Friday, November 27, 2015

It's Black Friday and Religious Zealots Have No Place to Shop

On this Black Friday, apparently members of the religious right are running into a problem. After having joined the bandwagon of turning Christmas into a commercialized shopping extravaganza, Linda Harvey says that they're running out of places to spend their money that are content to discriminate against LGBT people.

Of course she warns people to stay away from the usual suspects like Macy's for allowing a transexual to use a woman's dressing room and Target for selling gay pride t-shirts. But oh my, she now has to add that conservative bastion known as Wal-Mart to the list for opposing "religious freedom" bills in Arkansas and Indiana.

But my very favorite is her problem with Mattel.
If you’re thinking toys, avoid Mattel. They just created “Moschino Barbie” with an ad featuring a tragically feminized little boy who plays with Barbies, a wicked accommodation to the current gender-destructive culture.
Little boys playing with Barbies? What is the world coming to? For our "gender-destructive culture," Harvey has a totally hyperbolized name..."Satan's Office Party."

Here's a thought. What if these religious zealots actually DID run out of places to shop and had to spend some time thinking about what the whole Christmas season was originally about?
Let me tell you something about the Jesus that I know.

He was a real man. Born in a poor region to working poor parents. He loved learning, he loved his mother and his father.

But he left them and spent his life with the poor, the outcast, the rejected, the defiled, the sick, the sinners, the bedraggled, the bereft, the self-hating, the lonely, the banished, the foul, the miserable, the desperate and finally, those sick with their own power.

He did this, not because of his ideology or his creed. He did this not because of his doctrine. He did this, quite simply, because he loved them. He preferred them.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Trump-Mania?

David Frum took up the cause of proposing yet another plan for how "the establishment" can bring down Donald Trump. His suggestion is that the driving force behind Trump-mania is immigration, and so they should call out Trump for hiring undocumented workers and flip-flopping on the issue. I personally don't think that will work any better than all the other ideas that have either been tried or discussed so far.

But in the course of setting that up, he buried the kicker.
Now the same party leaders who insisted that Sarah Palin could do the job of president, if need be, want to persuade the rank-and-file that Trump can’t? Good luck with that.
Boom! That is essentially what Martin said the other day. They took this genie out of the bottle and now they can't figure out how to get it back in.

As a reminder, the religious right were no fans of John McCain in 2008 after he took them on in the 2000 primary against George W. Bush. Mike Huckabee was their man. So McCain flipped the conventional wisdom and ran as a centrist during the primary and then had to make up some ground with the far right to prepare for the general election. Hence, he brought us Sarah Palin.

When Republicans lost that race to Barack Obama, they tapped into all the energy Palin had stirred up in their base in an attempt to delegitimize the election and fuel their obstruction. Those are the same flames Donald Trump is exploiting today.

Recently Greg Sargent expressed his skepticism that any of the attacks currently being planned or implemented against Trump will have an effect on his supporters. To demonstrate how right he is about that, take a look at this post one of them wrote on Medium this week. Obviously the writer has heard about the reports that some members of the GOP establishment are planning to launch a coordinated attack against Trump.
You truly Mr. GOP whatever, underestimated the voter here. In voter, I am speaking of the TRUMP VOTER . The one who knows the games, the drills, and will never vote for any other GOP candidate no matter what you do. I, myself will vote for Micky Mouse before I vote for any other than Trump!

You have just ruined the club you call a party. You are a private entity and it is now obvious what you all do. So puppet controllers for the puppet masters. Go to ….your elections on your own. I am done with you and America wants Trump and we will vote for Donald Trump either third party or on your lousy ticket. You, however, are done. Broken, and over. You have had your last party, enjoy it!
Her commenters obviously agree. Here's just the first one:
I knew the GOP wasn’t to be trusted, they hate Trump, they can’t control him because he is his own man. I know I am not the only one that will vote for him and no one else, whether he runs GOP or 3rd Party. He has the vision, the intelligence and the guts to do what is right for America and its people, he owes no one and he will make the tough decisions. He’s not interested in being PC he’s interested in saving this Nation. The GOP should be ashamed, they should be backing Trump all the way, but that would be against everything they believe in….their own self interests. Go Trump will be heard loud and clear across the land and this will backfire on you establishment GOP’rs!!!!!
Nothing anyone says about Trump is going to change these people's mind. Attacks on him only reinforce what they already believe - which is that the Republican Party has abandoned them and is terminally broken. The Grand Old Party created an insurgency that is now turning on them. That's what Trump-mania is coming down to.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Thanksgiving Song

There is an awful lot of music associated with the Christmas holiday. But when it comes to Thanksgiving…not so much. If you’re anything like me, the one song you grew up singing on this holiday was “Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go.” But until this week, I never knew anything about the origins of that song.

It comes from a poem written in 1844 by a woman named Lydia Marie Child.
Child herself had an unhappy youth: her mother was ill and remote, and her father was a strict and irascible Calvinist who was alarmed by her interest in books.

When Child was 12, her mother died, and she was sent to live in her sister’s home in the interior of Maine. There, she was free to fashion an education for herself: she found tutors at Bowdoin College, mentors at a public library, and friends among the local Indian tribes, who’d been violently uprooted from their land.

At 19, Child returned to Boston to live and study with her brother, who had graduated from Harvard and was a liberal Unitarian minister. A few years later, in 1824, she scandalized the city with her first book, Hobomok, a novel about an upper-class white woman who falls in love with and marries an Indian chief.

Over the next several decades, Child published many more provocative books, including The First Settlers of New-England (1829), an account of the atrocities committed by the Puritans against the Indians during the 17th century; An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans (1833), the first major study of slavery in the United States; and The Duty of Disobedience to the Fugitive Slave Act: An Appeal to the Legislators of Massachusetts (1860).

Though Child’s political writing made her a celebrity, it didn’t make her much money. Luckily, she also had a knack for creating children’s literature with broad commercial appeal. “The New-England Boy’s Song About Thanksgiving Day” was part of a popular collection of poems and stories she wrote for eight- and nine-year-olds; the verses were later set to music.
So if you happen to hear her song today, take a bit of courage from someone who fought against the white male patriarchy of her day…decades ahead of her time.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Inspiring Americans

Yesterday the White House hosted a star-studded cast of recipients of the 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom. Included on the list were some of the biggest names in sports and entertainment: Yogi Berra, Willie Mays, Emilio and Gloria Estefan, Itzhak Perlman, Stephen Sondheim, Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand and James Taylor. Also receiving the honor were some who had made their name in politics, like Lee Hamilton, Barbara Mikulski and the amazing Shirley Chisholm.

But it is often the people who many of us have never heard of before that are the most inspiring. Like Billy Frank, Jr.

Born on a Nisqually reservation in Washington state, the Native American activist resisted state fishing regulations in the 1960s and early '70s, arguing that the imposed laws violated 19th-century treaties signed between the U.S. and Native Americans. Frank was arrested numerous times, and his argument was eventually upheld by the Supreme Court in the mid-'70s.

In the decades after, he continued to help lead efforts for Native Americans' rights and environmental conservation in the Pacific Northwest — efforts for which he was recognized with the Albert Schweitzer Award and the Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Service Award for Humanitarian Achievement.
And Katherine Johnson.

A research mathematician for NASA in its earliest years, Johnson worked on projects such as calculations for interplanetary trajectories. Her calculations were behind the space flight of Alan Shepard — a first for America — and the Earth Resources Satellite.

"Early on, when they said they wanted [Shepard's] capsule to come down at a certain place, they were trying to compute when it should start," Johnson told NASA's news service in 2008. "I said, 'Let me do it. You tell me when you want it and where you want it to land, and I'll do it backwards and tell you when to take off.' That was my forte."

Throughout her career with NASA, Johnson helped pave a path for African-American women in the space program. She is 97.
But perhaps the most poignant, given what is happening in this country right now, was the inclusion of Minoru Yasui.

At the height of World War II, the U.S. government forcibly placed more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese descent in internment camps and pursued other discriminatory policies such as race-based curfews — out of fear that the Japanese-American population could prove a threat.

Minoru Yasui, then a recent law school graduate, violated the curfew in order to get his case heard in court. "I walked these two or three or four times, as I recall that evening, trying to get arrested," Yasui said — and finally, he had to walk down to the local police department to turn himself in.

That's when his case began. As NPR's Michel Martin reports:

"Ultimately, the case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Yasui lost. Despite that, he continued to work on civil rights cases throughout his life on behalf of Native Americans, Latin Americans, wherever he found injustice. Minoru Yasui died in 1986, too soon to witness a victory he had sought for decades when the U.S. granted reparations to interned Japanese-American families in 1988."
This is a reminder that history tends to fondly remember those who refused to cower in fear - but had the courage to stand up for what is right when fear takes hold.

What's Up With Millennials?

The millennial generation is a nightmare for Republicans. They are more diverse, more urban, more college-educated, more tolerant and more liberal than their predecessors. The result is that in 2008 and 2012, they voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama. In 2016, this generational cohort is predicted to make up 38% of the electorate. So it should come as no surprise that the topic of millennials has been addressed recently by two conservative writers: Carl Wagner at Real Clear Politics and Donald Devine at The American Conservative.

Before taking a look at what these two writers have to say about millennials, it is important to keep in mind that conservatives often cling to the idea that we all get more conservative with age. As the old saying goes:
Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has no heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains.
But the trouble with that assumption is that research has proven that it is a myth. Here's what Wagner has to say about that:
Over the past 100 years generations have tended to vote, for most of their lives, for the party on which they cut their political teeth. The “Greatest Generation” came of age during the FDR presidency and voted the Democratic nominee in every election (except the Eisenhower/Stevenson campaigns) for the next three decades. Same with the boomers, who came of voting age en masse in 1972. Nixon won them overwhelmingly and they voted for every Republican presidential candidate until 1992.
Wagner's whole premise is that the GOP is in big trouble if they don't do something different.
If Republicans don’t change their tune and their tactics, the “wall” Donald Trump says he wants to build won’t be on the U.S.-Mexican border, it will be between the Republican Party and victory in 2016 - and for decades to come.
Devine takes a different approach. He tries to argue that millennials aren't as liberal as they've been made out to be. He makes the case that they don't favor bigger government if it means paying higher taxes. But here are the two arguments that I found fascinating. First of all:
Millennials reported closer relationships with their families and were much more supportive of a responsibility to care for elderly parents than earlier generations. These do not seem to be wildly leftist views.
And secondly:
Pew found fewer millennials considered themselves religious, patriotic, or environmentalist than any earlier generation. Still, 86 percent said that they believed in God, although with less certainty than older Americans, and only 11 percent said they did not believe at all.
What Devine has done is fall for another myth - that liberals don't believe in God and family simply because those are the spheres where the whole idea of "freedom" comes into play for them (as opposed to conservatives, who actually want to expand the government's reach into decisions about religion and family).

On a purely anecdotal level, what I noticed about millennials from spending a lot of time working with them in my previous profession is that they don't trust big institutions. That doesn't bode well for liberals, but is understandable in light of the government's failures going all the way back to Vietnam and Nixon up until the Iraq War and the Great Recession. They've also witnessed the corruption in large religious and nonprofit institutions.

But what I also noticed is that millennials have a great deal of trust in themselves...and this very old (by millennial's standards) quote from Margaret Mead:

The Politics of Fear

Jeff Greenfield has written an article that sparked a lot of thought for me titled: Getting the Politics of Fear Right. He acknowledges that following the Paris attacks, Donald Trump "went on a fear-mongering bender." But then, he finds President Obama's response to be problematic as well.
Meanwhile President Obama has tacked sharply in the other direction, playing down the public's anxiety, defiantly continuing to downgrade the possibility of an attack on the U.S. and the capabilities of Islamic State...Obama's dismissiveness is no doubt one reason for Trump’s popularity; clearly many voters believe our current crop of leaders—starting with the president—have been too inattentive to their fears.
This is not an uncommon critique of President Obama. Way back in 2010 during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Maureen Dowd led a chorus of people complaining about the fact that the President didn't seem to feel our panic.
President Spock’s behavior is illogical.

Once more, he has willfully and inexplicably resisted fulfilling a signal part of his job: being a prism in moments of fear and pride, reflecting what Americans feel so they know he gets it.
So this is nothing new. But it does make me think about what it is we want in a leader. I was reminded of a powerful diary written years ago by a blogger named Hamden Rice about the leadership of Martin Luther King. The parallels with our current situation eventually break down, but Rice pointed out that King emerged to lead African Americans during a time that they were experiencing the terrorism of Jim Crow.
But this is what the great Dr. Martin Luther King accomplished. Not that he marched, nor that he gave speeches.

He ended the terror of living as a black person, especially in the south...

It wasn't that black people had to use a separate drinking fountain or couldn't sit at lunch counters, or had to sit in the back of the bus...

It was that white people, mostly white men, occasionally went berserk, and grabbed random black people, usually men, and lynched them. You all know about lynching. But you may forget or not know that white people also randomly beat black people, and the black people could not fight back, for fear of even worse punishment.

This constant low level dread of atavistic violence is what kept the system running. It made life miserable, stressful and terrifying for black people.
And what was King's response to that terror?
They told us: Whatever you are most afraid of doing vis-a-vis white people, go do it. Go ahead down to city hall and try to register to vote, even if they say no, even if they take your name down.

Go ahead sit at that lunch counter. Sue the local school board. All things that most black people would have said back then, without exaggeration, were stark raving insane and would get you killed.

If we do it all together, we'll be okay.
One has to wonder if folks like Greenfield and Dowd had been around back then, would they have complained that MLK was too inattentive to their fears?

When it comes to the current threat of terrorism, President Obama plays a very different role in this country than the one Dr. Martin Luther King did all those decades ago. But interestingly enough, today his message sounded pretty similar.
What happened in Paris is truly horrific. I understand that people worry that something similar could happen here. I want you to know that we will continue to do everything in our power to defend our nation...

But it’s not just our security professionals who will defeat ISIL and other terrorist groups. As Americans, we all have a role to play in how we respond to threats. Groups like ISIL cannot defeat us on the battlefield, so they try to terrorize us at home -- against soft targets, against civilians, against innocent people. Even as we’re vigilant, we cannot, and we will not, succumb to fear. Nor can we allow fear to divide us -- for that’s how terrorists win. We cannot give them the victory of changing how we go about living our lives.
In thinking all this through, I came to the conclusion that - for me - that is exactly the kind of leadership I think this country needs to combat the politics of fear.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

State of the Race

We're all getting a little wary of predicting how this 2016 Republican primary race is going to turn out. The big question is: will things revert to the historical precedents political scientists have documented over the years? Or are we in a whole new territory this time around? The only way to answer that question is to wait and see - which drives those of us who are political junkies a bit nuts.

But the chart above from Huffington Post's Pollster captures the state of the race right now. If, instead of trying to predict where this thing is going to go, we focus on what we can learn from where things are right now, I see trajectories for these five candidates as follows:

* Donald Trump is holding steady
* Ben Carson is going down
* Marco Rubio is re-gaining the ground he lost over the summer
* Ted Cruz is going up
* Jeb Bush continues his slow descent

If, as Cruz recently suggested, we take a look at the different "lanes" available to the candidates, we can say the following with some clarity:

1. In the insurgent lane, Trump is beating Carson
2. In the establishment lane, Rubio is beating Bush

So where does that leave Cruz? If the Quinnipiac poll from Iowa today is any indication, as Carson is dropping, Cruz is picking up his supporters. That could mean that the insurgent lane becomes a contest between Trump and Cruz. Will the truce between the two of them survive if that happens?

Steve Benen went on record today saying that this development brings on the "shake-up" many have been waiting for in this race - which also presents a difficult question for establishment Republicans.
If this continues, and Cruz supplants Carson in the top tier, the nature of the race will fundamentally change.

There’s quite a bit of time left on the clock, but it’s now quite easy to imagine Cruz winning Iowa and Trump winning New Hampshire. It creates an interesting question for Republican insiders to kick around: the GOP establishment hates Cruz, but should we assume that it hates Trump more?
What I've noticed is that while Trump is soaking up most of the oxygen in the press with his outlandish statements, the punditry is increasingly talking about the rise of Ted Cruz. As an example, Andrew Romano at Yahoo Politics writes: Ted Cruz Has Always Had a Master Plan. Now it Could Win Him the White House.

Anyone who says they know how all of this will end is probably fooling themselves. But it seems to me that it is increasingly going to come down to a battle between Trump, Rubio and Cruz.

The Public Nature of Health

Whenever people talk about a public advocacy campaign to change behavior, the anti-smoking initiative of the 1980's and 1990's is the standard to which all others aspire. That's because it was spectacularly successful. As Shannon Brownlee writes in the latest edition of the Washington Monthly:
The result has been a dramatic reduction in rates of smoking over the last twenty years. In 1981, 33 percent of Americans were smokers. By 2011, it was down to 19 percent. Today, actors in movies are no longer wreathed in clouds of cigarette smoke, and smoking is far less acceptable as a habit. More importantly, deaths from lung cancer have been declining since the 1980s, a triumph of public health.
Brownlee recounts that success in her review of the book Saving Gotham: A Billionaire Mayor, Activist Doctors, and the Fight for Eight Million Lives by Tom Farley, MD. It is the story of how Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the New York City Public Health Department not only won battles against the tobacco companies, but also the restaurant industry before ultimately losing a fight with the American Beverage Association.
During Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure, smoking was banned from New York City restaurants and bars; cigarette displays were banned from stores; trans fats were banned from foods; and calorie counts were mandated on the menus in all fast food restaurants. The only campaign the mayor and the department lost was a regulation that would have reduced soda consumption.
I remember all the mocking New York City took from conservatives for their attempt to ban over-sized sodas. Brownlee writes that loss off to the lobbyists from the beverage industry. But I think there was probably more to it than that. There was a strong scientific basis for smoking bans based on the dangers of second-hand smoke. And publishing calorie counts on menus is simply a matter of providing useful information. But telling Americans what size of soda they can buy was probably a bridge too far. As Brownlee points out, Bloomberg Philanthropies chose a different approach in Mexico City - a sugar tax - which was much more successful.

In the end though, there is an argument to be made about the public nature of health.
These are the battles of public health of the future: the environment around us that breeds chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, asthma, emphysema, and a host of other modern plagues. Conservatives like to argue that regulations like smoking bans, soda taxes, and calorie labels are an infringement on our rights as individuals—to smoke, to drink, to eat whatever we please, and by extension to be as unhealthy as we like. It’s an argument that makes ill health entirely a matter of individual responsibility, even as the costs of individual behavior are born collectively. We all pay for the nation’s rising rates of obesity, diabetes, lung disease, and asthma in the form of medical bills and a loss of human capital.
I encourage you to read First We Take Manhattan to get the whole scoop.

Reminding Voters What Works

There has been a lot of pontificating about why (mostly white) Americans these days are so angry and distrustful of government. The latest to wade into those waters was Alec MacGillis with his much-discussed article titled: Who Turned My Blue State Red?

It is important to make the distinction between being distrustful of politics and being distrustful of government programs. All of us are angry at the former, sometimes for different reasons. But it is the Republicans who decided that their best play against a Democratic president was to completely abandon their responsibility to govern. I would simply remind you that when touting the idea of a "permanent Republican majority" back in 2003, Grover Norquist was asked what that meant for when a Democrat won the White House. His response was, "We will make it so that a Democrat cannot govern as a Democrat.” We've seen that plan in action now for 7 years. And yes, it is infuriating.

But the distrust and anger Americans feel about government programs is a bit more difficult to understand. The roots of it are complex. That is why, when reviewing Stanley Greenberg's book for the print edition of the Washington Monthly, I noted that " it would be important to know whether white working-class voters think that no government programs work, or whether their concerns are limited to certain areas."

A report just published by the Pew Research Center titled, Beyond Distrust: How Americans View Their Government, helps us unpack a lot of that. Here is the headline graphic:

Notice that in all areas except space exploration, a majority of the American public supports the government playing a major role. And when asked about whether or not the government is doing a good job in each of those areas (rather than the more general question about overall trust in government), the ratings are relatively high. Of course there are some differences on how Democrats and Republicans rate government performance in these areas. Here's what Pew found.

The optimist in me wants to make sure that we all notice how similarly Democrats and Republicans view the government's performance in areas like responding to natural disasters (an amazing finding that demonstrates how far the Obama administration has come since Bush's handling of Katrina), setting workplace standards, ensuring safe food and medicine, protecting the environment, maintaining infrastructure and ensuring access to quality education. The partisan divide starts to show up around keeping the country safe from terrorism, ensuring access to health care, strengthening the economy and managing the immigration system. It should surprise none of us that those four issues are the ones that are front and center in our electoral processes right now.

But given that the Democrats are the party committed to good government, perhaps it would be a good strategy for candidates to remind voters that they generally approve of the job the government is doing on things like responding to natural disasters, setting workplace standards and ensuring safe food and medicine. When Republicans talk about cutting budgets and getting rid of regulations, those are exactly the kinds of government functions that would be damaged.

One of my great frustrations with liberals is that they tend to not be very good at touting their successes. I am reminded of what Marilynne Robinson said recently during her conversation with President Obama.
Most of the things we do have no defenders because people tend to feel the worst thing you can say is the truest thing you can say.
Changing that doesn't mean ignoring the challenges we face. It just means that every now and then it might be a good idea to remind voters of what's working.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Where I Come From

I wrote this to formally introduce myself to the readers at Washington Monthly's blog Political Animal. Even though some readers here will have heard parts of this story, I don't think I've ever put it all together here.

The literal answer to the question, "Where do you come from, Nancy?" is that I've lived in Minnesota for the last 30 years. But that represents a stability that I didn't experience during the first 30 years of my life. Home base for my family has always been north east Texas (in the Congressional District that is currently represented by Louie Gohmert - if that gives you some idea of the culture). But beyond that, I've lived in Peru, South America, Oregon, Florida, Colorado and Southern California - with a year in England during college.

But the more figurative answer to the question that might help you understand my writing and view of politics has to do with two of the major developments in my life. I graduated from college with a degree in teaching. But early on that trajectory was altered and I began my career working with troubled youth. That led me to get a Master's Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy in the early 1980's when the principles the "hard sciences" had discovered about the systemic nature of the ecosphere were being applied to human behavior. After spending five years as a family therapist in a shelter for runaway youth, I went on to apply that systemic thinking to the broader community in my role as the executive director of a nonprofit organization whose mission was to keep young people out of the juvenile justice system.

My fascination with politics is simply another manifestation of my interest in human behavior, especially the social nature of how we interact with one another. The study of politics, like therapy, is an effort to understand how we change - sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Much as I approached my understanding of therapy from a systemic viewpoint, I bring those same assumptions to my understanding of politics. Here is a description of how general systems theory changes the nature of inquiry:
General systems theory was originally proposed by biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy in 1928. Since Descartes, the "scientific method" had progressed under two related assumptions. A system could be broken down into its individual components so that each component could be analyzed as an independent entity, and the components could be added in a linear fashion to describe the totality of the system. Von Bertalanffy proposed that both assumptions were wrong. On the contrary, a system is characterized by the interactions of its components and the nonlinearity of those interactions.
Family systems theory got away from the idea of identifying and treating individual pathology and instead looked at how dysfunction was actually embedded in the family system. It also took heed of the notion that any individual change would disrupt the system, sometimes in ways that created further dysfunction. That is the "big picture" look that I bring to an understanding of our political system.

The other major development in my life that explains where I come from is that I was raised in a very conservative fundamentalist Christian family and community. In early adulthood I began a journey to examine what I had been taught because it conflicted so strongly with my own experience in the world. Back in 2006 Sara Robinson wrote a powerful series of essays about people leaving authoritarian systems. She captured my experience far better than I could.
We must never, ever underestimate what it costs these people to let go of the beliefs that have sustained them. Leaving the safety of the authoritarian belief system is a three-to-five year process. Externally, it always means the loss of your community; and often the loss of jobs, homes, marriages, and blood relatives as well. Internally, it requires sifting through every assumption you've ever made about how the world works, and your place within it; and demands that you finally take the very emotional and intellectual risks that the entire edifice was designed to protect you from. You have to learn, maybe for the first time, to face down fear and live with ambiguity.
I often joke about being a slow learner. That process of "sifting through every assumption you've ever made about how the world works, and your place within it" actually took me over 20 years. Along the way I learned to embrace cognitive dissonance as the prelude to questions that deserve to be asked. I grew uncomfortable with conventional wisdom and people who embraced the kind of certitude I heard from ideologues. But most of all, I learned to trust the process I went through and what I tapped into along the way. Anyone who has taken such a journey, no matter why it was launched, discovers a great treasure.

There in this place, where your arms unfold
Here at last, you see your ancient face
Now you know. Now you know.

So...that's where I come from. But enough about me. I am very excited to get on with this new adventure here at Political Animal. And I'm grateful to all of you for giving me this opportunity!

Appealing to the Republican Id

According to Beth Reinhard and Janet Hook, establishment Republicans are preparing to mount yet another attempt to bring down the candidacy of Donald Trump.
The Republican establishment, increasingly alarmed by the enduring strength of Donald Trump’s presidential bid, is ratcheting up efforts to knock him out of the race, including the first attempt to unite donors from rival camps into a single anti-Trump force.
The challenge becomes: what's the message?
One possible ad would link Mr. Trump’s views and style to his celebrity foe, Rosie O’Donnell, in hopes of provoking a reaction from Mr. Trump, according to the memo.

Other possible tactics include fake pro-Trump ads that show him supporting socialized medicine, seizing property through eminent domain and taking other positions that stray from GOP orthodoxy; using a Trump impersonator to show him insulting people; and attacking his business record in “stark, nasty terms.”
I could save these folks a lot of money by suggesting that's not going to work. His supporters are clearly not going to stand up to defend Rosie O'Donnell and they sure don't care about any GOP orthodoxy.

Of course, the approach Marco Rubio tried this week to out-Trump "the Donald" carries a bit more punch. After the front-runner talked about shutting down mosques in response to the attacks in Paris, Rubio simply upped the ante.
It’s not about closing down mosques. It’s about closing down anyplace — whether it’s a cafe, a diner, an internet site — anyplace where radicals are being inspired.
That is a perfect example of what the candidacy of Donald Trump is doing to the Republican Party. During this primary, none of them dare call him out for these kinds of fascist remarks because the entire edifice has been built on ramping up the fear. Anything short of where Trump takes things will be viewed by voters as part and parcel of Obama's appeasement tactics.

In an article about the recent rise of the candidacy of Ted Cruz, Benjy Sarlin captured the Texas Senator's approach to all this.
...Cruz has done more than just avoid criticizing Trump – he has used the real estate mogul as market research to nail down the often unpredictable id of the populist right and then shifted his own positions and rhetoric accordingly.
That's what this Republican primary is all about right now...finding a way to appeal to "the often unpredictable id" of their base. When a party spends 7 years fanning the flames of fear and opposition rather than actually governing, what else would you expect?

President Obama's Containment Strategy Against ISIS

This morning CBS is reporting that only 23% of Americans think President Obama has "a clear plan for dealing with ISIS." Let's first of all put that kind of question in perspective. Since when does a Commander-in-Chief publicly broadcast his plan for defeating an enemy? I'll grant you that, following the Paris attacks, it is probably time for the President to update the American public on his overall vision for dealing with ISIS. But I can also guarantee you that when/if he does, it will simply be dismissed by those on the right as weak tea. So I doubt it would change the conversation much.

But President Obama does have a plan. It involves understanding ISIS. From the beginning, we knew that they had a very different approach than al Qaeda. Here's how Graeme Wood described it:
Bin Laden viewed his terrorism as a prologue to a caliphate he did not expect to see in his lifetime. His organization was flexible, operating as a geographically diffuse network of autonomous cells. The Islamic State, by contrast, requires territory to remain legitimate, and a top-down structure to rule it. (Its bureaucracy is divided into civil and military arms, and its territory into provinces.)
That's why, just before the attacks in Paris, President Obama said that our initial goal was to "contain" them and that we were seeing some success in doing that. In a fascinating article in Frontline, Katie Worth talked to several experts to understand why that is important. Here is how Clint Watts, a fellow at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, explained the end game of containment:
Its [U.S.] containment policy, Watts explained, is designed to wall ISIS into increasingly restricted territory and letting it fail due to its own mismanagement, economic problems, and internal discord, rather than because of the actions of a foreign oppressor.

“ISIS gets a lot of its money by taking the wealth of the places it captures, and we’ve held them back from any major conquests in the last months, so right now they’re squeezing blood from a stone, economically speaking,” said Berger. “That’s not something they can do indefinitely, so if they reach a tipping point, we could see ISIS collapse in a very short amount of time. The problem is we don’t really know how long that will take to happen, and a lot of bad things can happen between now and then.”
Notice the part about allowing ISIS to fail due to its own internal problems rather than as a result of the actions of a "foreign oppressor." That is also why, as we're hearing reported primarily in right wing media lately, the bombing campaign against ISIS has been tedious in its attempts to avoid civilian casualties.
When asked to address Royce’s statement, a Pentagon official defended the Obama administration’s policy and said that the military is furiously working to prevent civilian casualties.

“The bottom line is that we will not stoop to the level of our enemy and put civilians more in harm’s way than absolutely necessary,” the official told the Washington Free Beacon, explaining that the military often conducts flights “and don’t strike anything.”
This strategy takes into account the ultimate aim of ISIS as described by Harleen Gambhir.
The strategy is explicit. The Islamic State explained after the January attacks on Charlie Hebdo magazine that such attacks “compel the Crusaders to actively destroy the grayzone [where Westerners and Muslims co-exist] themselves. . . . Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices, they either apostatize . . . or they [emigrate] to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the Crusader governments and citizens.”...Through this provocation, it seeks to set conditions for an apocalyptic war with the West.
Initially ISIS used the brutal murders of Western hostages to incite the kind of reaction that they hoped would lead to an apocalyptic war. But as Worth reports, they are now not only struggling economically due to containment, they no longer have hostages with which to exploit the West.

The experts Worth talked to basically agree with people like Zack Beauchamp and Robert Pape that the success of this containment strategy is why we are now seeing ISIS shift their focus to attacks like the ones we've seen recently against the Russian airliner as well as in Beirut and Paris. Due to the fear-mongering about Syrian refugees and Muslims in general by Republicans and our media, this new strategy seems to be working pretty well so far.

In addition to that, talk about "bombing the shit out of ISIS" or sending a U.S. led ground force against them carries its own consequences that also haven't been thought through very well.
And a second issue is if you went in with force and took their territory away from them, you’re freeing up tens of thousands of fighters who are currently involved in policing the Islamic State, securing its borders, running checkpoints — all those guys are free to do terrorism then, if they don’t get killed in the attack,” Berger said.
This is why, amidst all the noise we're hearing lately, it is important for us to continue to call on our leaders to be smart on terrorism. The experts are telling us that ISIS is in the midst of changing tactics due to the success of President Obama's containment strategy. If we've learned nothing else from the Paris attacks, it is that a similar incident in the U.S. would be extremely toxic, given our current political climate. The best way to prevent that from happening poses an interesting dilemma for liberals because it likely depends on gathering good intelligence. The President says we can do that while still protecting our civil liberties here at home. We all have a lot riding on him being right about that.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

It Runs in the (Bush) Family

After listening to Dubya for 8 years, there's no doubt that this is - in fact - his brother.
“It’s like the crabs in the, you know, whatever —the crabs in the boiling water,” Mr. Bush tried.

“Frogs,” an audience member shouted out, helpfully.

“The frogs,” Mr. Bush continued. “You think it’s warm, and it feels pretty good and then it feels like you’re in a whirlpool—you know, a Jacuzzi or something.”

He concluded with a morbid twist: “And then you’re dead. That’s how this works.”

Why the Focus is on Refugees After the Paris Attacks

As serious as the situation is, I've actually found it odd that the focus of our conversation in this country following the attacks in Paris is all about Syrian refugees. Sure...there are the occasional digs at President Obama for not being "tough enough" on ISIS. But that kind of talk is not necessarily front and center right now.

The are a couple of reasons why we're not hearing Republicans talk about what we should be doing about ISIS. Some of them tried to make a big deal about the fact that France bombed ISIS in Raqqa two days after the attacks. Here's a typical response:
That kind of statement demonstrates Erickson's ignorance of the fact that over the last 15 months, the U.S. has carried out 6,353 airstrikes against ISIS. Here's how that looks on a per day basis in graph form:

According to both Zack Beauchamp and Robert Pape, it is this air campaign combined with advancements by local ground troops that has "contained" ISIS in Iraq and Syria - possibly leading them to start seeking out targets overseas.
Why were restaurants, a stadium, and a concert hall in a Western capital “accurately chosen?”

The answer can be found in Syria and Iraq. There, since September 2014, ISIS has lost significant territory and faces the near-term prospect of losing to a multiprong offensive by the international coalition that could decisively cripple the terrorist group. With these daunting prospects, ISIS is lashing out, much like a cornered animal, and the Paris attacks are part of this.
Beyond all that, Kevin Drum did an excellent job the other day of rounding up the various proposals of Republican presidential hopefuls about what we should be doing to defeat ISIS. As it turns out, they're not very different from what President Obama is currently doing or what Hillary Clinton proposes to do. Even in his speech at the Citadel being touted as a call for U.S. ground troops in the fight against ISIS , Jeb Bush was noticeably vague.
“The United States should not delay in leading a global coalition to take out ISIS with overwhelming force,” Mr. Bush told an audience of cadets at the storied military college. “Militarily, we need to intensify our efforts in the air — and on the ground.”

“The United States — in conjunction with our NATO allies and more Arab partners — will need to increase our presence on the ground,” he added.
What Republicans need in a situation like this is something that creates a lot of daylight between themselves and Democrats, while also ramping up the fear. Since they don't really have any ideas about how to deal with ISIS that fit that bill, they've stirred up a hornets nest with talk about Syrian refugees as the vehicle by which ISIS will infiltrate the U.S. Never mind that it is all talk that has no basis in actual fact. So far, it seems to be working.

Carson's Top Foreign Policy Advisor: Duane Clarridge

During the last Republican debate, Ben Carson threw out a line about the Chinese being involved in Syria. Later, when questioned on MSNBC, his spokesperson Armstrong Williams insisted that the information came from their intelligence briefings. My response was that perhaps it would be important to know who Dr. Carson was relying on for those briefings. Trip Gabriel reports that his top advisor on terrorism and national security is a man with a pretty colorful past and present - Duane Clarridge.

Here is how Gabriel describes Mr. Clarridge:
He was a longtime C.I.A. officer, serving undercover in India, Turkey, Italy and other countries. During the Reagan administration, he helped found the agency’s Counterterrorism Center and ran the C.I.A.’s Latin American division.
Running Reagan's CIA Division in Latin American means supporting the brutal dictatorships of people like Roberto D'Aubuisson in El Salvador and Efrain Rios Montt of Guatemala. It also means being intimately involved with the School of the Americas where Latin American dictators sent their military personnel to be trained in anti-communist counterinsurgency tactics - like kidnapping and torture. As Greg Grandin wrote back in 2007:
In fact, it was in Latin America that the CIA and U.S. military intelligence agents, working closely with local allies, first helped put into place the unholy trinity of government-sponsored terrorism now on display in Iraq and elsewhere: death squads, disappearances and torture.
Most assuredly, it means that Clarridge was involved in Reagan's attempt to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua by supporting the Contras - to the point of secretly selling arms to Iran in order to raise funds for them once Congress had prohibited such support via the Boland Amendment. As a result of that involvement, Clarridge was indicted for lying to Congress, but was eventually pardoned by President George HW Bush.

Apparently, Clarridge now runs his own private CIA.
Duane R. Clarridge parted company with the Central Intelligence Agency more than two decades ago, but from poolside at his home near San Diego, he still runs a network of spies.

Over the past two years, he has fielded operatives in the mountains of Pakistan and the desert badlands of Afghanistan. Since the United States military cut off his funding in May, he has relied on like-minded private donors to pay his agents to continue gathering information about militant fighters, Taliban leaders and the secrets of Kabul’s ruling class...

His dispatches — an amalgam of fact, rumor, analysis and uncorroborated reports — have been sent to military officials...They are also fed to conservative commentators, including Oliver L. North, a compatriot from the Iran-contra days and now a Fox News analyst, and Brad Thor, an author of military thrillers and a frequent guest of Glenn Beck.
This, my friends, is the man who is a top advisor on national security to one of the front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination. Now...if all that isn't bad enough, Clarridge had a few choice things to say about his current mentee - Ben Carson.
“Nobody has been able to sit down with him and have him get one iota of intelligent information about the Middle East,” Duane R. Clarridge, a top adviser to Mr. Carson on terrorism and national security, said in an interview. He also said Mr. Carson needed weekly conference calls briefing him on foreign policy so “we can make him smart.”
A potential presidential nominee who requires weekly briefings on foreign policy to "make him smart" is troubling. But knowing that the person on the other side of those briefings is a man like Duane Clarridge is seriously disturbing. But it explains a lot - like why Carson would dismiss adherence to the Geneva Conventions against torture as nothing more than political correctness.