Monday, December 29, 2014

Mandate madness; What did the 2014 midterms mandate the GOP Congress to do?

2015 could be Washington’s year of mandate miscalculations.  If Republicans rely on the 2014 midterms as their legislative compass and their interpretations miss the mark, they could  lay the groundwork for a backlash in  2016 .  Their challenge for the GOP in Congress  is trying to decipher what are and what are not voters’ mandates to pass certain legislation when most of the electorate did not vote and other  factors contributed to their reelection.
 This was the lowest turnout since 1942 with only one third of the electorate bothering to vote.  In presidential elections the average is over 60%.  To claim there was a mandate that represents widespread views about issues is a stretch.
 The Associated Press pollster’s conclusion about this November election was: “Those on either side of the aisle express sharply divergent views on top issues, making it difficult for lawmakers to discern a clear mandate for governing “.
 Adding to the confusion, voters voted one way on ballot issues, yet voted for candidates who believe the opposite. The only conclusion is that party loyalty trumped dedication to issues in 2014. In Colorado a personhood amendment went down in flames yet Cory Gardner was elected Senator (by a 2.5% percentage point) even though his name remained on a personhood- like bill in Congress.   70% in a recent NBC Wall Street Journal poll favored the elements of the Senate bi partisan compromise on comprehensive immigration, but 48% opposed presidential action depending upon party affiliation.   Every GOP candidate in the Midterms preached repeal of Obamacare, many winning races, yet other polls show 60% of voters did not want repeal and liked the individual elements. Disapproval of Obamacare followed party affiliation per a Gallup poll. Four red states voted to raise the minimum wage while their party has fought it tooth and nail in Congress.
 If there was a mandate, it was for parties to work together per a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll. That is wishful thinking. Partisanship runs deep and is heavily determined by demographics, a phenomenon that could be called tribal, a “people like us against them” mentality.  Per the AP exit poll, 87% of Republicans vs 61% of Democrats were white. Women outnumbered men in the Democratic electorate; the ratio was reversed with Republicans.  20% of those backing Democrats and only 12% of Republicans made less than $30,000 per year. 40% percent of Republicans were church going white evangelical Christians, while only 11% of Democrats were. Republicans “are disproportionately southern” and rural compared to Democrats.
Complicating the mandate picture are special interests and a deepening divide between establishment and Tea Party Republicans.  Most within the GOP may agree on the problems, but they see solutions and priorities differently.
 In the end, the interpretation of voter mandates matters little for legislators who are more concerned whether their political contributors’ ox gets gored or  is well fed. Given the enormous cost of campaigning and the loosening of campaign laws to permit more contributions from corporations and the wealthy, that should be no surprise to anyone.

A version of this appeared in the Jan. 2 2015 Sky Hi News

Monday, December 22, 2014

Peace on earth, goodwill to men sorely needed this Christmas season but so hard to achieve

Peace on earth, goodwill toward men, one of the messages of Christmas, is sorely needed in our troubled world. This year has been less about major wars, but more about individuals gone berserk and sudden rise of terrorist jihadists acting in regions or as lone wolves anywhere.  Modern media has been both the messenger and the tool of the perpetrators that give acts of violence world-wide impact. We have yet to find a consensus for the best response.

 In the United States there are two schools of thought. One is always to meet violence with violence and the other is to search for peace. President Obama seems determined to leave office with a more peaceful world by resolving some nagging conflicts and addressing recent explosions of violence both at home and abroad, but he faces some tough challenges.

 Since he cannot run for re-election, he at least is freed from the consequences of a political backlash if he takes controversial measures. Using his executive powers, he is burying the hatchet with hostile regimes and bringing together those who feel they have been treated unfairly.

Beginning with dialogues with Iran and historic reverse of a fifty year policy toward Cuba, Obama has taken steps to bring Peace on Earth.  Obama had already stopped torture of prisoners immediately when he took office and he is consistent in condemning past torture practices brought to light by a Senate report.

Our country is plagued by riots and police assassinations from Ferguson to the boroughs of New York, heated by racial tensions and angry speech from by both sides of the racial divide. The violence is an accumulative effect of high profile incidents of apparent racial profiling by police  ending in death of Black men and youth.  Obama is threading the needle between empathy with minority communities and finding ways to bring communities and policing together.  It is a delicate balance, but it is a uniquely credible opportunity given he is the first Black president.

The case for peace is as much a matter of pragmatism as it is a moral imperative. Violence begets more violence. One kind of violent action becomes a template used by others who are, or who are not, fighting political causes. Some fueled by personal revenge, hate, or mental health issues copy the latest violent techniques so they, too, can go down in a blaze of publicity.

Abroad, we have learned that using military force works only in the short term.  Our ultimate goal should be to win over hearts and minds so that jihadists lose fertile ground in which to plant their flags. Otherwise we will be involved in a never ending or reoccurring warfare. Sadly, Iraqi villagers seem willing to exchange ending strife for ISIS order no matter how cruel and oppressive.  Oppression eventually breeds revolt and a search for a better way. The very difficult challenge for Obama is to craft policies that appeal to the better angels in the long term while helping Iraq halt ISIS’ military advance and doing it without our full military engagement. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

American unexceptionalism and the Senate torture report

If the Senate report on CIA torture practices in the early post 9/11 days revealed anything, it was when fear for national security prevails, the US behaves like most other countries. We become unexceptional.  We trample human rights and engage in practices for which we would be ashamed under normal circumstances. Those who boast of American exceptionalism need to temper their flag waiving.

That we are willing to admit that violating our own values is wrong decades later may set us apart and is indeed exceptional behavior. Most nations do not do this. Without condemning such actions, we become the pot calling the kettle black in calling out others for brutal treatment of POW’s or violation of human rights. At least the report clarifies our standards for others to follow.

Sen John McCain (R-AZ), a former tortured POW himself, attested on the Senate floor torture does not work, but (that)…” isn’t the main reason to oppose its use. … It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world.”

The GOP shouted the report was a partisan move and it was full of (unspecified) untruths, that circumstances justified it, it worked, our brutal treatment is less brutal than others, and it will stoke our enemies’ fire.

 The report presents truths no one has yet refuted. Even current CIA Director John Brennan could not deny the “techniques”  called enhanced interrogation (EIT) did take place and detainees died or were subjected to “ harsh, abhorrent”, and unauthorized  practices.

Left to debate was whether it worked.  Brennan said the “program” did provide “useful” intelligence,  saying it was “unknowable” if saying EITs were responsible for extracting that information. Firing back, Senate Intelligence Committee chair Diane Feinstein (D-CA) said the report clearly documented the intelligence extracted took place before the water boarding or other “EIT”s occurred.

Consider the times, respond the report’s critics, as if to say we can excuse our behavior in the fog of fear of future attacks post 9/11.  Our country has been there before: in 1798 the Federalist controlled Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts claiming a fear of a French war on our shores. The acts allowed us to deport and imprison those we thought might subvert us and allowed us to confiscate their property during wartimes. The Sedition Acts muzzled those criticizing the US government. All were contrary to the Bill of Rights.

These Acts, too, were entangled in politics. The Federalists were proponents of the Alien and Sedition Acts; the Democratic-Republican Jeffersonians opposed.   The descendants of the Federalists, the GOP (McCain excepted), are now trying to justify EITs use. They are being true to their earliest roots of throwing under the bus our first amendment protections whenever national security is threatened.

 The sedition acts later expired.   The alien laws survived and were used to detain, imprison, and confiscate property of American-Japanese in World War II. Those acts, too, were condemned by history, just as the EIT program is being condemned a decade later.
A version of this appeared in the  December 19, 2014

Friday, December 12, 2014

If there is any one reason to support Obamacare, this is it

If there is any one reason for Obamacare (ACA), this is it.  The ACA will not eliminate debt because there are still deductibles some will be obligated to pay, but fewer will go insurance naked,  some states still have not extended Medicaid to the near poor who do not have enough income to qualify for ACA insurance,  and some ACA plans have high deductibles.  From the New York Times Dec. 11, 2014: "One in five American consumers — 43 million people — have blemishes on their credit reports because of overdue medical bills, while medical debtsmake up more than half of collection items on credit reports, according to a newly released federal report.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau released the report Thursday ahead of a public hearing on medical debt collection in Oklahoma City. "