Friday, January 29, 2016

Sen. Warren Initiates an Important Discussion

Senator Elizabeth Warren has issued a report and written an op-ed in the New York Times titled: One Way to Rebuild Our Institutions. On a broad scale, I think she is attempting to initiate an important discussion. Here is the opening line from the report:
Much of the public and media attention on Washington focuses on enacting laws. And strong laws are important – prosecutors must have the statutory tools they need to hold corporate criminals accountable. But putting a law on the books is only the first step. The second, and equally important, step is enforcing that law. A law that is not enforced – or weakly enforced – may as well not even be a law at all.
In writing about this report, David Dayen zeros in on what is so important about this as we are in the midst of electing our next president.
The focus on how laws are enforced rather than the intricacies of the law itself carries on a theme Warren has stressed throughout primary season – that personnel is policy, that who you will put in power in those key regulatory positions matters as much as your 10-point plan.
This is something I have been writing about for a while now. It actually goes beyond personnel to a recognition that one of the key aspects of the job of any president is to effectively manage the federal government. Because good government is the best defense of liberal policies, this is especially important for Democrats.

I would hope that we could expand what Sen. Warren is saying to also herald the way that government actually DOES work. For example, let's take a look at how people like Tom Perez rebuilt the Civil Rights Division at DOJ and is now effectively leading the Department of Labor. We could also notice that Craig Fugate has done great work to ensure that FEMA is doing its job after the debacle in New Orleans. And perhaps we could spread the news about how federal departments are working together in effective ways. Like how DOJ and the Department of Education teamed up to take on the school-to-prison pipeline. Or how the Departments of Interior and Justice have been so effective in addressing the issues of concern to Native Americans. Those are just a few examples.

But Senator Warren has a specific concern in mind - the extent to which federal agencies fail to hold corporate America accountable. She provides some good examples in her op-ed and report. But I'd like to take the discussion a bit deeper because I think she glosses over some important issues.

In a line similar to what we often hear from Bernie Sanders, Warren writes this in her op-ed:
Justice cannot mean a prison sentence for a teenager who steals a car, but nothing more than a sideways glance at a C.E.O. who quietly engineers the theft of billions of dollars.
That particular argument doesn't work for me. As someone who is committed to criminal justice reform, I have no interest in evening up the score between the over-incarceration of poor black and brown people by simply sending more C.E.O.'s to jail. I'm much more interested in the idea of Americans beginning to examine why we think of prison as the only way to hold people accountable rather than simply parroting the right's "tough on crime" approach and applying it to Wall Street.

In her report, Warren examines 20 cases that she identifies as "the worst federal enforcement failures in 2015." They are comprised of a mixture of criminal and civil cases brought by the government against corporations. She bemoans the "meager fines" they paid and the fact that no one went to jail. But what Warren failed to do is to point out that in civil cases, it is not very likely that anyone would ever go to jail. They are most often solved via a judge/jury award or a financial settlement that is reached between parties prior to trail. We can argue about the extent to which those settlements are "meager." But to suggest that the alternative was jail time for a civil offense is not an honest argument.

What IS an honest argument is to ask why many of these corporations (or individuals within them) were not brought up on criminal charges - for which they might have faced jail time. The argument is often made that this is because the system is "rigged" in their favor - the implication being that those who are appointed to enforce the laws are beholden to the very corporations they are meant to police. That is certainly, as Warren suggests, an issue that should be on the table in this current presidential campaign.

But when she faults the current Department of Justice for not prosecuting more individuals on criminal charges, I think it is important to take a deeper look at why that has happened. Back in 2014, Jed Rakoff - United States District Judge for the Southern District of New York (someone who knows a thing or two about securities law and white collar crime) - looked at that question. He came up with three likely possibilities:

1. After 2001, the FBI had reduced the number of prosecutors assigned to securities fraud and prioritized counter-terrosim, while the SEC was focused on Madoff-like ponzi schemes,

2. The government was complicit in setting the stage for the securities fraud that led to the Great Recession (red meat for defense attorneys to exploit),

3. For the past 30 years or more, there has been a shift away from prosecuting individuals and towards plea bargaining with corporations in an attempt to alter the culture of corruption that led to the crimes.

While it is true that simply saying that "the system is rigged" makes for better campaign PR, if we really want to examine how the federal government works (or doesn't work) when it comes to enforcing the law with corporate America, the answers aren't always so simple.

Sanders' Numbers on Single Payer Don't Add Up

Just prior to the Democratic debate in Charleston, SC, Bernie Sanders released his "Medicare for All" plan. It focuses mainly on where the revenue will come from to pay for it. When talking about this, it is important to stipulate that the costs for single payer are not additional costs. Almost everyone agrees that reducing administrative overhead and profits in our current health insurance system will save money. But moving from the hodge-podge system we have now of who picks up the tab (individuals, employers, government) to single payer means re-allocating who pays. And that gets complicated. That was the question the Sanders campaign was addressing with the release of his plan.

Before you can decide who pays how much though, you have to determine what the overall cost of a single payer system would be. The folks at Vox asked Kenneth Thorpe - an Emory University health care expert who had worked with Vermont on their single payer plan - to take a look at Sanders' plan. Here's what he found:
Thorpe finds that Sanders's plan would cost an average of $2.47 trillion per year from 2017 to 2026, on top of existing federal spending on health care. Sanders's campaign's analysis, by contrast, estimated an average cost of $1.377 trillion.
You can read a summary of that $1.1 trillion difference in the article by Dylan Matthews. It basically comes down to different assumptions about how much money a single payer system would save. The most striking difference was the original assumption in the Sanders' plan about savings on prescription drugs.
Sanders assumes $324 billion more per year in prescription drug savings than Thorpe does. Thorpe argues that this is wildly implausible. "In 2014 private health plans paid a TOTAL of $132 billion on prescription drugs and nationally we spent $305 billion," he writes in an email. "With their savings drug spending nationally would be negative." (Emphasis mine.) The Sanders camp revised the number down to $241 billion when I pointed this out.
One has to wonder how much thought and research went into the Sanders' plan when they proposed savings on prescription drugs that total more than we currently spend annually.

In response to Thorpe's conclusion that Sanders' plan would require a 20% tax increase, the candidate's policy director Warren Gunnels went after Thorpe in exactly the way I described yesterday.
"That is absolutely absurd, it's absurd, it's outrageous," he said in a phone call. "It's coming from a gentleman that worked for Blue Cross Blue Shield. It's exactly what you would expect somebody who worked for BCBS to come up with.
The truth is that making assumptions about health care savings under a single payer system eventually comes down to making educated guesses. It is clear from the prescription drug savings the Sanders' plan initially assumed that they made some errors. But to write off Thorpe's analysis as simply coming from someone who worked for BCBS (Matthews notes that Thorpe once did a consulting job for them about 10 years ago) is ugly and divisive. He has raised some important questions that need to be addressed if/when Americans want to seriously consider moving to a single payer system. We would all benefit from a reasonable rational discussion of the costs and benefits. The Sanders campaign should welcome such an exchange as a way to move the discussion forward.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Not-So-White Side of Iowa

Much of the analysis of the Iowa caucuses (especially on the Democratic side), has focused on how white the electorate is. That is because it is true. But I wonder if any of you remember the horror of seeing the Bush administration's ICE agents raid a meat-packing plant in 2008 and round up (mostly) Hispanic immigrants. Do you remember where that happened? It was in Postville, Iowa.

Back in 2011, the New York Times ran an interesting story by A. G. Sulzberger about the changing face of the rural plains.
For generations, the story of the small rural town of the Great Plains, including the dusty tabletop landscape of western Kansas, has been one of exodus — of businesses closing, classrooms shrinking and, year after year, communities withering as fewer people arrive than leave and as fewer are born than are buried. That flight continues, but another demographic trend has breathed new life into the region.
Hispanics are arriving in numbers large enough to offset or even exceed the decline in the white population in many places. In the process, these new residents are reopening shuttered storefronts with Mexican groceries, filling the schools with children whose first language is Spanish and, for now at least, extending the lives of communities that seemed to be staggering toward the grave.
Here is how they demonstrated that change in graph form:


While it is true that some of the Hispanic population in these rural areas are migrants and most likely undocumented, that is not necessarily true in all cases. For example, those working in meat-packing plants near farms are probably permanent residents - although not all are here legally.

As the NYT article pointed out, this has created tensions in many of these small towns with the older, more conservative white residents. In this way, these rural areas are experiencing the very same demographic changes and challenges we usually assume are happening in more urban areas.

That is why this article by Dave Price about Marshalltown, Iowa being visited by Trump, Clinton and Rubio all in one day caught my attention. It is one of those places that is experiencing this kind of transition.
As many smaller Iowa towns are shrinking, Marshalltown is experiencing the opposite: The population has increased over the past 15 years, and it’s almost entirely due to an influx of immigrants. The number of non-Hispanic people in town has actually declined slightly since 2000, while Hispanics have more than doubled their share of the population in that time. They now make up more than a quarter of the city’s 28,000 residents.
Reading the story will give you examples of some people who embrace the changes and some who deeply resent them. It captures exactly what is happening across the country. This is not so much a story about voter demographics as it is one of communities struggling with transition. And that struggle is certainly playing out in the issues that are front and center in this election.

What Sanders Means When He Says That the System is Rigged

The more I listen to and read about Bernie Sanders, the clearer it becomes to me that there is one central theme we need to understand about him on which almost everything else rests. It is what he clarified in the last Democratic debate.
In all due respect, you’re missing the main point. And the main point in the Congress, it’s not the Republicans and Democrats hate each other.

That’s a mythology from the media. The real issue is that Congress is owned by big money and refuses to do what the American people want them to do.
Notice that he didn't say that "Republicans are owned by big money." Sanders believes that ALL of Congress is owned by big money. That's what he means when he says that the system is rigged. His view is that the gridlock we are witnessing right now is not a result of ideological differences. It is because big money is in charge and that makes Congress oblivious to the needs of the American people.

That is why Sanders has never formally joined the Democratic Party. And why he hasn't stumped for many Congressional Democrats - much less help them raise money for their campaigns. It's why he thinks the only way to change things is via a revolution of the people.

When it comes to this central belief of Sanders, it is not something new for him. Thirty years ago when he was Mayor of Burlington, VT, here's what he told the LA Times:
I think from one end of this country to the other people are ripe for political revolution. Fifty percent of the people do not bother voting in the presidential and statewide elections. The vast majority of those not voting are low-income people who have given up on America. The whole quality of life in America is based on greed. I believe in the redistribution of wealth in this nation.

We are demonstrating in Burlington the peoples' contempt for conventional old-fashioned Democratic and Republican politics. The good news here is that the two-party system and corporate establishment are not invincible.
Here is where that creates problems for Sanders (and many of his supporters): if the sole reason for our political disagreements is that our opponent has been bought out by the corporate establishment, it becomes impossible (and unnecessary) to actually discuss those disagreements. Hence, when organizations like Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign endorse Clinton, they are simply dismissed as part of the rigged establishment (I know Sanders walked that one back a bit. But it is interesting to note his instinctive initial response).

As the primary race heats up, a lot of the back-and-forth between Clinton and Sanders supporters online and on twitter has taken on this tone. For example, perhaps you've heard of Charles Gaba. He made a name for himself by tallying sign-ups for Obamacare. He initially started writing about that at Daily Kos before he established his own site. About a week ago he published a diary at Daily Kos titled: On Healthcare, I Have to Side With Hillary. Here's an example of the kind of the comments he got from Sanders supporters:
Congratulations on your achievement. Evidently that confirms to me that you are a literate shill of the insurance companies...

He is a paid ACA expert and advocate. He’s intimately familiar with its intricacies and gains professionally from detailing them. And now he states he wants that system to continue as is, or maybe get more intricate and expand slowly and profitably? That is not surprising.
Unsurprisingly, people don't like being told that they are part of a rigged establishment or that they are a shill of the insurance companies - it is pretty much guaranteed to end any reasonable discussion. To the extent that charge is thrown at Congressional Democrats, it probably explains why so few of them have endorsed Sanders.

This is unfortunate because it creates divisions rather than coalitions. Of course it is no more true to assume that money plays no role in political differences than it is to say that it is the only reason for them. Life is never that black and white. Developing a real movement for change requires that we actually listen to each other and sometimes make the tough call on who we can work with and who we can't. It's hard work. There are no easy outs and sometimes you get burned.  But simply assuming that anyone who disagrees with you is bought and paid for is childish and divisive.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

It Didn't Bleed, So it Didn't Lead

Following the shooting in San Bernardino last December, most of this country went on a giant freak-out about terrorism spurred by Republican fear-mongering and media complicity. I understand the old journalism axiom about how, "if it bleeds, it leads." But you would think that with all the nonsense we were subjected to just a few short months ago, at least someone would have noticed this story.
A terrorist-style plot intended to kill dozens of people with automatic weapons at a Masonic center in Milwaukee was foiled this week by FBI agents, federal prosecutors said Tuesday.
Samy Mohamed Hamzeh discussed his plan to attack the center with two others, detailing how they would quickly and quietly kill the first people they saw and then methodically move through the building, "eliminating everyone" they encountered, according to a federal criminal complaint.
This Justice Department report says that Hamzeh had been under surveillance since September last year when he initially made plans to travel to Jordan, enter the West Bank, and conduct an attack on Israeli soldiers and citizens living in the West Bank. When that proved too complicated, he decided to target a location here in the U.S.

Apparently Hamzeh had some pretty grand plans.
"Such operations will increase in America, when they hear about it. The people will be scared and the operations will increase, and there will be problems all over,... this will lead to people clashing with each other. This way we will be igniting it. I mean we are marching at the front of the war," he said, according to the complaint.
Acting U.S. Attorney Gregory J. Haanstad called it a "detailed plan to commit a mass shooting intended to kill dozens of people."
"(Hamzeh) also said that he wanted this mass shooting to be 'known the world over' and to 'ignite' broader clashes. It is difficult to calculate the injury and loss of life that was prevented by concerned citizens coming forward and by the tireless efforts of the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force."
When all Americans hear about are the weeks of fear mongering and agonizing about how "the world is on fire" after a successful attack, but nothing about those that failed due to law enforcement intervention, the whole issue is ripe for politicians to demagogue. We saw the entire field of Republican presidential candidates do just that last December. That's why I thought it was important to write about this story today. Let's spread the word to balance the scales just a bit, shall we?

Trump's Palin-Like Word Salad About Tonights Debate

As of this writing, it looks like Donald Trump will not participate in tonights Republican presidential debate hosted by Fox News. I qualify that because - knowing the two sides involved in this battle - it wouldn't surprise me to see further developments throughout the day. But here is Trump answering questions about all this yesterday at a press conference.


What struck me as I listened to it was that - based on his sentence structure - I'm guessing that he and Sarah Palin had the same English teacher in school. They both seem to have an appetite for the same kind of word salad.

The best I can make of Trump's diatribe was that he has three problems. The first, of course, is that he doesn't like Megyn Kelly. He also talks repeatedly about how "they" should donate money to Wounded Warriors. Those sound like excuses to me. What he really didn't like is the statement Fox News issued when one of his spokespersons issued this threat.
In a call on Saturday with a FOX News executive, Lewandowski stated that Megyn had a ‘rough couple of days after that last debate’ and he ‘would hate to have her go through that again.’ Lewandowski was warned not to level any more threats, but he continued to do so.
Here is the Fox News response that Donald is so upset about:
We learned from a secret back channel that the Ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president — a nefarious source tells us that Trump has his own secret plan to replace the Cabinet with his Twitter followers to see if he should even go to those meetings.
That last part has to do with the fact that Trump asked his twitter followers to weigh in on whether or not to participate in this debate. But what it comes down to is that Trump tried to bully Megyn Kelly and the folks at Fox News made him the brunt of their joke.

What seems clear to me about all of this is that the best way to get under Trump's skin is to challenge his "testicular fortitude."

I don't offer that as any serious political commentary - after all, when it comes to a battle between Donald Trump and Fox News, I don't have a dog in that fight. But it is a perfect example of just how dumbed-down this whole spectacle has become.

The Underlying Sexism of the 2016 Presidential Race

When we elected our first African American president in 2008, his race wasn't the central issue. Except for his speech following the controversy about Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama didn't make it central to his campaign. His appeal had more to do with what David Axelrod identified.
Here’s the gist. Open-seat presidential elections are shaped by perceptions of the style and personality of the outgoing incumbent. Voters rarely seek the replica of what they have. They almost always seek the remedy, the candidate who has the personal qualities the public finds lacking in the departing executive.
In other words, in a country that had gone sour on George W. Bush, Barack Obama was the anti-Bush in almost every way that mattered.

But it wasn't long before race became a central theme in the insurgency that erupted against this President. That was coupled with what Tim Wise called "the perfect storm for white anxiety," including the fact that the changing demographics in this country foretell a non-white majority.

Now we face the very real possibility of electing the first woman as president. That's what makes this recent report by Gabriel Sherman so interesting. It is the result of interviewing 100 Republican voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. Here's part of the summary:
We tried to discern not just their candidate preferences but their worldviews. National security and the economy ranked among their top concerns, and health care, immigration, and gun control were important. But issues didn’t really seem to be the point. It was common to hear voters say they could choose any of the candidates across the ideological spectrum. “I like Christie because of his executive experience,” said Greg Mason, a 59-year-old IT engineer from Manchester, New Hampshire. “Carly Fiorina impresses the living death of me. I like Marco Rubio. Cruz. And Trump, I don’t agree with his positions, but he’s got the testicular fortitude to come out and say people are desperate.”
The phrase seemed telling. If there was anything almost all of the respondents sought in a candidate, it was that testicular fortitude — or, in less colorful terms, strength. It’s why Trump has steamrolled his rivals despite his ideological inconsistencies as a Republican. And it’s why Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have failed to connect: Being labeled a nerd in this GOP primary is the kiss of death; being cast as a sissy is even worse. Machismo even seems to be Carly Fiorina’s best selling point.
The primacy of "testicular fortitude" as an understanding of what it means to be strong has definite undertones of sexism in a way that we don't often understand the term. It not only aligns with a sexist view of gender, it harkens back to the idea that dominance is the only form of power.

Clearly, Hillary Clinton is putting her gender front and center in this campaign in a way that Barack Obama didn't do with his race in 2008. But what that means is a much more subtle challenge to patriarchy than is typically expressed when we talk about specific issues like reproductive rights, fair pay, etc. Underneath all of those issues will be the question of whether or not voters are looking for strength only through the lens of "testicular fortitude." As feminists know, there are other ways of defining that word. For example, Betty White put the whole question in a way that only she can get away with:


The fact that Republicans are hungry for some "testicular fortitude" is an underlying challenge to electing our first woman president. And it is why Rebecca Traister articulated what is at stake so well.
The public spectacle of this presidential election, and the two that have preceded it, are inextricably linked to the racialized and gendered anger and violence we see around us…
Whatever their flaws, their political shortcomings, their progressive dings and dents, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton mean a lot. They represent an altered power structure and changed calculations about who in this country may lead…
This is our country in an excruciating period of change. This is the story of the slow expansion of possibility for figures who have long existed on the margins, and it is also the story of the dangerous rage those figures provoke.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

President Obama Tackles the Overuse of Solitary Confinement in U.S. Prisons

On January 22, 2009, just two days after he was inaugurated, President Obama issued Executive Order 13491 - basically ending the torture policies that had been incorporated by the Bush/Cheney administration. The specifics of that executive order were eventually written into the the United States Army Field Manual on interrogation.

At the time, a lot of reporters and activists pointed out that these updated policies continued to endorse practices that were at minimum abusive and could amount to torture.
Labeled Appendix M, and propounding an additional, special "technique" called "Separation", human rights and legal group have recognized that Appendix M includes numerous abusive techniques, including use of solitary confinement, sleep deprivation and sensory deprivation.
What always struck me is that those practices were not reserved for detainees identified as "terrorists." They were common practice used by law enforcement and prisons all over the country. In order to classify them as abusive and/or torture in places like Guantanamo, it would be necessary to also do so in places like Rikers Island.

President Obama has taken an initial step in the process of doing just that. Last summer, the President directed Attorney General Lynch to review "the overuse of solitary confinement across U.S. prisons." You can read the executive summary of the report and recommendations here. And yesterday, the President responded with this:
The Justice Department has completed its review, and I am adopting its recommendations to reform the federal prison system. These include banning solitary confinement for juveniles and as a response to low-level infractions, expanding treatment for the mentally ill and increasing the amount of time inmates in solitary can spend outside of their cells. These steps will affect some 10,000 federal prisoners held in solitary confinement — and hopefully serve as a model for state and local corrections systems. And I will direct all relevant federal agencies to review these principles and report back to me with a plan to address their use of solitary confinement.
Beyond these specifics, President Obama is injecting an idea back into our criminal justice system that was lost along the way in our short-sighted efforts to "get tough on crime."
In America, we believe in redemption. We believe, in the words of Pope Francis, that “every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.” We believe that when people make mistakes, they deserve the opportunity to remake their lives. And if we can give them the hope of a better future, and a way to get back on their feet, then we will leave our children with a country that is safer, stronger and worthy of our highest ideals.

The Insanity Started a Long Time Ago

Julian Zeilzer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, isn't buying the handwringing we're seeing from David Brooks and the National Review about the presidential candidacies of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. In a case that others have made, but perhaps not so thoroughly, he says: GOP Establishment Deserves Trump, Cruz.

Going back to Reagan's embrace of the Moral Majority, the racism Lee Atwater infused into George H.W. Bush's presidential campaign and the fact that it was McCain who chose Palin to be his running mate in 2008, Zeilzer demonstrates how GOP presidential candidates laid the groundwork for what is happening today.

He also captures how Boehner and McConnell initially embraced the election of tea party candidates like Ted Cruz back in 2010.
In the House of Representatives, Republican leaders were more than welcoming to the tea party revolution that took hold in 2010 — until it no longer suited their purposes. John Boehner and Mitch McConnell welcomed the energy and enthusiasm that tea party activists brought to the fight against President Barack Obama.
While the activists might have pushed the boundaries of acceptable partisan compact with threats like allowing the government to go into default, the discipline as a voting block and willingness to stand up to an ambitious President helped, in the leadership's minds, to revitalize the standing of the party. Or at least that's what Boehner thought before he felt he had to leave.
Zeilzer points out that conservative media has also played a role - echoing the warnings of conservative David Frum.
I’ve been on a soapbox for months now about the harm that our overheated talk is doing to us. Yes it mobilizes supporters - but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead. The real leaders are on TV and radio, and they have very different imperatives from people in government. Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination...If Republicans succeed - if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office - Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.
Finally, Zeilzer notes that overheated talk against the government has come back to bite the GOP establishment.
At the heart of the Cruz and Trump campaign is an essential message that has been a central theme of conservatism in the post-World War II period: that Washington is never good and career politicians are without virtue.
Their anti-politics rhetoric comes directly out of the "conservative establishment" politics that formed in the 1970s and 1980s. "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem," Reagan said.
Once again today, David Brooks is pleading with Republicans to "stay sane." His supplications completely ignore the path the GOP took that led them to where they are today. As Zeilzer notes, "the alliance, the ideas, the rhetoric and the style have all come from the heart of Republican politics." In other words, there's no "staying" sane. That's because the insanity started a very long time ago.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Our Fear of Black Boys: Past and Present

Over the weekend, I finally watched the documentary, The Central Park Five (it is now available on Netflix). Of course I was already familiar with the story. But watching those young men recount their experience is deeply troubling. It is one of those films that will be disturbing my soul for a while.

But it is also worth noting the role that Donald Trump played in the story and how it is reminiscent of the kind of hatefulness he is still spreading. Back in 1989 before the five boys were tried, he took out an ad in the Daily News with the headline: BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE! It contained rhetoric like this, "“How can our great society tolerate the continued brutalization of its citizens by crazed misfits? Criminals must be told that their CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!” Sound familiar?

As recently as 2014, when the 5 young men got a $40 million settlement for the way they were treated by police and prosecutors, Trump wrote that it was a "disgrace," and that “The recipients must be laughing out loud at the stupidity of the city.”

As the documentary makes clear, the abuse these young boys experienced at the hands of our criminal justice system came on the heels of the crack cocaine epidemic and rising racial tensions in our urban areas. Much as Trump is currently fanning the flames of racial tension over immigrants and white backlash to BlackLivesMatter, he was doing the same thing 25 years ago. Eventually those tensions led to the embrace of the "super predator" myth about a coming wave of violent young people - predominantly kids of color.

In 2014, the APA released a study that confirmed what most mothers/fathers of black boys have known for a long time.
Black boys as young as 10 may not be viewed in the same light of childhood innocence as their white peers, but are instead more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime, according to new research. “Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection. Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent,” said the lead author.
And so, the panic about the impending rise of the super predator resulted in a shift to treat juvenile offenders as adults. States began to enact laws to charge young people as adults, lock them up in adult prisons and even sentence them to life without parole for crimes that were committed when they were as young as 13 and 14 years of age.

One of the people who has been fighting against all that is Bryan Stephenson and the organization he founded: Equal Justice Initiative. Specifically, they have been bringing cases against what they call "death in prison sentences for children." When they started this fight, the numbers were staggering. Nearly 3000 prisoners had been sentenced to life without parole for crimes they had committed when they were 17 years of age or younger. Seventy percent of those sentenced at 14 years of age or younger were children of color.

Over the years, EJI has had some success on changing this.
On May 17, 2010, the Court issued a groundbreaking ruling in Graham v. Florida declaring that life-without-parole sentences could no longer be imposed on juveniles convicted of nonhomicide offenses...

On June 25, 2012, the Supreme Court issued an historic ruling in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs holding that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger convicted of homicide are unconstitutional.
As a result of these rulings, most states applied them retroactively and instituted new parole hearings for those previously sentenced. But some states - including Louisiana, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and several others - refused to do so.

That is why a SCOTUS ruling today is significant.
The Supreme Court ruled Monday that people serving life terms for murders they committed as teenagers must have a chance to seek their freedom...

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the majority opinion, said that "prisoners like Montgomery must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored."
My heart is still heavy after watching The Central Park Five and knowing that in cases like 12 year old Tamir Rice, we still have trouble seeing black boys as children. But thanks to the tireless efforts of people like Bryan Stephenson, we are slowly but surely beginning to unwind some of the horrific practices we embraced as a result of mythologizing our fear.

And no, I have no interest in Trump's attempt to take our country back(wards) on this one!

The Anti-Obama Candidacies

A lot of conservative pundits have been blaming the rise of Donald Trump in the Republican primary on President Obama. Their reasoning is that this President has been so liberal and divisive (read: Black) that he ignited a backlash among voters. Of course, that's nonsense.

But in some ways, David Axelrod makes a similar case. He goes back to a memo he wrote to then-Senator Barack Obama in 2006 making the argument for why he should enter the race.
Here’s the gist. Open-seat presidential elections are shaped by perceptions of the style and personality of the outgoing incumbent. Voters rarely seek the replica of what they have. They almost always seek the remedy, the candidate who has the personal qualities the public finds lacking in the departing executive.
Then he explains how Donald Trump is the antithesis of Barack Obama.
Beyond specific issues, however, many Republicans view dimly the very qualities that played so well for Mr. Obama in 2008. Deliberation is seen as hesitancy; patience as weakness. His call for tolerance and passionate embrace of America’s growing diversity inflame many in the Republican base, who view with suspicion and anger the rapidly changing demographics of America. The president’s emphasis on diplomacy is viewed as appeasement.
So who among the Republicans is more the antithesis of Mr. Obama than the trash-talking, authoritarian, give-no-quarter Mr. Trump?
His bombast allows no room for nuance or complexity. He proudly extols his intolerance as an assault against “political correctness,” and he vows to bring the world to heel, from Mexico to China to Syria and Iraq...
Relentlessly edgy, confrontational and contemptuous of the niceties of governance and policy making, Mr. Trump is the perfect counterpoint to a president whose preternatural cool and deliberate nature drive his critics mad.
That would certainly explain why candidates like Jeb Bush and John Kasich haven't caught on with Republican voters. Selling themselves as the thoughtful/reasonable alternatives to Donald Trump make them look too similar to what the base of the party is reacting to in President Obama. As many have noted, Marco Rubio is becoming more anti-Obama when it comes to his persona as all of this unfolds.

What Axelrod doesn't explore is whether or not the candidacy of Bernie Sanders represents the same phenomenon to his supporters on the left. Certainly it is not fueled by the nativism and racism we see in the Trump campaign. But Sanders has been clear that he thinks President Obama has been "naive" in his attempts to work with Republicans. That critique of President Obama resonates strongly with his supporters. Certainly the specter of an angry Sanders shaking his fists at "the establishment" is the antithesis of "no drama Obama."

Beyond the policy differences, Axelrod makes the point that, "attitudes toward President Obama will shape the selection of his successor." Will a majority of the electorate want a "third Obama-like term," or something that represents the opposite? Here's what President Obama told Glenn Thrush about that:
But my bet — and I may end up being wrong about this - my bet is that the candidate who can project hope still is the candidate who the American people, over the long term, will gravitate towards. And early on in these — in a campaign season, defining yourself by what you're not is the fastest way to consolidate a base...But when you start getting later into the process, people want somebody who can give them an optimistic vision about where the country is going to be.

What Do We Mean by "Establishment?"

Bernie Sanders took some flak recently for calling Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights campaign part of the establishment. Here's what he said in response to a question from Rachel Maddow about the fact that those two organizations have endorsed Hillary Clinton.
"What we are doing in this campaign -- and it just blows my mind every day, because I see it clearly, we're taking on not only Wall Street and the economic establishment, we're taking on the political establishment,” Sanders said.

"And so I have friends and supporters in the Human Rights Fund [sic], in Planned Parenthood," Sanders continued. "But you know what, Hillary Clinton has been around there for a very, very long time and some of these groups are, in fact, part of the establishment."
He later walked that back a bit by saying that what he meant was that the leaders of those organizations and their endorsement process are part of the establishment. I have to disagree with Steve Benen (something that rarely happens) when he suggested that clarification "should effectively wrap up the controversy." Sanders' subsequent remarks simply made the statement less general and more personal.

A lot of the talk about all of this has focused on whether or not Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign are actually establishment. I don't think we can honestly address that until we answer the question of what the word means. Let's be honest. Sometimes people accuse others of being part of the establishment simply because they disagree with them politically. The automatic assumption is that it is a bad thing. So let's step back for a moment and explore what we're talking about when we make that accusation.

I can't pretend to know what Sanders himself means by establishment. But when he made the initial statement to Maddow, he seemed to suggest that it has some relationship to history by pointing out that Clinton "has been around there for a very, very long time." If that were our definition for what it means to be establishment, Sanders himself would qualify. After all, he's been in elected office for 35 years. The whole insider/outsider thing doesn't work either because other than being POTUS (a job Sanders is currently seeking), there is nothing more "inside" when it comes to politics than the United States Senate.

There often seems to be an assumption on the left that any person or group that has power is part of the establishment. Perhaps that is a more accurate definition. But if it is the aim of liberals to fight the establishment, such an endeavor is doomed to failure when power is automatically assumed to be the enemy. Any movement for change requires power to accomplish its goals. What Sanders is attempting to do by mobilizing the voices of millions of Americans for change is to harness power. As I have written before, it is the power of partnership as opposed to the power of dominance. It is the power of citizenship. The power of democracy. That is how almost all progressive change has happened in this country.

Another way the establishment is often defined is to see it as those who defend the status quo. The zeal of radicals is often about busting up the status quo and replacing it with something new. When Sanders says that our system is "rigged" and needs to be replaced, that's what he is talking about.

The question that raises for organizations like Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign (or merely their leaders) is whether or not they are working to protect the status quo. Here's where this whole question gets interesting. For example, when it comes to Planned Parenthood, if by status quo we mean Roe v Wade and affordable access to reproductive health services then yes, both the organization and its leaders are working very hard to protect it. The same could be said about the Human Rights Campaign now that marriage equality is the law of the land.

Beyond the two organizations Sanders named, when we talk about the establishment being about power and/or defenders of the status quo, it is not helpful to think in terms of all or nothing. Liberals need power in order to effect change and sometimes it is important to defend the status quo. If that means being part of the establishment...so be it.

Friday, January 22, 2016

It All Comes Down to Turnout

As we get closer to the first actual voting in this 2016 primary, we're seeing a lot of variation in the polls. Just yesterday two polls in Iowa came to drastically different conclusions:

Monmouth: Clinton 48 and Sanders 39.

CNN: Sanders 51 Clinton 43.

Who gets it right? A couple of tweets from CNN's political director spell out the difference.
It all depends on how you define "likely voter." Will it be people who have attended caucuses previously, or have the campaigns done enough at the grassroots level to turn out new caucus-goers? Apparently CNN has a "looser" screen on that question. Here's what Nate Silver tweeted in response:
What all this tells us is something we already know - especially in Iowa. It all comes down to ground game and turnout. That's why I found Joshua Darr's look at what the Sanders campaign is doing in Iowa to be particularly interesting.
If Bernie Sanders hopes to pull off this upset, he will need those “probable” caucus-goers to turn out near 2008’s historic levels, when turnout in the Democratic caucuses (235,000) almost doubled 2004’s (125,000).
Barack Obama’s Iowa organization in 2008 — 37 field offices in 34 of Iowa’s 99 counties — is the stuff of political legend...
Sanders has not organized as thoroughly as Obama did: The Vermont senator’s 23 field offices in Iowa do not quite measure up to Obama’s 37 (or surpass Clinton’s 26 offices this year). Sanders, like Obama, seems to be focusing resources on heavily populated, Democratic-leaning counties in order to “run up the score” in friendly areas of the state.
But according to a report from Gabriel Debenedetti, Sanders is aware of this and is attempting to expand his outreach.
Bernie Sanders’ Iowa rise is powered in part by the college towns where he’s killing it in the progressive communities clustered around some of state’s biggest universities.
But that won’t be enough for him to carry Iowa in the Feb. 1 caucuses, which explains why the senator who describes himself as a Democratic socialist spent Tuesday in some of the most conservative territory in the state.
His goal was simple: to shore up support in rural western Iowa amid concerns that statewide polls are masking a potential geographical vulnerability.
As many have noted, winning Iowa is necessary but insufficient for Sanders to win the Democratic nomination. And while I agree with critics who suggested that his latest ad was too rural and white, perhaps the fact that his challenge right now is to appeal to rural white (more conservative) Iowa explains why.

In an interesting turn of events, Hillary Clinton's challenge is to turn out the record number of caucus-goers that Obama mobilized in 2008. Perhaps that is why she penned an op-ed titled: What President Obama's Legacy Means to me.

Game on!

Theories of Change 2008 - 2016

How a Democratic president will deal with an intractable opposition fueled by a base committed to insurgency is an important question to ask. To simply critique Bernie Sanders' proposals on the grounds that they'd never get through Congress is to ignore the fact that none of Hillary Clinton's would either. That can lead some people to suggest that the differences in what they are proposing don't matter.

But in many quarters, it is raising the whole question about each candidate's theory of change. What is interesting is how each side is laying claim to President Obama's view. As I wrote about yesterday, Sanders approach is to lead a revolution in which millions of Americans rise up to combat the influence of big money that he sees as the obstacle to change. For a lot of people, that is reminiscent of Barack Obama's "hope and change" campaign in 2008.

On the other hand, Hillary Clinton is cast as the competent pragmatic incrementalist. I am reminded of how Mark Schmitt described her back in 2007 when he analyzed the various candidate's theories of change.
I imagine her negotiating the fine points of a health care bill, having mastered every lesson from 1993 and every detail, and getting Senators McConnell and Grassley in the room, and them walking out having agreed to something they barely understand.
As I have noted before, that is exactly what President Obama did to Republicans in the negotiations over the FY2011 budget. The President leaves no doubt in anyone's mind about his commitment to incrementalism. Here's what he told Marc Maron about that:
It’s like steering an ocean liner and making a 2 degree turn so that 10 years from now we’re suddenly in a very different place. You can’t turn 50 degrees all at once because that’s not how societies - especially democracies - work. As long as we’re turning in the right direction and we’re making progress, government is working like its supposed to.
It is interesting to note that one of the people making the case for the likelihood of incremental vs revolutionary change is Paul Krugman.
The point is that while idealism is fine and essential — you have to dream of a better world — it’s not a virtue unless it goes along with hardheaded realism about the means that might achieve your ends. That’s true even when, like F.D.R., you ride a political tidal wave into office. It’s even more true for a modern Democrat, who will be lucky if his or her party controls even one house of Congress at any point this decade.
By contrast, here is what Krugman wrote about that back in 2007.
At the opposite extreme, John Edwards blames the power of the wealthy and corporate interests for our problems, and says, in effect, that America needs another F.D.R. — a polarizing figure, the object of much hatred from the right, who nonetheless succeeded in making big changes.

Over the last few days Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards have been conducting a long-range argument over health care that gets right to this issue. And I have to say that Mr. Obama comes off looking, well, naive.
All of that was prior to the time we learned about the sleeze factor with Mr. Edwards. But clearly, at the time, Edwards was attempting to ignite the same kind of populist uprising that Sanders is going for now.  And Krugman was totally on board with that.

What has changed over the intervening years to inspire Krugman to change his own "theory of change?" I'd suggest that first of all, he has noted that - for all their incrementalism - the change President Obama brought has been pretty effective. And on the other hand, it seems obvious that all the screaming of millions of Americans isn't going to affect Republican intransigence one little bit.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Can a President Lead a Revolution?

I love Bernie Sanders' latest ad.


In discussing this ad, Greg Sargent got it right when he compares it to the Obama 2008 campaign. He quotes what Sanders said in a Vox interview about how he would realize his goals.
The real way that change takes place — and that’s always been the case in this country — is when people on the bottom begin to stand up and say enough is enough. That’s true of the civil rights movement, it is true of the women’s movement, it’s true of the environmental movement, of the gay movement. Millions of people begin to stand up and say, ‘We need change. Current situations are intolerable.’ That is when change takes place….The United States Congress is going to start listening to us and not to a handful of wealthy campaign contributors.
But then Sanders also said this:
The major political, strategic difference I have with Obama, is it’s too late to do anything inside the Beltway. You gotta take your case to the American people, mobilize them, and organize them at the grassroots level in a way that we have never done before.
One has to wonder if Sanders missed the whole, "Yes We Can" theme of Obama's campaign that was predicated on this:


So what happened? Did Barack Obama fail to deliver the change he promised? Was he disingenuous when he made those kinds of claims? Did he abandon the movement in order to focus his efforts "inside the Beltway?" Perhaps. A lot of people have offered informed critiques about that. Here is one from Marshall Ganz who is our country's leading expert on community organizing and is responsible for the efforts of Camp Obama in 2008.
Abandoning the "transformational" model of his presidential campaign, Obama has tried to govern as a "transactional" leader. These terms were coined by political scientist James MacGregor Burns 30 years ago. "Transformational" leadership engages followers in the risky and often exhilarating work of changing the world, work that often changes the activists themselves. Its sources are shared values that become wellsprings of the courage, creativity and hope needed to open new pathways to success. "Transactional" leadership, on the other hand, is about horse-trading, operating within the routine, and it is practiced to maintain, rather than change, the status quo.
I am reminded of what Michelle Obama said about her husband back when he was still the U.S. Senator from Illinois.
Barack is not a politician first and foremost. He's a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change.
So there are a couple of things we might learn from Barack Obama's exploration of what it means to go from community activist to politics. First of all, it is helpful to remember the context of that quote in the image above.
We know the battle ahead will be long, but always remember that no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change.
When Sanders reminds us of things like the civil rights and women's rights movements, it is helpful to remember that those battles were also long. For example, from the Montgomery Bus Boycott until passage of the Civil Rights Act, there were nine long years of struggle. It's clearly not as simple as "elect me and you're done."

But I think it is also worth asking whether or not a president of the United States can actually lead a revolution. That is the dilemma Howard Dean identified when he talked about the need to make the turn from insurgent to establishment.

Mark Engler and Paul Engler recently reminded us that Martin Luther King, Jr. rejected calls to run for political office.
But King had a very different perspective, one consistent with the field now known as "civil resistance." Drawing from the work of theorists such as Gene Sharp, scholars in this field argue that power is more widely distributed than is typically believed — and that CEOs, generals and senators do not hold all the cards. Even entrenched dictators rely on the compliance of the people in order to maintain power. If a sufficient number of people choose not to cooperate with an existing order, the standing of these leaders crumbles.
Civil resistance movements can look beyond a "transactional" model of politics that attempts to exact small gains based on conventional wisdom about what is feasible within Washington. Instead, through disruptive and dramatic protest, they alter the political climate and create new possibilities for change - turning impractical demands into urgent priorities.
While the Engler's provide us with that important history, their suggestion is that Sanders understands this model of change. But they fail to address the fact that King saw it as incompatible with being president.

I'd love to hear a discussion with Bernie Sanders about how he views the possibility of combing the roles of president and revolutionary. That's because I continue to be fascinated with this question of how a community activist explores the viability of politics to make change.

The Connection Between Victimhood, Fear and Authoritarianism

With Sarah Palin back in the headlines, the whole specter of conservatives (who used to claim to be members of "the party of personal responsibility) as victims is front and center again. Peter Beinart did a good job of capturing how Palin did that in her endorsement speech for Trump.
She began by reasserting her own victimhood. When considering endorsing Trump, Palin said she was “told left and right, ‘you are going to get so clobbered in the press. You are just going to get beat up, and chewed up, and spit out.’” But she wasn’t fazed because the media has been trying to do “that every day since that night in ‘08, when I was on stage nominated for VP.” Then she connected her own victimhood to the crowd’s, declaring that, nonetheless, “like you all, I’m still standing.” And she linked both back to Trump: “So those of us who’ve kind of gone through the ringer as Mr. Trump has, makes me respect you even more.”
After that, Palin expanded the circle of victimhood to include American sailors who were made to “suffer and be humiliated” by Iran, forced to “kowtow” and “apologize” and “bend over and say, ‘Thank you, enemy.’” And she added workers who suffer so the “campaign donor class” can have “cheap labor” by ensuring that “the borders are kept open” and who lose their jobs when those rich donors endorse “lousy trade deals that gut our industry.”
Of course, the very next day Palin went on to say that her son's problems with domestic violence were the result of PTSD and were therefore caused by President Obama.

That prompted this tweet, which became my favorite of the day:
But if we simply see rhetoric like this resulting from an embrace of victimhood, we miss the power of how it is so often exploited in our politics. To get the whole picture, we need to see it as part of what Stephen Karpman called the Drama Triangle.


Whenever you see someone identifying as the victim, it is important to look at who is defined as the oppressor and who is the rescuer. That's because the Drama Triangle is about more than an individual's position. It is a world view. Anyone who embraces this world view uses it to define almost every social/political interaction. And all three positions are assumed.

In Palin's world view, both she and anyone she finds common cause with are the victims. We're seeing that a lot these days as the whole populist movement is fueled by those who are "aggrieved." The role of the oppressor is primarily played by President Obama. But in other formulations it becomes the "liberal elite" or even (to borrow Ted Cruz' language), the Republican cartel. For Palin, all of this was a set-up to define Donald Trump as the rescuer who could "make America great again."

The reason this kind of formulation is so dangerous in politics is that it not only fuels the fear-mongering of the oppressor that we've seen so much of from Republicans lately, it sets the stage for the authoritarianism (or even fascism) of the rescuer. The entire Drama Triangle as a world view is set up to absolve everyone of any personal responsibility. Think about that anytime you notice a politician or activist use it as a way of framing the issues.

Republicans: "Do What I Say, Not What I Don't Do"

Think for a minute about the agenda that is being articulated by Republicans these days. And then, given the fact that they now control both houses of Congress, think about what they aren't doing about it. For example:

* They say that we need to fight ISIS more aggressively (whatever that means). But President Obama has been asking Congress to pass an Authorization for the Use of Military Force against ISIS for months now. Nada.

* They say that we need to secure our borders. Most of them think we should build an impenetrable wall on our border with Mexico. Some of them even say that we should deport all 10 million undocumented immigrants. Have we seen a bill on any of that in Congress? No.

* They say that they want to repeal Obamacare. OK, they actually passed a bill to do that. But they've also said that they want to replace it. Anyone seen that plan floating around anywhere? Not so much.

* They say that the problem with gun violence is that we don't do enough to provide mental health treatment. Congress could do something about that. Have they? No.

* We've heard a lot about criminal justice reform. And some bills even passed out of committees. But so far - nothing has actually come up for a vote.

* I don't know about you, but I haven't even heard rumblings from Congress on anything we can do about jobs or wages.

* Of course, most Republicans deny that climate change even exists, so they're not interested in doing anything about that.

That is the backdrop on which President Obama has stepped forward to take executive actions where he can. Here's how Ed Kilgore described it:
If you look back at Obama's record on big executive actions — on guns, climate change, and immigration — you see the same situation. It's not that he's fought for "liberal" as opposed to "conservative" policies in these areas. It's that congressional Republicans, pressured by conservative opinion-leaders and interest groups, have refused to do anything at all...So there's literally no one to hold bipartisan negotiations with on these issues, and no way to reach common ground.
Even if we simply look at the issues Republicans themselves have identified, none of them are stagnant. There is no such thing as a neutral position. Choosing to do nothing has consequences.

Republicans can shout all they want about how President Obama is by-passing Congress with his executive actions. But until they quit shouting and actually demonstrate that they can do something, it's all sound and fury signifying nothing.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

If Reality Mattered

If reality mattered, the information in a new report on undocumented immigration to the United States by the Journal on Migration and Human Security would upend the nasty nativism that has consumed the Republican presidential candidates. Here is how Jerry Markon reports the findings in the Washington Post.
The total undocumented immigrant population of 10.9 million is the lowest since 2003, says the report from the Center for Migration Studies, a New York think tank. The number of undocumented immigrants has fallen each year since 2008, the report says, driven primarily by a steady decline in illegal migrants from Mexico...
Although the new report does not cite specific reasons for the decline, other experts have attributed it to a combination of tighter U.S. border security measures and economic and demographic changes in Mexico, such as women having fewer children.
A key — but largely overlooked — sign of these ebbing flows is the changing makeup of the undocumented population. Until recent years, illegal immigrants tended to be young men streaming across the Southern border in pursuit of work. But demographic data show that the typical illegal immigrant now is much more likely someone who is 35 or older and has lived in the United States for a decade or more.
Do you recognize all of the ways this discredits almost everything the Republicans have been saying lately?

* We are not experiencing hordes of immigrants crossing our border lately.

* President Obama actually increased border security.

* We don't need to waste money on a wall.

* The REAL issue for immigration reform is not so much about border security as it is about what to do with the undocumented immigrants who are already in this country - many with long-standing ties in their community.

In light of these facts, one might wonder why so many Americans are freaking out about immigrants. The executive summary of this report gives us a clue about that:
Other findings of the paper that should inform the immigration debate are the growing naturalized citizen populations in almost every US state and the fact that, since 1980, the legally resident foreign-born population from Mexico has grown faster than the undocumented population from Mexico.
Here is something Pew Research recently reported about the legally resident foreign-born population:
By 2013, most immigrants were from either Latin America or South or East Asia, a very different profile than that of immigrants in 1960 and 1970, who were mostly from Europe.

In other words, what Republicans are reacting to is not so much illegal immigration as it is about a shift in the race/culture of immigrants who are coming to this country...something that results in the "browning of America."

When Bernie Sanders Becomes a Pragmatist

The passion of Bernie Sanders is so much a part of his persona that Larry David was able to capture it perfectly in this skit on Saturday Night Live. But one of the things I've noticed in every debate so far is that Sanders' demeanor and language changes pretty dramatically when the topic is gun control. He stops waving his arms, shouting, and talking about the big money that controls our politics. Instead, he talks about the need to reach out to opponents and work to find consensus. Sanders often refers to his own personal experience with gun owners in rural Vermont and his ability to understand them.

I was reminded of that shift towards consensus-building and pragmatism when I read this article by Ta-Nehisi Coates titled: Why Precisely is Bernie Sanders Against Reparations? As a prelude to that discussion, it is important to remember that in June 2014, Coates wrote a definitive article in The Atlantic on The Case for Reparations. It was widely acclaimed as being one of the most important contributions to the topic and reignited a discussion that had all but vanished from the American scene. That explains why Coates would be so interested in the response from Sanders when he was asked whether he was in favor of reparations. Here is the crux of his answer.
No, I don’t think so. First of all, its likelihood of getting through Congress is nil. Second of all, I think it would be very divisive. The real issue is when we look at the poverty rate among the African American community, when we look at the high unemployment rate within the African American community, we have a lot of work to do.
Obviously Coates doesn't agree. But what bothered him about this response wasn't so much that Sanders doesn't support reparations (almost all politicians - including Hillary Clinton - agree with that position). Where Coates takes Sanders to task is in his reasoning.
The spectacle of a socialist candidate opposing reparations as “divisive” (there are few political labels more divisive in the minds of Americans than socialist) is only rivaled by the implausibility of Sanders posing as a pragmatist. Sanders says the chance of getting reparations through Congress is “nil,” a correct observation which could just as well apply to much of the Vermont senator’s own platform...
Sanders is a lot of things, many of them good. But he is not the candidate of moderation and unification, so much as the candidate of partisanship and radicalism...
Unfortunately, Sanders’s radicalism has failed in the ancient fight against white supremacy.
The question this kind of thing raises is whether or not Sanders' passion is an indication of his priorities. When he says that we need a revolution to combat Wall Street and the influence of money in politics but offers pragmatism and consensus-building on issues like gun control and racial injustice, is he telling us that the former are more important than the latter? I suspect that is the message that seeps through to people of color and is at least part of the reason why Sanders has had such a hard time eliciting their support.

Not Enough Popcorn!

I usually don't like to write about every stupid thing a Republican says - especially when that Republican is Sarah Palin. But today's antics are just too delicious to resist.

As I write this, the possibility that Sarah Palin will endorse the candidacy of Donald Trump is still just a rumor. But her daughter, Bristol Palin, has already weighed in. Apparently Bristol is too busy with diapers to actually know whether or not her mother is going to endorse Trump. But she's obviously not too busy to write about it. And she's mad that the Cruz campaign said this in response to said rumor.
“I think it [would] be a blow to Sarah Palin, because Sarah Palin has been a champion for the conservative cause, and if she was going to endorse Donald Trump, sadly, she would be endorsing someone who’s held progressive views all their life on the sanctity of life, on marriage, on partial-birth abortion,” Cruz campaign spokesman Rick Tyler said on CNN’s “New Day.”
Apparently in the world of Palin victimology, that rather innocuous statement translates into a "negative knee-jerk reaction" in which Cruz shows that he is a "typical politician" by being "rude" to her mother. Oh, and it also shows Cruz's audacious arrogance. My, oh my!

Almost within minutes of that being published, Momma Palin tweeted a link to it.
But of course, none of this was part of a coordinated plan of attack on Ted Cruz in support of Donald Trump. Nah...not a chance.

Meanwhile, Jeb Bush has been reduced to giving an exclusive interview to Breitbart in his effort to gain some relevance with the Republican base. His message basically comes down to: "Marco Rubio is a lefty."

Consequently, my position today is that I totally endorse this tweet:
Update: It's official.
And no. When I wrote this, I had no idea that today is National Popcorn Day. How very appropriate though.

What Do You Think of the Presidential Primary So Far?

The folks at First Read published some really interesting numbers from the latest NBC/WSJ poll today. Respondents were asked whether the primary made them feel more or less favorable to the Republican Party. Here are the results:

African Americans: 57% less favorable, 5% more favorable (-52)

Latinos: 45% less favorable, 13% more favorable (-32)

Whites: 40% less favorable, 22% more favorable (-18)

All: 42% less favorable, 19% more favorable (-23)

By comparison, here is what those same groups said about how the primary was affecting their view of the Democratic Party.

African Americans: 29% more favorable, 5% less favorable (+24)

Latinos: 29% more favorable, 17% less favorable (+12)

Whites: 33% less favorable, 14% more favorable (-19)

All: 28% less favorable, 17% more favorable (-11)

The numbers that stand out are those for African Americans (R -52/D +24) and Latinos (R -32/D +12). For white voters, the two parties are pretty even (R -18/D -19). While not a direct representation of who they will vote for, this is some actual data that refutes the whole premise of the article from Politico that I wrote about earlier.

The general election is still over nine months away and a lot can happen between now and then. Everyone assumes that whoever becomes the Republican nominee will moderate their message once the primary is over. We'll see. But what is interesting about these numbers is that they are more of a reflection on the Republican Party as a whole than they are about any one candidate. That's not good news for the GOP.

Media Loves Trump

If you ever doubted the media's love of the Donald Trump candidacy, this headline at Politico should disabuse you of that, How Donald Trump Defeats Hillary Clinton: Obama's black supporters are crucial to a Trump win, and pollsters say he has a chance with this bloc. Of course I had to click on that one to see what it was about. What candidate could possibly win the support of both White Nationalists and black voters? It didn't take long to find out that I had succumbed to click bait.
“If he were the Republican nominee he would get the highest percentage of black votes since Ronald Reagan in 1980,” said Republican messaging guru Frank Luntz, referring to the year Reagan won 14 percent of that bloc of voters. “They listen to him. They find him fascinating, and in all the groups I have done, I have found Obama voters, they could’ve voted for Obama twice, but if they’re African-American they would consider Trump.”
It turns out that the Politico reporter on this story, Ben Schreckinger, talked to white Republican pollster Frank Luntz - who has done a few focus groups with Trump supporters. In those, he has found a couple of black people who "find him fascinating." Armed with that information, he predicts that Trump will best Reagan's whopping 14% with black voters. And that leads to a headline about how he "has a chance with this bloc." It's hard to escape the question, "how stupid do they think we are?"

But wait...it gets better. Schreckinger goes on to talk about how that "manly man" Donald Trump can appeal to women voters with sexist attacks against Hillary Clinton for her husband's infidelities. And here's the clincher:
Another longtime Republican pollster and veteran of multiple presidential campaigns has tested Trump’s appeal to blacks and Hispanics and come to the same conclusion. “He behaves in a way that most minorities would not expect a billionaire to behave,” explained the pollster, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid damaging relationships within the party. “He’s not a white-bread socialite kind of guy.”
The candidate who has been trashing Mexicans and immigrants can win over Hispanics because "he's not a white-bread socialite." Really?! No wonder this pollster wanted to stay anonymous. It has nothing to do with protecting his relationship with the party and everything to do with the fact that he just said something monumentally stupid. Next thing you know, they'll be telling us about all the Muslims who support Donald Trump.

Let me be clear. I'm not saying this to diminish the threat posed by a Trump candidacy. There are women, African Americans and Hispanics who will vote for him - on the margins. All you have to do to recognize that is to think: Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz. But a headline that says, "he has a chance with this bloc" is intimating something much more than that. My challenge to people like Frank Luntz: find me an African American woman who supports Donald Trump. All this article has is wishful thinking and conjecture. But it made me click...so there's that.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Are Americans Willing to Hear "No" on Health Care?

For months now I have been saying that Bernie Sanders needed to release a plan on how single payer health insurance would work. Especially among Democrats, single payer is popular. But in order to know if we're really ready for that kind of change, we need more specifics.

Just prior to last night's debate, Sanders released a plan. We can now see how he proposes to shift away from the current mix of health care funding to a single payer system. As part of the document, he identifies the taxes he would implement as an alternative.

But Sanders also says this about cost savings:
Other industrialized nations are making the morally principled and financially responsible decision to provide universal health care to all of their people—and they do so while saving money by keeping people healthier. Those who say this goal is unachievable are selling the American people short.
It has always been an assumption that single payer would be cheaper than our current system because of lower administrative costs. But here is a quote Ezra Klein got about the actual numbers in the Sanders plan.
"They assumed $10 trillion in health-care savings over ten years," says Larry Levitt, vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation. "That’s tremendously aggressive cost containment, even after you take the administrative savings into account."
Both Klein and Paul Krugman point out that, if we want to capture the cost savings that Sanders refers to, Americans will have to get used to hearing "no" when it comes to health care. Here's Krugman:
Now, it’s true that single-payer systems in other advanced countries are much cheaper than our health care system. And some of that could be replicated via lower administrative costs and the generally lower prices Medicare pays. But to get costs down to, say, Canadian levels, we’d need to do what they do: say no to patients, telling them that they can’t always have the treatment they want.
Saying no has two cost-saving effects: it saves money directly, and it also greatly enhances the government’s bargaining power, because it can say, for example, to drug producers that if they charge too much they won’t be in the formulary.
But it’s not something most Americans want to hear about...
As I pointed out this morning, Bernie Sanders assumes that resistance to single payer would come solely from lobbyists for the insurance, healthcare and pharmaceutical companies (as well as the wealthy people who would have to pay significantly higher taxes). But the truth is, once this kind of information starts circulating about the realities of the hoped-for cost savings in single payer, the American people would start to weigh in as well. If you thought the "death panels" and "you can keep your insurance" pushbacks were loud and obnoxious, they would be nothing compared to what we'd hear about "government rationing health care" that this kind of thing would unleash. It's true that some of that would be the result of monied interests exploiting people's fears. But it would also arise from very real concerns about changes to what many people have come to expect from our health care system.

Let's be honest, there are multiple and complex reasons why health care is more expensive in the United States. It would be great to capture the savings single payer could achieve through streamlining administrative costs. But to get to the lower costs that other industrialized countries experience, we need to go far beyond that. If Sanders wants to make a case that America should follow suit, he needs to be honest with us about what that means.

Democratic Debate: Visions Clarified

In many ways, last night's Democratic debate (especially the first half) clarified the different visions Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have for this country. Clinton wants to build on the gains we've made during the Obama era and Sanders thinks we need a fundamental restructuring of our health care, finance and political systems. That is the basic question Democrats are being asked to consider in this primary.

Just prior to the debate, Sanders released a plan for how he would pay for his proposal on single payer health insurance. And he's been pretty clear about his approach to Wall Street. But what I found most interesting were a couple of his exchanges about how he diagnoses the problem in our politics. We all know that both he and Clinton have plans for how to reign in the influence of money. But when the moderators asked about how the candidates would deal with the political polarization that exists today, Sanders made it clear what he sees as the source of the problem. Here are a couple of excerpts:
What this is really about is not the rational way to go forward -- it's Medicare for all -- it is whether we have the guts to stand up to the private insurance companies and all of their money, and the pharmaceutical industry. That's what this debate should be about...
In all do respect, you're missing the main point. And the main point in the Congress, it's not the Republicans and Democrats hate each other.
That's a mythology from the media. The real issue is that Congress is owned by big money and refuses to do what the American people want them to do...
All of us have denounced Trump's attempts to divide this country: the anti-Latino rhetoric, the racist rhetoric, he anti-Muslim rhetoric.
But where I disagree with you, Governor O'Malley, is I do believe we have to deal with the fundamental issues of a handful of billionaires who control economic and political life of this country.
In other words, Sanders made it clear that he thinks the sole source of political polarization is the influence of money in politics. I doubt you will find a Democrat who would disagree that it is a problem. But is it the only thing that divides us? That is a question worth considering.

For example, when it comes to Congress, that analysis totally dismisses the fact that there are ideological differences between both individual members and between the two parties. On the Republican side, it doesn't strike me that the Freedom Caucus is motivated and/or controlled by the influence of big money. There is the play for power that is almost always a factor in the divisions we see. Sanders is right to suggest that it's not as simple as thinking that the two parties hate each other...there is a lot more at stake than that.

And of course, when it comes to the American people, we've all seen how over the decades politicians have exploited the very real divide that is caused by the kind of racism, sexism and nativism that is being articulated by Donald Trump.

The United States is a large very complex society. The roots of issues like our partisan polarization are not so easily narrowed down to one single cause. While it is true that money plays a role, when we assume it is the only reason for our divisions, we do what Sanders does so often...dismiss our actual differences and accuse our opponents of being corrupted by money. That was essentially his charge in a recent ad titled Two Visions.

What we are witnessing right now is that there are signs that the control money has on our presidential politics is increasingly being challenged. In the Democratic presidential primaries, that goes all the way back to Howard Dean's 2004 primary challenge through the success of Barack Obama as the one-time insurgent candidate who took on the establishment in a campaign fueled in large part by small donors. On the Republican side, the current primary campaign is all about the fact that big money from superpacs is having almost zero influence on the outcome.

It is important that Democrats not simply ignore these changes, but understand them and find ways to build on what's changing. But I suspect that gets back to the original difference between Clinton and Sanders that was clarified last night: do we build on changes that are currently underway or ignore that and try to restructure the whole thing?