Thursday, June 26, 2014

A constitutional crisis

The latest gambit the Republicans have launched to challenge the legitimacy of Barack Obama's presidency was announced yesterday when Speaker Boehner said the House will sue him for "not faithfully executing the laws passed by Congress."
At its root is the idea that Barack Obama's presidency is inherently illegitimate, and whatever he does in that office must be illegal, or nearly so.
In reading about this today, I'm not finding any liberals or Democrats who are taking this move seriously. Even if Boehner can fill in the specific charges he left out of yesterday's announcement, no one thinks anything will come of this until President Obama is long gone from office. In the end, this is about the fact that the tools Republicans were planning to use to fire up their base for the November midterms (Obamacare and Benghazi) have been effectively de-fanged. So this is their alternative.

But there is a message in all this that we shouldn't completely ignore. Dana Milbank nails it.
But the real problem with the lawsuit approach is that it misunderstands the cause of the problem: congressional dysfunction. Lawmakers, hamstrung by disagreement, have created a power vacuum, and presidents have stepped in to fill it. The solution is not to sue, but to legislate, which means to compromise — and this is something Boehner’s troops have been unwilling to do.
The truth is that we DO have a constitutional crisis. Its just not the one the Republicans are embracing. Jonathan Capehart identifies the origins. He points to the reporting of Michael Grunwald on Republican plans developed in January 2009 to obstruct anything President Obama tried to do.
Biden says that during the transition, he was warned not to expect any cooperation on many votes. “I spoke to seven different Republican Senators, who said, `Joe, I’m not going to be able to help you on anything,’ he recalls. His informants said McConnell had demanded unified resistance. “The way it was characterized to me was: `For the next two years, we can’t let you succeed in anything. That’s our ticket to coming back,’” Biden says.

The vice president says he hasn’t even told Obama who his sources were, but Bob Bennett of Utah and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania both confirmed they had conversations with Biden along these lines.
Initially Republicans were able to accomplish this by requiring a super-majority of 60 votes on anything to pass the Senate. But when they gained control of the House in the 2010 midterms, that meant not only the gridlock of obstruction, but hostage-taking over the debt ceiling that led to the first downgrading of our credit rating in the country's history.

I recount that story because since then the Republican leadership has had a problem on their hands. The lunatics in Congress were so emboldened by these moves that they didn't know when to stop. Boehner hasn't been able to craft a coalition big enough (absent the few times he's been willing to work with Democrats) to do much of anything. They even shut the government down against his wishes in a failed attempt to repeal Obamacare. And so, in the same news conference that he announced the law suit against President Obama, he had this to say about the prospects of anything happening in Congress.
His thoughts on a Senate highway-funding bill? “We’ll await — let the Ways and Means Committee do their work.” Any suggestions about what to do in Iraq? “It’s not my job to outline for the president what tools he should use or not use. It’s not my job to outline the strategy for the president when it comes to the overall fight against terrorism. I don’t have as many tools at my disposal as the president does.”

How about legislation on the Export-Import bank? “We are just going to have to sort our way through this.” But surely Boehner has a view? “No, I’m not going to answer the question. You know, you’ve tried to do this on immigration for the last two years. . . . I want to get our members to a place where they are comfortable, whatever that is.” As for what to do about the flood of children emigrating north from Central America, Boehner said that he named a “working group” that eventually will “suggest to the administration things that we think can be done.”

Is it any wonder that the president takes executive action in response to such legislative inaction?
If Americans want anything done on climate change, immigration reform, gun violence, the economy or anything else, its not going to be coming from Congress as long as Boehner feels beholden to the teapublicans. Its obvious by now that he is incapable of getting his "members to a place where they are comfortable" with much of anything.

For over 4 years, President Obama patiently attempted to reach out to Republicans.

The refusal by Republicans to unclench their fist has sent them directly into the arms of their most extremist base. Now they are immobilized. That is the constitutional crisis we are experiencing. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Outputs vs outcomes

Daniel Drezner is right to point out that polling on the public's approval of President Obama's foreign policy is now the new Obamacare. In other words, people like the individual policies but don't give the President credit for them. Drezner's way of explaining this is to differentiate between outputs (which the public approves) and outcomes (which they don't).
So what’s going on? It’s not rocket science, it’s the difference between policy outputs and policy outcomes. A policy output is, say, the decision to send military advisers into Iraq, or the decision to rule out the use of combat troops there. A policy outcome is what actually happens on the ground — in the case of Iraq, a worsening sectarian war. The thing about American foreign policy is that even the best foreign policy outputs do not necessarily translate into the best outcome, because the United States, for all its superpower-yness, is not actually an omnipotent deity.
Of course that explanation doesn't address the very comparison Drezner is making to Obamacare because the outcomes are even better than expected. So perhaps we need a better way of understanding this dilemma.

I'd suggest that the reasons are more complex than we usually like to entertain. Its instructive to note polling that suggests approval of the Affordable Care Act is much higher than Obamacare. That indicates an ignorance on the part of the public that is fed by misinformation and distortion.

But I'd like to point out that - due to the media's fixation on hysteria that feeds link bait - the American public is regularly fed information on crises. For example, we heard a lot about the failure of but not so much about the success of the exchanges once those technical problems were fixed.

Similarly with foreign policy, the media dutifully reported all the twists and turns about the civil war in Syria a few months ago and was quick to dismiss President Obama's intentions and actions. It all came across as a big failure in foreign policy. And then yesterday international weapons inspectors announced that Syria has handed over the last of its declared chemical weapons stockpile for removal and destruction. Does anyone think that the public noticed this as a big success for President Obama's stated goal?

So in the end, we are fed a regular diet of hysteria. But very rarely does the media actually report on outcomes. By the time they come around our attention span has waned and no one cares anymore. If you're looking to explain the inconsistencies in public opinion, I'd suggest that as a more comprehensive explanation than the one offered up by Drezner.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Quote of the Day: Obama on taking risks

Back in 1990, Tammerlin Drummond interviewed Barack Obama after he'd been elected the first African American President of the Harvard Law Review. Here's what he said about the value of a Harvard education:
"One of the luxuries of going to Harvard Law School is it means you can take risks in your life," Obama said recently. "You can try to do things to improve society and still land on your feet. That's what a Harvard education should buy - enough confidence and security to pursue your dreams and give something back."

Why Beinart is wrong about Obama's Iraq Policy

I always find it interesting to hear what Peter Beinart has to say - even when I don't agree with him. Mostly that's because - as an avowed liberal - he doesn't tend to follow the common orthodoxies, which means that he thinks for himself.

Its true that Beinart blew it when he came out as a vocal proponent of the Iraq War. But unlike some of his neocon counterparts, he openly admitted his error and examined how it came about. Instructive for understanding his recent column criticizing President Obama's Iraq policy are his insights about what he got wrong.
I supported the war because I considered it the only remaining way to prevent Saddam Hussein from obtaining a nuclear bomb.

I also believed it could produce a decent, pluralistic Iraqi regime that might help open a democratic third way in the Middle East between secular autocrats and their theocratic opponents: a third way that offered the best long-term hope for protecting the US.

On both counts, I was wrong.
What I'd call your attention to is the fact that Beinart thought that a military invasion "could produce a decent, pluralistic Iraqi regime." Aside from ignoring the ongoing clash between Sunni and Shia that fuels much of the conflict in the Middle East, he bought into the idea that the United States can bring democracy to a country via a military invasion. That's classic neocon BS and has always struck me as obviously paradoxical. I suspect that the only reason so many Americans buy it is because their thinking is clouded with the privilege that is fueled by exceptionalism.

It is important the keep those kinds of assumptions in mind when analyzing Beinart's latest column titled: Obama's Disastrous Iraq Policy.
Since the president took office, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has grown ever more tyrannical and ever more sectarian, driving his country’s Sunnis toward revolt. Since Obama took office, Iraq watchers—including those within his own administration—have warned that unless the United States pushed hard for inclusive government, the country would slide back into civil war. Yet the White House has been so eager to put Iraq in America’s rearview mirror that, publicly at least, it has given Maliki an almost-free pass.
Reading through the particulars that Beinart chronicles to come to this conclusion, two things stand out. First of all, the only thing he implies would qualify for "pushing hard for inclusive government" is public statements criticizing Maliki (as if American displeasure with him wouldn't have bolstered his position with an Iraqi public disgusted with our interference in their country). On several occasions Beinart admits that he doesn't know what President Obama or VP Biden have said to Maliki in private. But we're left with the idea that the use of a foreign policy "bully pulpit" via public statements would have made him change his ways. Personally I find that to be an absurd assumption.

Secondly, on several occasions Beinart subtly injects partisan political motives as the reason for President Obama's lack of forcefulness in pushing Maliki. For example:
...Obama now claims that maintaining any residual force was impossible because Iraq’s parliament would not give U.S. soldiers immunity from prosecution. Given how unpopular America’s military presence was among ordinary Iraqis, that may well be true. But we can’t fully know because Obama—eager to tout a full withdrawal from Iraq in his reelection campaign—didn’t push hard to keep troops in the country.
This is an extremely prevalent tool used to discredit someone you disagree with...assigning nefarious motives to their positions. We would all do well to notice it more often because its a lazy way to shut down a conversation in your own favor.

As an alternative, I would suggest that in order to understand President Obama's position on Iraq, we should listen to what he actually says. Here are a couple of examples from his remarks last week.
As I said, it’s not our job to choose Iraq’s leaders. Part of what our patriots fought for during many years in Iraq was the right and the opportunity for Iraqis to determine their own destiny and choose their own leaders...

Ultimately, this is something that is going to have to be solved by the Iraqis.
This is something the President has emphasized over and over again as politicians, pundits and even some in his own administration push him to take sides in these ancient conflicts between Middle Eastern sects. He's not interested in taking sides and he's not going to put the United States in the position of picking winners/losers. It is ultimately something for the people to decide.

For a country that has spent the last 60 years assuming it is our job to make these kinds of calls (without actually naming that privilege), that is going to be a very hard message to get across. While Beinart isn't resorting to calling for military intervention this time, its obvious that he still doesn't understand the whole idea that it shouldn't be up to us. How we spread democracy in the world is by actually letting it happen (even if we don't like the results) - not by telling other countries what to do.

Finally, it doesn't surprise me that our first African American President is someone who highlights a message like this. He described why pretty well in his commencement address to Morehouse graduates.
As Morehouse Men, many of you know what it’s like to be an outsider; know what it’s like to be marginalized; know what it’s like to feel the sting of discrimination...

So your experiences give you special insight that today’s leaders need. If you tap into that experience, it should endow you with empathy -- the understanding of what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, to know what it’s like when you're not born on 3rd base, thinking you hit a triple. It should give you the ability to connect. It should give you a sense of compassion and what it means to overcome barriers...

So it’s up to you to widen your circle of concern -- to care about justice for everybody, white, black and brown. Everybody. Not just in your own community, but also across this country and around the world. To make sure everyone has a voice, and everybody gets a seat at the table...

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Republican rhetoric is dangerous

Over the last six years, we've seen challenges to the legitimacy of Barack Obama's presidency take the form of demands to see his birth certificate, threats to blow up the global economy if he doesn't comply with Republican demands, and a government shutdown with this as an accompanying visual.

The latest craze has been to call the President "lawless." 
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) calls President Obama’s tenure “an increasingly lawless presidency.” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) cites “the president’s persistent pattern of lawlessness.”

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) called a hearing to examine how Obama “has blatantly disregarded the Constitution’s mandate to faithfully execute the laws.”

And first-term Rep. Randy Weber (R-Tex.) amped up the rhetoric an ugly notch, with pre-State of the Union tweets — from the House floor, no less — denouncing Obama as “Kommandant-In-Chief” and a “Socialist dictator.”
And now George Will has joined the chorus with a column titled Stopping a Lawless President. The means Will is advocating to do so would be for the Republican-led House of Representatives to challenge President Obama in court for his failure to adequately implement Obamacare. This is one of those times that I'm tempted to echo the President's words and simply say, "Please proceed, Mr. Speaker." The idea that Republicans would mount a constitutional challenge to the President's implementation of a law that they were trying to sabotage and/or repeal would present an interesting spectacle.

But that ignores the fact that - especially in our polarized political climate - this kind of talk is dangerous. I hope I don't have to lay out why. I'll simply say that promoting the idea of a "lawless" president in the minds of those who are already considering "second amendment remedies" is a recipe for disaster.  While establishment Republicans attempt to calm the fires they ignited with their radical fringe back in 2010, this kind of rhetoric simply throws gasoline on the flames.

One way to calm the waters is to provide some actual facts and historical perspective. For example, where does Obama fit on the spectrum of presidential power-grabbing?
Benjamin Ginsberg, co-author of “Presidential Power: Unchecked and Unbalanced,” is, as that title suggests, a fierce critic of presidential overreach. But he places Obama on the mild end of such abuses.

“There has been an onward march toward presidential unilateralism,” Ginsberg told me. “Obama has been the least aggressive, least unilateral, of our recent presidents.”

By contrast, University of Chicago political scientist William Howell, author of “Thinking About the Presidency: The Primacy of Power,” is less wary of presidential muscle-flexing. Yet he sees Obama’s behavior as largely in line with that of his predecessors.
For those who simply dismiss historians, perhaps some actual data would be helpful. Here is a chart showing the number of executive orders presidents have signed per days in office.

Beyond the data, the real story here is that normally a political party that is out of power attempts to get back into power by crafting an agenda that appeals to voters. But since the disasters in both domestic and foreign policy that culminated during the Bush/Cheney administration, Republicans have abandoned the idea of actually governing and embraced a post-policy agenda. Rather than challenge President Obama and the Democrats with alternative policies, they have committed to obstruction, scandal-mania, and attempts to de-legitimize Obama's presidency. That does not bode well for democracy. But I suspect that the only way to stop them is to ensure that such a strategy is not effective. Our chance to do that comes this November.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Photo of the Day: Legacy

Fifty years ago today three civil rights workers went missing in Mississippi. It took 44 days for us to learn their terrible fate. Their legacy lives on as a part of the great Civil Rights Movement in this country. But it is also captured hauntingly in this photo of James Chaney's brother.

Friday, June 20, 2014

President Obama and Speaker Boehner: Compare and Contrast

I'd like the return to Josh Marshall's article that I mentioned the other day titled: The Long Truce. In it he notes that after bruising battles since the last midterm election, both President Obama and Speaker Boehner have given up on Congress doing any legislating. So lets compare and contrast the alternatives that each have chosen to pursue (via Steve Benen).

First of all, the President is implementing the pen and phone strategy he announced in his State of the Union speech:
Obama and his team have recently moved on addressing carbon pollution, raising the minimum wage for federal contractors, creating a vast new ocean reserve, making more resources available to entrepreneurs, combating discrimination, and today, helping same-sex families.
And here is Speaker Boehner's response from his press conference yesterday:
If there were any doubts about GOP lawmakers giving up on passing bills and focusing all of their energy on manufactured “scandals,” Boehner couldn’t have made things clearer. He took a kitchen-sink approach to political analysis, blaming the president for sectarian violence in the Middle East before complaining about the discredited IRS story, the VA, an immigration problem Republicans refuse to address, and the release of an American prisoner of war. (In an entertaining twist, note that there were no references to the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” during any of Boehner’s tirades. The fact that the issue has vanished says a great deal about its successes.)

Asked about actual policy work, on issues like the Highway Trust Fund and the Voting Right Act reforms, the Speaker told reporters, quite literally, “I have no idea.”
When it comes to the issues facing this country, President Obama is at work doing everything he can to address them. Speaker Boehner's response: "I have no idea."

Could it be any clearer?

Reporting it that way is not a matter of partisan spin. Those are simply the facts. And yet most of our media is missing this basic frame on what is happening. That speaks more to their negligence than anything else. If they were doing their job, the contrast could be laid out to the American public this simply. And I suspect we all know what the response would be.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The "what about me?" syndrome

For years black academics criticized the Obama administration for not targeting programs to the African American community. Obamacare didn't count - even though it has disproportionately affected people of color. All of his talk about income inequality didn't matter, neither did his proposal for universal pre-K. What they wanted to see were initiatives that directly (and only) affected African Americans.

Then along came the announcement about President Obama's "My Brother's Keeper" program targeting boys of color. It didn't take long for many of the same critics to go after that one because it didn't include girls. As I see it, this is what most efforts to target a specific community will eventually face...the "what about me?" syndrome.

That's not to say that its wrong to initiate and promote targeted programs. Sometimes they're needed. Its more about the fact that when they are proposed, we need to remember WHY they're targeted and - by definition - will exclude.

There's a reason why I referred to "black academics" in describing the critics. Efforts like "My Brother's Keeper" have been underway in many communities around the country without the kind of backlash we're seeing to President Obama's initiative (see: Becoming a Man). There are even national programs like the Cradle to Prison Pipeline started years ago by the Children's Defense Fund (based on the fact that 1 in 3 black boys will spend time in prison over their lifetime) that have escaped the "what about me" syndrome. That's because people in the community (both men and women) KNOW these issues in their bones. It is their sons, grandsons, brothers, nephews, etc. who are living the reality right in front of their eyes. Truth be told, they're pissed and want action to change things...yesterday!

All of that is not to say that women of color don't experience their own kind of oppression in this country. But the last thing that is going to be effective is to simply import an initiative designed to help boys (i.e., My Brother's Keeper) and assume it will be effective in helping girls. As someone who worked in this field for decades, I can say with certainty that both the challenges and the solutions are very different. This is an example of where targeted initiatives are necessary.

My prescription would be that we celebrate the hell out of My Brother's Keeper because it targets a problem that is imploding in our communities. And while we're at it, let's articulate the unique challenges that face girls of color and get to work on identifying and organizing efforts that are successful in addressing them.

In many ways, My Brother's Keeper was propelled by work that has been underway in communities around the country (and national organizations like the Children's Defense Fund) for years now. President Obama's initiative is a reaction to that rather than the other way around. That's what we mean by "Yes We Can!" The question then is not so much "what is President Obama going to do about girls of color?" Instead its: "what are WE going to do?"

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A question for the lazy media

Last week I commented on the fact that too many in the media display a laziness in their reporting. One way they demonstrate that is by an over-reliance on the polls and the horse race of elections. Today we're hearing a chorus of folks commenting on the latest NBC/WSJ poll with hysterical statements like "the Obama presidency is over."

In contrast, I'd point to a recent article by Josh Marshall at TPM titled: The Long Truce. While I don't agree with Marshall's entire frame on the current political situation, he's showing some thoughtful creativity that is much needed.

Marshall points out that President Obama has pretty much given up on legislating. And that the Republican leadership has gone full-throttle on scandal-mania. But...
...the kicker is, I'm not sure GOP congressional leaders particularly care either. Because it doesn't really matter if the Democrats care or the White House does or even the actual media does. It's a conversation with the base of the Republican party.
That's what he calls a "truce."
I don't know what the best analogy is, perhaps two heavyweights in the late rounds of a title fight who start hanging on each other in a tacit pact of exhaustion. Or possibly a couple in a hopeless marriage that instead of reconciliation or divorce settle down to a de facto separation under a common roof.

However you choose to describe it, both sides of the partisan divide are operating in their own political universe, on their own political turfs. And the most striking thing is that both seem content to keep it that way.
There's some merit to that idea if you contrast it to the years of work on a "grand bargain" and/or the perpetual brinkmanship of one hostage-taking episode after another.

But excuse me...President Obama's pen and sword strategy is nothing like a heavyweight fighter hanging on to his opposition out of exhaustion. In the last couple of weeks, the President has announced the most ambitious action against climate change in our country's history, brought the last POW home from Afghanistan, provided protection to one million LGBT employees who work for federal government contractors, expanded the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument from almost 87,000 square miles to nearly 782,000 square miles and captured the ringleader of the Benghazi attack. Exhaustion??? Pffttt.

On the other side of the isle, just a few months ago the people who are responsible for the least productive Congress in history were gearing up to run against Obamacare in the 2014 midterms. That got away from them with the incredible success of the program. Next up...Benghazigate!!!! But while their media outlets will continue to search for a way to use that against Democrats, I'm here to tell you that scandal is now over. It will die a quiet death just as Obamacare hysteria did. This is where I'd agree with Marshall - Boehner is on the ropes and exhausted from both the success of President Obama's initiatives and having to battle the teapublican lunatics in his own party.

So while the media obsesses over President Obama's poll numbers, I have a question for them: what's the big issue the Republicans will rely on to get their voters out to the polls in November - which is still over 4 months away? My guess would be immigration reform (as in: against it!) - which means a lot of ugly nativism and the eventual demise of the Republican Party as we know it today.

But my point is that the media hasn't even bothered to think about that. Its simply too easy to point to polls and say "OMG - an Obama disaster!"

Krugman admits Geithner was right and he was wrong

A lot of political commentary these days is focused on forecasting the future. As we learned with the Eric Cantor primary defeat, an awful lot of people get that prognosticating wrong. Sometimes its even more instructive to look backwards and see what we can learn from how actions taken in the past are working out in the present. On that front, the big news these days is that Obamacare is turning out to be way more effective than many on both the left and right predicted it would be.

The release of former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's book Stress Test has allowed folks like economist Paul Krugman to take some time to reflect on how the Obama administration's efforts to deal with the Great Recession look in hindsight.

As we all know Geithner became the lightening rod for people who went on a rage about the bailout of the banks by the federal government. Krugman was part of the left's contingent on that front. His recommendation - along with many other liberals - was that rather than bail out the banks, they should be nationalized (bought out by the federal government).

In Krugman's review of Stress Test, he does a good job of laying out the financial panic and what the government's choices were at the time. And then he issues a mea culpa.
Finally, there was Geithner’s position, which was that despite its scale the financial crisis should be treated more or less as an ordinary lender-of-last-resort problem—that temporary nationalization would hurt confidence and was unnecessary, that once the panic subsided banks would be OK. A principal part of Geithner’s argument against nationalization was the belief that a “stress test” of banks would show them to be in fairly decent shape, and that publishing the results of such a test would, in conjunction with promises to shore up banks when necessary, end the crisis. And so it proved. He was right; I was wrong; and the triumph of the stress test gave him the title for his book.
I always appreciate anyone who can admit they were wrong about something. So I congratulate Krugman in being able to say so in such an unequivocal way. As someone who has been one of President Obama's biggest critics from the left, Krugman seems to be changing his tune pretty regularly lately.
You should judge leaders by their achievements, not their press, and in terms of policy substance Mr. Obama is having a seriously good year. In fact, there’s a very good chance that 2014 will go down in the record books as one of those years when America took a major turn in the right direction.
Of course, in his review of Geithner's book, Krugman goes on to critique the Obama administration's performance after the panic about the banks subsided. He still maintains that they didn't do enough to provide a stimulus to the economy or mortgage relief for those facing foreclosure. On the former, I've said before that - when it comes to politics - Krugman should keep his day job as an economist. Any fiscal stimulus would have required cooperation from Congress and once Democrats lost the House and their super-majority in the Senate, there is no way that was going to happen. I have three words for anyone who doesn't think that the Obama administration went all-in on trying for more stimulus...American Jobs Act.

Krugman probably has a point about the administration not doing enough on mortgage relief. I've heard both President Obama and Geithner say the same thing when they reflect on their record. But the issues was not one of avoiding the problem, it was in finding a way to do something effectively. On that front, I want to give a big shoutout to my twitter friend @Sherifffruitfly for pointing me to this article by Felix Salmon on the same topic from back in October 2009.
This doesn’t mean that all these decisions were necessarily exactly right. But in politics, the quality of the implementation is often at least as important as the quality of the original decision. And the way that the Obama administration has spent its $787 billion, or avoided nationalizing the banks, or bailed out the auto industry, has been extremely professional and effective...

The point here is that policy initiatives are sometimes good and sometimes bad. We all disagree with some of the Obama administration’s decisions... But once that decision was made, it was handled very well, and seems to have had very little in the way of negative knock-on consequences.
The critique that might be leveled at the Obama administration is that they were too risk-averse when it comes to playing around with the home mortgage market. In other words, if they were going to do something radical, they needed to know that it was going to work and limit collateral damages. Obviously they were never able to come up with a plan that fit that criteria.

In many ways I'd suggest that Salmon has captured the essence of President Obama's pragmatism. On the things he chose not to do, we'll never know if the collateral damages might have outweighed the benefits. But on the things he has done, time has shown - over and over again - that they've worked because they have been so well thought-out. I suspect that as the years go by, more and more former critics will join Krugman in recognizing that.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

What racism usually sounds like these days

The kind of racism expressed by Donald Sterling is rarely uttered in public. As a matter of fact, we wouldn't know about what he said if his girlfriend hadn't recorded his private conversation.

Most often these days, public statements of racism tend to come in the form of what North Carolina Senate candidate Thom Tillis said in an interview back in 2012.
The traditional population of North Carolina and the United States is more or less stable. It's not growing. The African American population is roughly growing but the Hispanic population and the other immigrant populations are growing in significant numbers.
The "dog whistle" nature of a statement like that is that everyone knows that when he says "traditional," he means "white." The suggestion therefore is that people of color in North Carolina and the United States are "non-traditional."

In saying that, he marginalized Native Americans and Latinos who preceded the arrival of white Northern Europeans to America as well as African Americans who arrived on slave ships simultaneously. In other words, he ignored historical facts. That he can do so speaks to the way our "traditional" efforts to dismiss black and brown people as something other than human have been ingrained in our thought and language.

The way these kinds of conversations usually proceed is that people will point out to Tillis that what he said was racist for the reasons I articulated above. He will respond by saying something to the effect of "I don't hate black/brown people so I'm not a racist! How dare you call me that!"

The truth is that most of us don't know whether or not Thom Tillis "hates" black/brown people. And that's not the point anyway. The point is that he just told the black and brown people of this country that they don't belong by totally dismissing their traditional history in this country. That is a racist thing to say, regardless of whether its motivated by hate or ignorance or indifference.

As long as white people can convince each other that racism = hating black/brown people, we'll never tackle the conversation we actually need to have. Once again, this is why Jay Smooth's advice is so important.

Monday, June 16, 2014


I doubt that anyone has ever honestly used the word "authentic" to describe Hillary Clinton. And so as far as I'm concerned, if she decides to run in 2016 and gets the Democratic nomination, it will be back to politics as usual.

In contrast, we are living in an era where the President of the United States is described this way:
He doesn't do schtick well, right? It goes back to that authenticity thing. He knows who he is, he believes who he is and he's not going to put on some facade just because he's supposed to glad-handle someone.
When a person is authentic you can trust them, whether you agree or disagree on any particular issue. Its a sad but true fact of politics that having someone in the White House that you trust is probably a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. That's why I've wanted to savor every moment of these eight years. I'm not very confident it will ever happen again.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Preserving the soul

There have been those over the years who have suggested that reveling in photos like the one above is simply succumbing to propaganda and/or engaging in hagiography. Of course I disagree.

In particular, this photo of the first African American President and First Lady finding such joy in meeting a young Native American girl speaks volumes as a symbol of our hope for healing from a bloody and painful history.

But the fact is, whenever I see our President's genuine delight in interactions with children, I think of something Alice Walker wrote shortly after he was elected. 
I would advise you to remember that you did not create the disaster that the world is experiencing, and you alone are not responsible for bringing the world back to balance. A primary responsibility that you do have, however, is to cultivate happiness in your own life...From your happy, relaxed state, you can model real success, which is all that so many people in the world really want. They may buy endless cars and houses and furs and gobble up all the attention and space they can manage, or barely manage, but this is because it is not yet clear to them that success is truly an inside job. That it is within the reach of almost everyone...

Because, finally, it is the soul that must be preserved, if one is to remain a credible leader. All else might be lost; but when the soul dies, the connection to earth, to peoples, to animals, to rivers, to mountain ranges, purple and majestic, also dies. And your smile, with which we watch you do gracious battle with unjust characterizations, distortions and lies, is that expression of healthy self-worth, spirit and soul, that, kept happy and free and relaxed, can find an answering smile in all of us, lighting our way, and brightening the world.
That kind of commentary is mostly out of bounds for the "very serious" people. But I believe that it is moments like the one in this picture that help a leader maintain their sanity in what can probably at times feel like an insane world. That, my friends, is a BFD!!!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

From protesting to governing

Paul Waldman has written a great analysis of what ails the tea partiers. I hope he won't mind if I make a few alterations in order to show that the same thing applies to some on the left. Lets start with the tag line:
As far as the activist base is concerned, the very act of taking office is little more than a prelude to betrayal.
For far too many liberals, their "disappointment" started the moment President Obama was sworn in. Lets dig in and see why.
...they have embraced a permanent revolution, in which it's necessary to fight not just against Democrats Republicans but against Republicans Democrats as well, since every GOP Democratic leader is little more than a traitor waiting to be revealed...

...the very act of joining the Republican Democratic leadership is enough to make clear to them that you're on the wrong side. People in the leadership organize things, try to master the system, and plan legislative strategy. All of that is suspect at best; the only true conservative liberal, true conservatives liberals will tell you, is the one pounding on the gates from the outside...

...whoever that president is, he will never be able to satisfy this base; indeed, by the very act of taking office and beginning to govern he will have assured them that betrayal is on its way. Their rage will endure. But maybe that's just how they like it.
Of course the Republican leadership was initially able to embrace the protesters in a way that Democrats should never contemplate. That's because the angry protester facilitates their agenda. Remember this from a Mike Lofgren, former Republican staffer?
A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress's generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.

A deeply cynical tactic, to be sure, but a psychologically insightful one that plays on the weaknesses both of the voting public and the news media. There are tens of millions of low-information voters who hardly know which party controls which branch of government, let alone which party is pursuing a particular legislative tactic. These voters' confusion over who did what allows them to form the conclusion that "they are all crooks," and that "government is no good," further leading them to think, "a plague on both your houses" and "the parties are like two kids in a school yard." This ill-informed public cynicism, in its turn, further intensifies the long-term decline in public trust in government that has been taking place since the early 1960s - a distrust that has been stoked by Republican rhetoric at every turn ("Government is the problem," declared Ronald Reagan in 1980).
Now that Sen. McConnell's goal of making Obama a one-term president has been defeated and the protesters are coming after their own, all this is not working out so well for the Republicans. They thought their top-down control was sufficient and that they could unleash the angry protesters to do their bidding. But now that strategy is coming back to haunt them.

My point is that eventually protesting has to lead to governing. Otherwise its just permanent rage. I don't remember civil rights leaders calling for the defeat of Senators Dirksen, Kuchel, Humphrey and Mansfield when they crafted a compromise that ended the filibuster of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to get it passed in the Senate. That compromise weakened the bill. But rather than continue protesting, it was time to govern - which meant taking the victory and moving on to the next fight.

That is the dance that activists and elected politicians must continually choreograph in order to be effective (insiders vs outsiders). I'd suggest that one of the reasons for our heightened polarization right now is that too many people have forgotten that reality.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Photos of the Day: #PrezRezVisit

I'll never be able to keep up with the great Chipsticks over at The Obama Diary, but I do want to document some of the amazing photos from President Obama's historic visit to Indian Country today.

President Obama refuses to take sides in the Sunni/Shia conflict (updated)

I'm certainly no expert on Middle Eastern politics. But I know enough to realize that it is impossible to understand what is happening in Iraq (and Syria) unless you have some basic knowledge about how the various players line up in the conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

According to this article, only about 10-15% of the world's Muslims are Shia (the rest are mostly Sunni). But the Shia are concentrated in the Middle East.

As you can see, Iran is 90% Shia, which puts them at odds with one of their closest neighbors - Saudi Arabia - which is 95% Sunni. Saddam Hussein was Sunni and brutally abused the Shia when he was in power. After the United States invaded Iraq (which is 63% Shia), the Bush administration purged all Sunni's from both political office and the military. Now its payback time for the Shiite government of Prime Minister Maliki, who is excluding and abusing the Sunni. The ISIL, which is the terrorist group that is gaining ground in Iraq, is a Sunni Muslim organization (as is al Qaeda and the Taliban).

One result of our misadventures in Iraq is that - while Saddam Hussein had waged a long bloody Sunni vs Shia war with Iran prior to our involvement - Iran and Iraq are now aligned in fighting the Sunni insurgency in Iraq.

In Syria, only 13% of the population is Shia. But their president - Bashar al-Assad - is an Alawite, a Shia sect. That is why he has the support of Iran in the civil war going on in his country, while groups like ISIL fight against him. 

Both domestically and abroad, President Obama constantly comes under pressure to take sides in this Sunni/Shia conflict. Due to their long association with Saudi Arabia, many of the "hawks" in our government would like that support to go to the Sunnis (against Assad in Syria and Iran). And yet now we are faced with calls from some of the same people to align ourselves with Iran to support the Shia government of Maliki against a Sunni terrorist group. 

At every step of the way, the President has resisted the pressure to take sides. Rightly so. As a matter of fact, in his remarks this morning, President Obama made any support we might give to Maliki conditional. 
So any action that we may take to provide assistance to Iraqi security forces has to be joined by a serious and sincere effort by Iraq’s leaders to set aside sectarian differences, to promote stability, and account for the legitimate interests of all of Iraq’s communities, and to continue to build the capacity of an effective security force. We can’t do it for them. And in the absence of this type of political effort, short-term military action, including any assistance we might provide, won’t succeed.
This is just one example of the complex world in which our President has to engage. Beating the war drums every time someone does something we don't like is not the answer. Putting enough pressure on leaders to "set aside sectarian differences and promote stability" is exactly the right course.

P.S. Once again Fareed Zakaria is a must-read on the situation in Iraq.

UPDATE: Slightly off-topic, but don't necessarily assume that members of Congress understand these complexities. Yesterday I watched the House Armed Services Committee grill Sec. of Defense Hagel about the release of the 5 Taliban detainees. The Republican Chair of that committee actually said out loud that he didn't know what the relationship was between the Haqqani Network (that held Sgt. Bergdahl for most of the 5 years he was in captivity) and the Taliban (both are Sunni BTW). These are the people we pay to represent us on these matters...and as Chair of a relevant committee, he can't be bothered to inform himself. Geez!!!!

Ideologues are NOT the answer to what ails us

When it comes to the civil war currently underway in the Republican Party (as evidenced by Rep. Eric Cantor's defeat), I've taken the position that I don't have a dog in that fight. In other words, I'm not going to take a position on who I'd like to see "win" that one. That's because I have concerns about both the lunacy of most of the tea party positions and the monied interests of the establishment.

There are voices on the left that want to embrace the "populism" that has gripped the tea party faction in this battle. If, by populism, we mean an equality of voice that balances an inequality of resources, then yes, I'm all for it. But Richard Eskow is asking us to embrace the very thing that makes tea partiers dangerous.
Unlike Cantor, who was a party apparatchik first and foremost, Brat is an ideologue. But is that bad? 
We all have our opinions about public policy. And most of the time those group into an overall philosophy that can be attached to what we call conservative, liberal or libertarian ideologies. But the ideologue attaches a fervency to their opinions that drives them to be more invested in defeating the "enemy" than solving programs, ie, governing. To actually govern in a democracy as big and diverse as the United States ultimately means being a pragmatist.

As an example, we saw how the ideologues on both sides of the political continuum reacted to the debate about health care reform. Even though President Obama and the Democrats proposed a plan that was based on a model developed by the very conservative Heritage Foundation, the right wing went apoplectic with charges of "socialism" and "death panels." Meanwhile, the left wing ideologues organized to "kill the bill" because it wasn't single payer. That's what ideologues do and, if we followed any of that noise, nothing would ever get done.

Rather than being the answer to what ails us, I believe that ideologues are the source of our problems these days. President Obama and many of the Democrats in Congress have embraced the idea of being pragmatic liberals. In the past, there have been pragmatic conservatives that I could respect - and at times even vote for (an example is former Governor of Minnesota, Arne Carlson). What all pragmatists share is a commitment to something President Obama articulated years ago.
Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will. This is more than just a matter of "framing," although clarity of language, thought, and heart are required. It's a matter of actually having faith in the American people's ability to hear a real and authentic debate about the issues that matter.
Yeah, I know its a bit of a pipe dream - especially these days with the extreme polarization we're experiencing in our politics. But as Obama said, its a "core value" that is a requirement for a functioning democracy. So I'm going to stick to it because I don't want to contemplate (or contribute to) the alternative.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Crafting the narrative that explains Cantor's defeat

Eric Cantor's primary defeat is one of those things that fascinates me about politics. As I mentioned yesterday, pundits are not only tripping over themselves to understand why it happened, but also to predict what it means for the future. In order to do so, they have to examine the motivations for human social behavior - and I suppose it shouldn't surprise us that an awful lot of them are really bad at that.

It strikes me that what happened is that a narrative everyone had settled on to understand social behavior (how Republican primary voters would behave in the midterms) got broken by Cantor's loss.  And now everyone is scrambling to be the one who tells us what the new narrative will be. We need a narrative to understand what's happening - that's why storytelling is so important. The trouble is, these things take time to develop and understand...and we're impatient.

In the meantime, we have folks telling us that it was all about immigration reform, or that it portends the rise of populism in our politics. The one thing I can guarantee you is that anyone who says they know the one and only reason for Cantor's defeat right now is likely wrong. These things are always more complicated than that.

Eventually a new narrative will develop. But it won't be a reflection of the actual reality of what happened. It will be shaped by what people chose to believe about what happened and how that influences their behavior in the future. History never has a beginning and ending, its a continual process of events, the stories we tell ourselves about those events, and how those stories affect our interactions in the future.

One part of the story I think is important to recognize, but hasn't gotten much attention, is what David Jarman wrote about the reasons for Cantor's defeat. He's smart to listen to the analysis of Erick Erickson - someone who has played a key role in the tea party insurgency. Here's the money quote from Erickson:
Cantor and his staff both lost the trust of conservatives and constituents. They broke promises, made bad deals, and left many feeling very, very betrayed. Much of it was because of Cantor’s hubris and the arrogance of his top staffers. He could not be touched and he could not be defeated. He knew it and they knew it. He kept his attention off his district, constituents, and conservatives while he and his staff plotted to get the Speaker's chair.
And here's Jarman's insightful conclusion:
"Hubris" may be the key word here. The climb through the ranks through treachery and intimidation, and then the sudden realization when you're at the top that you've burned through all your allies, is almost allegorical. It's a pattern we've seen many times before, whether it's from the Greek playwrights or Shakespeare, or in the collapse of some of history's nastiest regimes: When the leader who appeared to rule effortlessly suddenly falls with a lot of knives in his back, few people are saddened, while many people are surprised at just how thin and flimsy his support actually was, and how he was just staying in power propped up by a combination of fear and entropy.
Beyond hubris, what Jarman is describing is someone who went all-in with the power of dominance.

That is the achilles heel of Republicans - because its their go-to mode on a style of leadership. Its also why President Obama's call to remind us of the responsibilities of citizenship (ie, the power of partnership that is the very basis of democracy) is the critical message for today.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A lazy media once again misses how politics has changed

Today the media pundits are tripping over themselves to tell us what Cantor's primary defeat means for the future of national politics. But one word of caution about listening to their prognostications: these are the very same people who never saw this one coming. At some point we have to question their predictive capacities. Unless/until they are willing to do a little self-examination to uncover why they were so wrong, we should take their current machinations with one HUGE grain of salt.

I've been hesitant to say this outright, but I think one of the biggest reasons they get so much wrong is that too many of these pundits are lazy. Its much easier (and more conducive to lucrative linkbait) to simply run with the latest hysteria craze created by the right wingnuts. Over the last few years we've watched them become consumed with everything from presidential birth certificates to literally buying wingnut lies about an American POW before we have the facts. When it comes time for an election, they are quick to point out that American voters STILL say that job creation is their number one concern. And yet they spend all their time running after fake scandals....because its easy.

Its also easy to spend countless hours talking/writing about the perceived inadequacies of the current occupant of the White House. While they wring their hands about whether or not his unfavorables will impact the future of the Democratic Party, they are quick to dismiss the civil war brewing in the Republican Party once a couple of establishment candidates fended off primary challenges from tea partiers. What?! You mean we have to also cover 535 members of Congress? That's too much work!

There are HUGE tectonic shifts happening in our politics these days. Some of them were highlighted in this Cantor/Brat race - such as the diminishing role of money in politics (apparently Cantor outspent Brat 25:1 and still lost). Grassroots movements are gaining momentum on both the left and the right as people organize and inform themselves in ways that aren't tied to traditional media outlets. That's actually how a mostly unknown Senator Barack Obama surprised everyone with his defeat of the Democratic establishment candidate Hillary Clinton back in 2008.

And yet most of our media and pundit class haven't altered their assumptions about how our politics works these days. They're still using the old models that rely on money and top-down control. To understand what is happening and provide some value-added in their political prognostications, these folks are going to have to get off their asses and out of the D.C. bubble with a big dose of curiosity about what the hell is happening out here. Until they do that, they'll continue to get a lot of things wrong and wind up surprised by the likes of everyone from Brat to Obama.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

If you're in the mood for some sanity

The other day I was chatting with one of my neighbors and told her what a political junkie I am. She asked me if there was a reliable place she could go to for news that she could trust. I told her that the truth was, I didn't have a recommendation. What a sad commentary.

I thought about that conversation when I read the two latests posts from Jim Wright at Stonekettle Station about the Sergeant Bergdahl case. Here's the first and here's the second.

Jim's second post was both a pleasure to read and a really bad commentary on the status of our political conversation these days. And yes, there is an element of "both sides" that applies here. In it he quotes from an email he received from a Marine Corp Captain. Even though I don't agree with all the Captain said, as Jim points out, he stated his position in a direct and respectful manner. I actually long for a conversation with someone who can do that. But Jim had to write a couple of addendums because commenters were so rude and discounting of this man's opinion.

I also love how Jim started the second post.
We are the sum of our parts.

Our memories and our experiences shape who we are and, more importantly, how we see the world.

By definition, our worldview tends to change over time. That malleable viewpoint is influenced by a thousand things: friends and enemies and the indifferent, marriage, children, information both true and false, trauma, stress, grief, joy, depression, hope, rage, hate, love, education, reason, to name but a few.

Age often lends a certain perspective, not always, but often.

Sometimes that perspective can completely change who we are – sometimes we call that wisdom. Or not.

Sometimes we change ourselves. We don’t like who we are, and so we deliberately become someone else – ask any recovering alcoholic if you don’t know what I’m talking about. Or a born again Christian. Or a scrawny kid like me who joined the military and set out to prove something to himself. Sometimes it’s involuntary, driven by outside forces and influences – have a chat with veteran about PTSD if you need an example. And sometimes that change comes willie-nillie as we careen happily assbackward into the unknown.

And sometimes, well, sometimes life just hardens who we are.

It’s different for each of us.
When we lock ourselves into a point of view and lock everyone out who doesn't see it the same way, we stunt this process of development over time and run the risk of loosing out on the wisdom that time and perspective can bring.

I know that right now an awful lot of Republicans have gone off the deep end and are not likely to be able to participate in a discussion the way Jim's Marine Corp Captain did. But goddess help us if we ever give up even trying with the one's who can. Its not just their loss, its ours too.

Obama Derangement Syndrome

Nate Cohn has written an interesting article addressing the question about whether or not President Obama's approval ratings will affect other Democrats in upcoming elections. Buried in his argument is this little nugget:
Nonetheless, Mr. Clinton earned significantly higher general approval ratings than Mr. Obama because he earned considerable crossover support, including from about 30 percent of Republicans. Mr. Obama’s opposition has been extremely unified. That makes it difficult for Mr. Obama to earn overall approval ratings at or above 50 percent.
The next time you hear someone say that Republicans were just as hard on Clinton as they've been on President Obama, there's your comeback.

The truth is that there has been a unified ferocity in the opposition to this President. That is simply a fact. Given how accommodating he's been, its pretty difficult to write that off to policy differences. So what are we left with to explain it? I think that ultimately we all know the answer to that one.

Thought for the day: Glass half full

The power of cartoons is usually not in their humor, but in their ability (much like poetry) to say SO much with so few words. I'll just leave this one here for you to ponder.

Monday, June 9, 2014

How should we measure a president's success?

I, for one, really appreciate Jonathan Chait's column yesterday titled: Obama Promised to do 4 Big Things as President. Now He's Done Them All. He uses the following statement from the President's 2008 Inaugural Address to name those 4 things:
Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly, our schools fail too many, and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.
And so President Obama's initiatives on the stimulus bill, Wall Street reform, health care reform, education reform and now climate change are noted as major accomplishments.

But what strikes me in this kind of analysis is that most of that list involves legislative accomplishments. That is primarily the job of Congress. In the separation of powers outlined by our founders, the main job of the presidency is not to legislate, but to administer the functions of the federal government. And yet when it comes time to evaluate a president's performance, that aspect of the job is most often not included.

We must not forget that President Obama not only had to clean up the financial and foreign policy messes of the previous administration. He faced a FEMA that completely botched the response to Hurricane Katrina, a Justice Department that was politicized and corrupted, and yes...a Veterans Administration that was incapable of dealing with the needs of soldiers deployed in unnecessary wars.

We're not likely to see headlines when - even in the midst of escalating climate disasters - FEMA performs competently and thoroughly. And yet, anyone who has ever had to turn around a poorly functioning system knows that is always a difficult and complex management process. I would count that as one of the major success stories of the Obama administration.

But perhaps nowhere was the job more daunting or necessary than at the Department of Justice. Particularly, we know that hiring in the Civil Rights Division had become a politicized process and the focus of investigations had shifted to claims of so-called "reverse racism." I've tried to document how AG Eric Holder and former Civil Rights Division Director Thomas Perez worked effectively to turn all that around.

And so, when I listen to the "what have you done for me lately" conversations (like the one engaged on Melissa Harris-Perry's show yesterday) that attempt to lecture President Obama on the need for structural reforms to address racism, I am amazed at the ignorance of actual structural reforms that have been undertaken by this administration. At least one guest actually mentioned the work by DOJ and the Department of Education on ending the school-to-prison pipeline. But there was no reference at all to things like:
That summarizes some of the work of just one federal department that I have been following pretty closely. To measure the actual impact of a presidency, the same could be done for every one of them. This should especially be important to Democrats. Because as I've been saying for quite some time, the best way to advance a liberal agenda is to ensure the practice of good government. That's the president's job.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Phenomenal Black Women

If you ever doubted that having a black family in the White House dramatically changes the racial dynamics in this country, please take a few moments to watch First Lady Michelle Obama speak at the memorial service for Dr. Maya Angelou. No other FLOTUS could speak to/for black women like this. Can you feel the change happening? I'm sure that millions of phenomenal black women/girls can.

Thursday, June 5, 2014


I'm having a bit of a chuckle at my peers who - in the midst of all the lunacy over the prisoner exchange - have been trying to explain that George W. Bush released hundreds of Gitmo prisoners and that Ronald Reagan traded arms for hostages.

The reason why I laugh is because of the assumption that any of this is about a rational argument. When we go there, it gives this nonsense credibility. Thank goodness Michelle Malkin did us a favor by actually saying what its all about.
The Bowe Bergdahl mess isn't just a story about one deserter, but two.
Just in case you missed it, the second "deserter" is the guy a majority of people in this country elected President...twice.

As these hysteria eruptions come and go, it always helps to remember that there is a faction in this country that never accepted the legitimacy of PRESIDENT Obama. In case Malkin's truth-telling doesn't convince you that's what all this is about, the whole incident has put life back into every tin-foil hat conspiracy theory about the President along with this new one that showed up on my facebook page:
My take: The release of Bergdahl has little to nothing to do with getting one of our own back. It has everything to do with finding an excuse to unleash the 5 Taliban leaders to reunite with their troops. And with a little over 2 years left of the POTUS term, it gives them plenty of time to create and execute a new attack on the USA. That way, Obama can declare a national emergency, shut down the campaigns, suspend all elections, declare Martial Law and set himself up as Supreme Potentate. He has a very dangerous agenda. If he can't find a crisis to exploit, he'll create one.
I guess that since that whole FEMA re-education camp thing didn't materialize, its time to conjure up a "Supreme Potentate" scenario.

We can pretend like this kind of thing comes from ideological or partisan disagreements. But that would mean an actual discussion of those differences at some point, wouldn't it? Nope, this lunacy springs from a whole different source.

Racism has always been at odds with rational discussions because it is a fear-based notion at its core. That's what we're dealing with here...plain and simple. To address it in any other terms is to totally miss the point. These people have never accepted the legitimacy of Obama's presidency - and they likely never will. I find that its helpful to keep that in mind.

A negotiated peace in Afghanistan is the goal

At this point, the hysteria about Sergeant Bergdahl's home-coming is so perverse that its almost impossible for actual information to penetrate. But as I've been saying since day one of this prisoner exchange, there is a bigger context to the story. At least the Associated Press, via reporter Kathy Gannon, is telling it.
The announcement that the U.S. government had secured the release of missing U.S. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and that it was freeing five senior Taliban figures from Guantanamo Bay has been portrayed first and foremost as a prisoner exchange. But the four-year history of secret dialogue that led to Saturday's release suggests that the main goal of each side may have been far more sweeping.

It was about setting the stage for larger discussions on a future peaceful Afghanistan.
Gannon then goes on to describe the fits and starts to this process of attempting to set up negotiations that began in 2010. So why does it seem to have finally come to fruition now?
Why did the Taliban go for the exchange now? One possibility is that the older generation of Taliban wanted to show younger, more skeptical fighters that talks with the U.S. and the Afghan government are worth pursuing.

The U.S. wants out of Afghanistan, but it doesn't want to leave behind complete chaos. In the past, it at least wanted to start a process of talks that could have some traction.

As the Taliban insurgency rages on, the question is whether the next Kabul government will risk talks with the militants, and whether the Taliban themselves may wish to negotiate for a share in power or will stay on the course of war.

In either case, the deal that came about this week after such a long gestation was about more than six men and their respective paths toward captivity and now freedom.
Only time will tell if these efforts by the Taliban and new leadership in Afghanistan signals that its possible to set the stage for a negotiated peace in that country. But a simple focus on the six men involved in this exchange totally misses the bigger context for this story.

Watching so much of our media become consumed with the hysteria generated about this story is a perfect example of why I've contemplated a regular series titled "dumb stuff reporters say." But this time its not just one dumb reporter. The hysteria narrative has taken hold of most of them.

All I can say is: don't join the hype. Keep your eye on the ball President Obama is playing here. A negotiated peace in Afghanistan is the goal...and its certainly one worthy of our support.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Why the prisoner exchange is a big issue for the neocons

We're hearing all kinds of hysteria about the prisoner exchange that resulted in the release of Sergeant Bergdahl. The media is indulging claims about Bergdahl's state of mind, whether or not the President was required to consult with Congress prior to finalizing the exchange and stories about soldiers who may have died trying to rescue him. But that's all hyperbole designed to gin up the anti-Obama base. I propose that the real issue for conservatives actually centers on the other side of the exchange...the release of the 5 Taliban detainees from Gitmo.

Ken Gude writing at Think Progress is one of the few journalists who got to the heart of the issue with an article titled Why the Five Taliban Detainees Had to be Released Soon, No Matter What.
The United States is engaged in an armed conflict in Afghanistan against al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces authorized by Congress under the 2001 Authorizations to Use Military Force...President Obama recently announced that the combat role for the United States in the armed conflict in Afghanistan will end this year and all participation will completely cease by 2016.

When wars end, prisoners taken custody must be released. These five Guantanamo detainees were almost all members of the Taliban, according to the biographies of the five detainees that the Afghan Analysts Network compiled in 2012. None were facing charges in either military or civilian courts for their actions. It remains an open question whether the end of U.S. involvement in the armed conflict in Afghanistan requires that all Guantanamo detainees must be released. But there is no doubt that Taliban detainees captured in Afghanistan must be released because the armed conflict against the Taliban will be over.
One question I've had about all this is whether it would have been better to simply be forced to release these detainees once the war in Afghanistan was over - or whether releasing them now to Qatar with security precautions in place is the smarter move.

But all that aside, President Obama has been clear that it is time to take the United States off the permanent war footing that was launched by the Bush/Cheney administration after 9/11. Here's how he talked about that two years ago:
My fellow Americans, we have traveled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war. Yet here, in the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon. The Iraq War is over. The number of our troops in harm’s way has been cut in half, and more will be coming home soon. We have a clear path to fulfill our mission in Afghanistan, while delivering justice to al Qaeda...

This time of war began in Afghanistan, and this is where it will end.
As he's said more recently, the United States no longer faces an existential threat. We have to be vigilant about the ongoing threat of terrorism, but the time for war is over.

Following 9/11, the neocons counted on having a replacement for the Cold War in an ongoing global war on terrorism. That's because in order for their military adventurism to sell, Americans need to be convinced that we have a powerful evil enemy that threatens us.

As President Obama ends that war, we can expect the neocons to ramp up the fear rhetoric to try and convince us its not over. Unfortunately, Sergeant Bergdahl has just become a pawn in that game. We need to remember that he is not the issue. We're all glad he's home. But there are bigger issues at stake. Its finally time to end indefinite war.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Benghazi? What Benghazi?

Over the years I've watched as people criticized President Obama's administration for being bad at the public relations game. And so today I'm having a little chuckle about that. Because at this point, he is SO controlling the agenda that the lunatics can't figure out which head-exploding action to focus on.

Remember a few weeks ago when conventional wisdom said that Republicans would be running on an anti-Obamacare platform in the 2014 midterms? With its actual success, they were forced to change their tune and the prediction was that it would be all Benghazi all the time. But wait, the President paid a visit to our troops in Afghanistan to remind us that war will be over soon and gave a major foreign policy speech. Gotta talk about that outrage, don't we? Just about when that got rolling came news that Sergeant Bergdahl was coming home...oh my...he's negotiating with terrists! That surely will be the  one thing everyone is talking about until November. And then today he launched the war on coal and will be traveling abroad this week. Cue the hysteria.

How in hell are the lunatics supposed to keep up?

I told you a few days ago that this was going to be a summer of action by President Obama, didn't I? Can't wait to see what's next!

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Passing on a clean slate

Yesterday's release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl was joyous news to his family, his community and his country.  But in order to understand the broader importance of this news, it needs to be placed in context.

Following 9/11, the Bush/Cheney administration attempted to put this country on a permanent war footing to fight the global war on terror. In doing so, they took actions that go against our basic ideals as a country and called America's leadership in the world into question. That included invading another country based on lies, the use of torture and setting up a prison for indefinite detention in Guantanamo Bay. These actions left legal and foreign policy challenges that - while not as imminent as the financial crisis - were necessary to address.

When President Obama assumed office, he began working on cleaning up the mess from day one. His first actions were to stop the use of torture and re-focus the global war on terror into a war on al Qaeda. The latter action provided for the possibility of specific goals that could be met rather than an open-ended engagement. He ended the war in Iraq and attempted to defeat al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan, Pakistan and eventually Yemen.

A little over two years ago, Vice President Biden articulated the diplomatic work this administration had undertaken to ensure that Afghanistan would never again be a safe haven for terrorists.
We were in Afghanistan for two reasons. One is to deal with, curtail, begin to dismantle, and eventually eliminate al Qaeda. Not only from being able to come back into Afghanistan and control Afghanistan but from the region—to decimate al Qaeda...

The second reason for us to be in Afghanistan was to make sure that a country with tens of millions of people and nuclear weapons called Pakistan did not somehow begin to disintegrate or fall apart. That is a hell of a lot tougher job...

That is part of what the reconciliation process is about right now. We are not just deciding that all we are doing is supporting a government and building up their military capability. We’re engaged in a reconciliation process. Whether it will work or not is another question. But we are in a position where if Afghanistan ceased and desisted from being a haven for people who do damage and have as a target the United States of America and their allies, that’s good enough. That’s good enough. We’re not there yet.

Look, the Taliban per se is not our enemy. That’s critical. There is not a single statement that the president has ever made in any of our policy assertions that the Taliban is our enemy because it threatens U.S. interests. If, in fact, the Taliban is able to collapse the existing government, which is cooperating with us in keeping the bad guys from being able to do damage to us, then that becomes a problem for us. So there’s a dual track here:

One, continue to keep the pressure on al Qaeda and continue to diminish them. Two, put the government in a position where they can be strong enough that they can negotiate with and not be overthrown by the Taliban. And at the same time try to get the Taliban to move in the direction to see to it that they, through reconciliation, commit not to be engaged with al Qaeda or any other organization that they would harbor to do damage to us and our allies.
Over the last few years, attempts to bring together Afghanistan and the Taliban to negotiate towards a stable government have been underway, but have moved forward in fits and starts. Over that time, a successful prisoner exchange between the U.S. and the Taliban has been seen as an opening statement of trust for the negotiations to begin in earnest. I believe that is what happened yesterday with the release of Sergeant Bergdahl in exchange for the 5 detainees at Guantanamo. Notice how President Obama's statement yesterday echos what VP Biden said two years ago.
This week the United States renewed its commitment to the Afghan people and made clear that we will continue to support them as they chart their own future. The United States also remains committed to supporting an Afghan-led reconciliation process as the surest way to achieve a stable, secure, sovereign, and unified Afghanistan. While we are mindful of the challenges, it is our hope Sergeant Bergdahl’s recovery could potentially open the door for broader discussions among Afghans about the future of their country by building confidence that it is possible for all sides to find common ground.
So this wasn't just a prisoner exchange. It was perhaps the opening step in the reconciliation process between the Afghan government and the Taliban. As such, it was also one more step in this President's efforts to fix the mess that was left to him by his predecessor and take us "off a permanent war footing."

If you haven't already, I highly recommend that you listen to/read President Obama's interview with NPR just after his speech at West Point. Here's how he summarized all this:
...I want to make sure that when I turn the keys over to the next president, that they have the ability, that he or she has the capacity to — to make some decisions with a relatively clean slate...

You know, these are all parts of what I consider a — a major piece of business during my presidency, which is recognizing we've got very real threats out there and we can't be naive about protecting ourselves from those threats. At times we're going to have to take very tough actions to make sure that our people, our children are protected, but that there's a way of doing it that comports with our laws, our values, our ideals, that gains legitimacy around the world and that is therefore sustainable...

And, you know, we're not done yet, but we've made enormous progress...I'm confident that by the time I'm leaving the presidency, the next president will still have some tough choices to make, but I think they'll have a basis for making them that is consistent with our best traditions.
The President has often talked about the slow but steady progress of righting this huge ship of state. He's determined to have it back on course by the time he's done.

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