rule. This extraordinary thing that was never supposed to be used the way it‘s being used. But because Republicans are using it the way they are, nothing gets done. And they have found that strategy to be in their political interest—to get as little done as possible.

And here's the bad news, the part you may not want to hear, and the part that could make you even angrier that you wasted time on this post:

Why is this happening? How do they get away with this?

It is all your (our) fault.

OK. Not "all" but there is plenty of fault to be laid right at our doorstop.

Again, Rachel explains:

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One of the consequences of the big, big Democratic victories in the House in 2006 and 2008 is that it allowed us to see, it allowed us to know what sort of laws you can get passed if the Democratic agenda, President Obama‘s agenda is enacted. Health reform with a public option, no more “don‘t ask, don‘t tell,” energy legislation that finally cuts the carbon emissions, a greater amount of disclosure in corporate campaign contributions, no more bonus tax cuts for the rich—all of this was campaigned on by President Obama.

All of this has been done by the House. All of this has been achieved by Nancy Pelosi. And all of it died in the Senate slowly and painfully shortly thereafter.

The distance between that world—what is it Pelosi-stan, right -- the difference between that world, the House, where all of those things were achieved and the world that we have got with Congress now on the verge of extending bonus tax cuts for the richest Americans, even though Democrats are the majority in both houses right now. The distance between those things, the distance in what the House has done and what has been done overall, that‘s the enthusiasm gap. You‘re looking for it, there it is.

The right turned out in the last election and the left did not turn out in the last election. That‘s the gap they fell into. And, ultimately, that‘s what the United States Senate being broken has wrought. What the House has giveth, the Senate has taketh away, with the endless filibusters, with the endless obstructions and delay tactics, one of which proved to be successful tonight.

The margin that Democrats have over Republicans in the House and the Senate has been equal. Things have died in the Senate, not because Democrats didn‘t have the votes. They had the votes. The Senate broke.

Rachel and Senator Tom Udall believe the have the answer in a rules change to be brought on by a ruling by the Vice President, as president of the Senate on the first day of the new session, changing not only the Senate's rules by the longstanding view of the Senate as a continuous body, since only one-third are elected at a time as opposed to the House where everyone runs every two years. Many of us are dubious that this plan will work. And even if this dangerous tact did (remember that a prior Vice President, Cheney, was going to rule against filibusters of judicial nominees, to allow President Bush to seat even more hacks---see the Virginia health care decision of the past week) there are numerous other devices that a determined minority can employ---frequent quorum calls, or requirements that a bill be read by the clerk in full, or any number of other refusals to make possible the "without objection" that the Senate almost always needs to proceed further, to achieve the same end.

It is not a rules change that is needed. It is public opinion which needs to change. The get away with this because nobody cares: Nobody cares about parliamentary procedures, just as nobody cares about campaign finance reform which is just as boring a subject.

They are hardly as much fun to talk about as millions in tax breaks for millionaires, or calling President Obama a "sell out." But what is wrong with our politics, and why we are moving backwards as fast as Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson move us forward or tried to, is right there. Nothing will change if Republicans can just stop the Senate from doing business and not pa an political price for it.

If and when your family gatherings or parties with friends lead to political discussions, many will try to change or avoid the subject, lest unpleasantness ensue. We all know the rules: try to keep politics and religion out of social gatherings.

To do so this year, in this atmosphere, could be disastrous, though. The meme that the President can do whatever he wants but has failed to do what we want needs a response. This is not to say that the President is not without fault. He propagates the foolish Bush thing about being "the decider" or something close to a king, when he is not. The constant use of the first person as in

So I pass a signature piece of legislation where we finally get health care for all Americans, something that Democrats had been fighting for for a hundred years

is foolish and is not only wrong, but perpetuates the fiction that the all powerful sovereign has failed to do what he said he would do.

The reality is that Congress goes where the money is and the money wants to protect those who already have it. If there is a way to fight back, it is only by political action, by noise from those who expect something else from their government. That is where we, the people, come in.

So, we close with a couple of frequently quoted exhortations of presidents:

First from our greatest president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt as he took office on March 4, 1933:

If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective

The second from the most inspirational president of the lifetime of many of us, when he was sworn in on January 20, 1961:

In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.

Now the trumpet summons us again -- not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need -- not as a call to battle, though embattled we are -- but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, "rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation,"² a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.

What both presidents needed, and our current one needs now, is that we show those in our lives who will not see it, what is happening and why. It is boring, pedantic and may ruin a few dinners or even friendships. But, my friends, it is the only way.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

This is how it works...

The founders of this nation did not, we have often been told, envision the formation of political parties and there remains a resistance to the idea that the party is more important than the actual office holder. There have been times, indeed, when the party label meant less than than the politics of the time. Stephen Douglas, for instance, was a Democrat when that party stood for slavery but, at best, it was unclear whether he did. In modern times, Clifford Case and Jacob Javits, both Republicans (Lincoln Chaffee even more recently) but far more progressive than people who were members of the Democratic Party, and not just southern Democrats.

Those days are over, at least for now. The Republican Party, minority in the Senate, have successfully transformed Rule XXII to make it impossible for any bill to be voted upon without the proponent having at least the technical ability to obtain cloture. They can do that for two reasons a) they stand to together as a bloc irrespective of the merits of a particular piece of legislation, thus insuring cloture cannot be invoked and b) they get away with it in what laughingly could be called "the court of public opinion."

These Republicans are no better or no worse than any other bloc that has formed in the Senate. If southern Democrats could have gotten away with filibustering everything, they would have done so, not simply to block civil rights legislation, but the New Deal itself. They could not, because the "public" or more accurately, the elites whose consensus means something in Washington and other power centers, would not allow it or stand for it.

The success in stopping serious civil rights legislation from being enacted in 1957. in 1958 (after Little Rock) and 1963 (at and around the march on Washington) was because there was insufficient outrage at the filibuster mounted against it. After President Kennedy was murdered in November, 1963, the public demand that legislation he championed be enacted in his memory made it impossible to prevent cloture and both the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts became law. It was not that the public suddenly accepted the merits of the legislation (the country had been divided on the subject at least since 1957, but were it not for the filibuster, there were probably enough votes to enact it), but that filibustering the bill had become, with the president's death, unacceptable to enough people that the two bills could pass.

So it matters not, today, that Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe are considered "moderate." If the Republican Party can block legislation by uniformly voting against cloture, all that matters is whether a Senator is a member of that party. After Arlen Specter voted against cloture as a Republican in 2009 he had to change parties (which coincided with electoral realities in his state). Senators Snowe and Collins say they are for repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell but Senator Snowe voted against cloture to prevent the Defense Authorization bill, which included the repeal, from being debated and voted upon this week, and Senator Collins did the same thing over the summer citing some objection to the way Senator Reid restricted the amendment process.

This is why voting last November, and not just in presidential elections, was important. This is why, whether you like the Senate leadership, or every White House position, it was important for Democrats to be elected. Even more importantly, this is why whatever anger there is over the failure of this country to address the so many critical issues facing us needs to be directed at the reasons for this.

It is not President Obama. Yes, he does not appear to be the best negotiator there is and his unreciprocated respect for his political opponents, whether real or (more likely) feigned, is almost childish but that it not why so much that needs to be done is not, and cannot. Mourning Joe and others can keep talking about the control of both houses of Congress, but it is not so, as anyone with half a brain can see.

If sixty votes are required to declare Arbor Day then "control" of the Senate means little more than control of the committee chairs, and the floor agenda; not insignificant, but not the stuff that makes history. If the stimulus was too little, which it surely was, it was because it could not get sixty votes. If the health care reform, historic though it was, did not have all that we wished it did, it was because it needed sixty votes. If we have done nothing to deal with the requirements of a green economy and competing with the many other nations which are galloping past us in that area, in education, and countless other areas, it is because nothing can get done unless Senator McConnell allows it to.

Yes, the bully pulpit is something, but citizen action means much more. We have a Supreme Court that is likely to prevent any serious campaign finance reform from becoming law, giving an even greater advantage to those who have the funds to bestow upon needy politicians seeking re-election and to overcome that, if it can be overcome, requires a daily onslaught of angry voters on an otherwise bought and paid for Congress. We have not seen anything like that in any sustained fashion; just blogging and whining. Lecturing the president will not do the trick. Bombarding Congress might, but we seem incapable of that.

In an interview in The Promise, Jonathan Alter's excellent narrative of the President's first year, Mr. Obama tells the story of a 2009 trip to South Korea where he was told about Korean parents pressuring their government to provide more English teachers to first graders to satisfy a demand that their children learn that language. President Obama lamented that when he, in a press conference he held while still in Korea, he tried to discuss the importance of American parents making similar demands, U.S. reporters wanted to know whether he had yet read Sarah Palin's book. Of this intense interest in fluffery and bullshit are the seeds of the decline we see and lament over and over.

'Twas ever so, of course. It's just that more people saw garbage to be garbage during the better parts of our history. Were they around today, of course, Father Coughlin or Westbrook Pegler, among others, would be spewing his hate on Fox News, instead of being snickered at by most of the movers and shakers. And you have to laugh when the "new Nixon" we kept being told had appeared in the 1968 campaign (while many progressives stayed home to protest against President Johnson and Vice President Humphrey since there was supposedly "no difference" between them and Nixon) is further unmasked to be just the rank nonsense the sane among us knew then, even if we were only 16 years old.

Just as there was not a word Senator Sanders said yesterday, at least among those which reached these ears, with which any reasonably sane person could have disagreed. Sadly, there are not sixty of them in the United States Senate.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

What's about to happen and why

When we were young Joni Mitchell told us:

you haven't really changed...
It's just that now you're romanticizing some pain that's in your head
You got tombs in your eyes but the songs you punched are dreamy
Listen, they sing of love so sweet, love so sweet
When you gonna get yourself back on your feet?
Oh and love can be so sweet Love so sweet

but after a decade of Reaganomics, that whole dreaming thing seemed a bit darker:

The street was loud
From an angry crowd and
I thought of you, I
thought of you
Land of the free
No hungry bellies
Impossible dreamer

Have you spent the week wishing President Obama would stand up to the Republicans? Are you stupefied by the prospect of a Congress that won't extend unemployment benefits and continue a middle class tax cut, unless the wealthiest get an even bigger tax cut? Can you barely sit still for a Senate unable to ratify an utterly uncontroversial treaty required for a thousand a half reasons, but mostly to lessen the chances we we will all be blown away by some fool and nuclear weapons? Because the Senate has not extended tax cuts for the wealthy?

Don't be.

There was nothing President Obama could have done. This is the Congress we have elected. It is the Congress that comes forth in a country which auctions its legislature off to the highest bidder and prevents any change in such a perverse system by expressing a sudden devotion to the principles of the First Amendment. (Yes, the same First Amendment which permits radio stations to be fined if a someone says a "bad word" on it or allows Congress to regulate how music should be played on radio stations which archive their programs on the internet. It means nothing then, but is an iron shield against any regulation of campaign contributions.)

Get used to this, my friends. John McCain has pointed out that elections have consequences and what we are seeing this week are just that. With the election of the Great Reagan in 1980, the dreams of those President Roosevelt called

the old enemies of peace--business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering

to destroy the New Deal and the forward looking outlook that made it, and the great prosperity it brought with it, were realized. Government is bad, they told us, and we believed them.

And, except for eight years when a moderate Republican masquerading as a Democrat served in the White House (though they impeached him), they held the White House for almost thirty years.

President Obama, some thought, could just fix all of that with the snap of newly empowered fingers. Most of us knew better, but when he could not repair the damage of thirty years in just two, it was decided to go back to the exact way of thinking that has brought our country to its knees.

The other day, Bob Schieffer tried desperately on Face the Nationto get distinguished biographers of two of our greatest presidents to reassure him and us that as before something will happen or someone will come to save the day. Neither historian would bite, however:

RON CHERNOW (biographer of George Wahington in Washington: A Life)
Well, Americans like to look back on the Founding Era as the golden age. And there are good reasons and bad reasons for doing that. Indeed the Founding Era had these men who were brilliant and erudite and fearless. We had in a country of three million people simultaneously active in American politics, a Benjamin Franklin, a George Washington, a
Thomas Jefferson, a James Madison, a John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton and a John Jay.

We would all be hard pressed to think of a single individual of the stature of any of those seven people even though the population today is one hundred times greater.

EDMUND MORRIS (biographer of Theodore Roosevelt in Colonel Roosevelt):

the progressive middle class movement ... volcanically erupted in 1910, exactly hundred years ago. And reached its peak in 1912, the campaign where Theodore Roosevelt became the almost third party candidate for the presidency and humiliated the sitting Republican President William Howard Taft and split the Republican vote and elected Woodrow Wilson...[based on a ] feeling of exclusion, exclusion from
the privileged interplay of a conservative Congress, financial institutions-- ... the corporate elite, [wwhere] the middle class feels disenfranchised, angry, overtaxed and perplexed. And this anger is
something quite formidable. And I would not be surprised if it doesn’t ... give us real trouble in 2012.

We have, as Frank Rich explained last week, a bought and paid for Congress, out of touch with the issues facing our country and doing the bidding of elites who mean no good. This is what we elected and this is what we got.


A brief word on today's events, happening as we type. When the Senate votes 53-36 to in essence, pass a middle class tax cut extension, they have not, as the Times has it right now, "rejected" the plan. They have failed to impose cloture which, under the new view of what the filibuster means, makes it impossible for the Senate to pass the bill. But a body does not "reject" something when 17 more of its members vote for it, than vote against it. In the Beltway, it may mean they "rejected" something, but not anywhere else.