Fringe Form of Bipartisianship

23 08 2009

Frank Rich’s column in today’s NYT echoes much of the liberal left’s criticism of Obama curious approach to bipartisanship, including reaching out to Republicans that have cozied up to the fringe right. Case in point Chuck Grassely of Iowa who is the designated point man on negotiating the health care bill for Senate Republicans, but has shamelessly propagated the death panel rumor.

Money quote:

Even now the radicals are taking a nonviolent toll on the Obama presidency. Obama complains, not without reason, that the news media, led by cable television, exaggerate the ruckus at health care events. But why does he exaggerate the legitimacy and clout of opposition members of Congress who, whether through silence or outright endorsement, are surrendering to the nuts? Even Charles Grassley, the supposedly adult Iowa Republican who is the Senate point man for his party on health care, has now capitulated to the armed fringe by publicly parroting their “pull the plug on grandma” fear-mongering.

Part of me wonders how much of this dynamic is a natural by product of a dwindling Republican party rapidly becoming a regional party with supporters who so successfully shifted the debate to the right that GOP elected officials feel as if they have no choice to not just keep up, but get out in front of the lunacy. After all, if you have a supposedly national party with no viable strategy to reach out to moderates and centrist voters and candidates, then those currently in office will constantly try to build up their street cred among the base.

Meanwhile, the political environment will continue suffer from an increase in political polarization.

Of course, Frank Rich is not alone in his frustration with the President’s approach, but there are a number of things that one has to remember about Capitol Hill. One is while Republicans during the Bush years were more than eager to move legislation with little regard to how many Democrats supported it, a handful of Democrats in the Senate today will not vote for a bill unless its a bipartisian measure.  Usually, these are redstate Democrats that are hyper sensitive about being painted as raving lefties such as Senators Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Kent Conrad of Montana, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, and Mary Landrieu of Louisana.

Many of these Democrats joined forces with the likes of Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins both from Maine, too pair down the one time $900 billion stimulus bill down to $787 billlion. In a chamber composed of 100 members you will only see these two women Republicans from Maine, who are already feeling intense pressure not to show any signs of capitulation, and maybe one more GOP Senator that will bargain with the Democrats on health care or confirming judges to the federal bench, or spending bills or a climate change and energy bill.


Dealing with Inconvenient Myths about Health Care

22 08 2009

In his weekly address, President Barack Obama said while he is glad to see “a vigorous debate about health insurance reform” he is expressed frustration about it being “dominated by willful misrepresentations and outright distortions, spread by the very folks who would benefit the most by keeping things exactly as they are.”

He cited “some of the more outrageous myths circulating on the internet, on cable TV, and repeated at some town halls across this country” such as generous health coverage for undocumented workers, mandated payment for abortions, and the implementation of so-called death panels. None of which are actually in the bill.

This is not the first time the president felt the need to counter some of these myths. In his August 8th weekly address, Obama said criticized the spreading of “outlandish rumors that reform will promote euthanasia, cut Medicaid, or bring about a government takeover of health care. That’s simply not true.”

At an August 11th New Hampshire town hall gathering on health care the president also said, “The rumor that’s been circulating a lot lately is this idea that somehow the House of Representatives voted for “death panels” that will basically pull the plug on grandma because we’ve decided that we don’t — it’s too expensive to let her live anymore.”

If the president of the United States has to push back on these falsehoods so many times to get his message out one wonders if he might benefit from a different approach. I realize President Obama sees himself as a reconciler of sorts and a healer, a latter day Abraham Lincoln if you will.

“There are always those who oppose it, and those who use fear to block change,” he noted in his weekly address. “But what has always distinguished America is that when all the arguments have been heard, and all the concerns have been voiced, and the time comes to do what must be done, we rise above our differences, grasp each others’ hands, and march forward as one nation and one people, some of us Democrats, some of us Republicans, all of us Americans.”

But since the opposition is not looking for harmony, isn’t interested in civility, and won’t be satisfied with merely being listened to, perhaps he needs to deal with folks in the same way Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank confronted a LaRouche supporter named Rachel Brown at one of his own town halls this week. Brown specifically said was like Adolf Hilter’s T4 policy in Nazi Germany where people who were deemed incurably ill because of a chronic aliment or a disability or mentally disturbed or otherwise considered undesirable to national socialists was somehow the same thing as a provision in one of the health care bills, H.R. 3200, regarding end of life care, i.e. the infamous dealth panels.

This myth has been thoroughly debunked by the press and other experts.  Read the WaPo’s editorial on this issue for more detail on this distortion.

Rep. Frank’s said to Brown, who managed to compare Obama to Hitler at a recent town hall meeting, “It is a tribute to the First Amendment that this kind of vile, contemptible nonsense is so freely propagated.” He also added “Trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table, I have no interest in doing it.”

And at one point, Rep. Frank even rhetorically asked the LaRouche supporter “what planet do you live on?” As you may or may not know, the LaRouche group is a bunch of fringe lefties with socialist leanings with a peculiar penchant for conspiratorial thinking.

Watch the video:

Now I understand President Obama is under a different kind of pressure than Representative Frank has to contend with. Obama is a first year president trying not to fail and constantly mindful of his 2012 reelection bid. Frank, on the other hand, has a very secure Congressional seat, which he has held since 1981.

Whereas the president is still wrestling with how to be a principled uniter as he desperately tries to avoid alienating potential voters lest he himself be accused of being grossly intolerant and elitist, Frank often speaks his mind with little concern about who feigns offense. I understand that.

But at some point, the president has to be a lot more forceful in his condemnation of these baseless attacks otherwise they will continue to gain traction as the negotiations over the various bill become more involved. And the more that happens the easeir it will be for Republicans and conservative Democrats in the House and the Senate to push back against the president.

Big Daddy Kane on the Meaning of the November Election

12 08 2009

Before a crowd of thousands of mainly 30-somethings at a Celebrate Brooklyn  Festival concert in Prospect Park, the legendary Bedford Stuyvesant born and raised rapper Big Daddy Kane adorned in an immaculate white suit minus the flat decided to expound on the meaning of President Barack Obama’s victory in the November 2008 election.

“We now have a black man as president, something that some people thought would never happen” Kane informed a sympathetic crowd that applauded approvingly. “That means no more excuses…I don’t wanna hear all this about the white man is keeping me down.”

I doubt that this signals Kane is poised to join the chorus of conservatives and a minority of liberals who have interpreted the results of the November election as evidence of death of racism or watershed moment finally ushering a new era post-racial of bliss in the U.S. But on that Saturday night many people in the audience probably agreed with him in knowing that Obama’s win meant that at least some things we otherwise suspected and that the country has become less racist than it was maybe 20 years ago.

I of course, wondered how do you square this with other facts of American life. Blacks and Latinos are more than twice as likely to be stopped, searched, or arrested by law enforcement officers as are whites. Or the fact that even when they had similar credit scores blacks and Latinos were more than likely to be pushed into higher cost home loans than whites. Or how children of color attend poorer perfoming schools than do white children that are also chronically underresourced and underfunded.

I struggled to make sense of it all as Kane was sermonizing.

But by the time he got into “Ain’t No Half Steppin‘” I was onto another thought.

Obama on Affirmative Action

10 07 2009

In a recent Associated Press interview, President Obama gave a disappointingly weak answer to a question on affirmative action that I fear the opposition will have no problem exploiting in the future.

Instead of seeing Affirmative Action as part of the solution in expanding equal opportunity he went out of his way to deemphasize its importance by suggesting it should be treated as a mere footnote in the larger debate about how to combat discrimination. I am not surprise at his response, just a little disappointed.

Money quote:

I’ll be honest with you, though, I’ve always believed that affirmative action was less of an issue, or should be less than an issue, than it’s been made out to be in news reports. It’s not it hasn’t been as potent a force for racial progress as advocates would claim, and it hasn’t been as bad on white students seeking admissions or seeking a job as its critics has been.

I think the way to move forward on race is to make sure that every kid from the time they’re born is getting good nutrition and good education, is succeeding in K through 12, and we’re opening opportunities for all young people. Because when everybody’s got a level playing field, everybody’s competing, and we’ve dealt with some of the legacies of discrimination that have resulted in substandard schools or extreme poverty in some communities, then affirmative action ends up being an afterthought and we can really just make sure that everybody’s treated fairly in an environment that, in which race is rarely taken into account.

I can see opponents of affirmative action citing this response to arguefighting discrimination (regardless of the victim’s color) is fine, social programs that help the disadvantaged (again, regardless of color) are fine, but you don’t need racial preferences to do any of this.”

Obama Holds Impromptu Press Conference on Souter

1 05 2009

Clearly, Obama really enjoys being president.

As you can see he did not stray far from the empathy standard that he articulated as a presidential candidate.

The White House posted his remarks:

THE PRESIDENT: I just got off the telephone with Justice Souter. And so I would like to say a few words about his decision to retire from the Supreme Court.

Throughout his two decades on the Supreme Court, Justice Souter has shown what it means to be a fair-minded and independent judge. He came to the bench with no particular ideology. He never sought to promote a political agenda. And he consistently defied labels and rejected absolutes, focusing instead on just one task — reaching a just result in the case that was before him.

He approached judging as he approaches life, with a feverish work ethic and a good sense of humor, with integrity, equanimity and compassion — the hallmark of not just being a good judge, but of being a good person.

I am incredibly grateful for his dedicated service. I told him as much when we spoke. I spoke on behalf of the American people thanking him for his service. And I wish him safe travels on his journey home to his beloved New Hampshire and on the road ahead.

Now, the process of selecting someone to replace Justice Souter is among my most serious responsibilities as President. So I will seek somebody with a sharp and independent mind and a record of excellence and integrity. I will seek someone who understands that justice isn’t about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a case book. It is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people’s lives — whether they can make a living and care for their families; whether they feel safe in their homes and welcome in their own nation.

I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people’s hopes and struggles as an essential ingredient for arriving as just decisions and outcomes. I will seek somebody who is dedicated to the rule of law, who honors our constitutional traditions, who respects the integrity of the judicial process and the appropriate limits of the judicial role. I will seek somebody who shares my respect for constitutional values on which this nation was founded, and who brings a thoughtful understanding of how to apply them in our time.

As I make this decision, I intend to consult with members of both parties across the political spectrum. And it is my hope that we can swear in our new Supreme Court Justice in time for him or her to be seated by the first Monday in October when the Court’s new term begins.


Justice Souter Poised to Retire

1 05 2009

From the NYT:

The departure will open the first seat for a Democratic president to fill in 15 years and could prove a test of Mr. Obama’s plans for reshaping the nation’s judiciary. Confirmation battles for the Supreme Court in recent years have proved to be intensely partisan and divisive moments in Washington, but Mr. Obama has more leeway than his predecessors because his party holds such a strong majority in the Senate.

This battle is going to be intense. President Obama is having difficulty just trying to get cabinet level and mid level nominees to the Justice Department confirmed. Trying to get a Supreme Court nominee confirmed by the U.S. Senate is usually a very tough endeavor, especially since Republicans seemed determined to stymie efforts to overhaul health care, climate change legislation, education and immigration reform, just to name a few.

That’s why Arlen Specter’s defection from the Republican party is so timely and so important. Thought nominees are confirmed by a simple majority in the final vote, to cut off debate in the Senate chamber on a bill or nominee you need 60 votes. That 60 vote threshold is called a cloture vote. If you cannot overcome cloture that nominee or bill has in effect been filibustered. Provided that Al Franken will be allowed to assume his Senate seat soon, and the Democratic caucus vote together, Specter gives the Dems a 60 vote filibuster proof majority.

In theory a party line vote should make Obama’s job easier, though who fills the vacancy on the court will almost take up so much of the media oxygen during the next few months that it will compete with the president’s efforts to promote other aspects of his agenda.

And with dwindling political power on Capitol Hill, conservatives, especially the ideologically pure, will make President Obama’s nominee a full throated primal cry to action.

Man, I hope we are ready.

Member States Reach Agreement on Anti-Racism Document

22 04 2009

The anti-racism Durban Review Conference on 21 April adopted its final outcome document. It has its flaws particularly some questionable free speech paragraphs and its vulnerable to the charge that it did not need to include language regarding foreign occupation, though there is no mention of Israel by name. There are also a lot of NGO groups that are understandably frustrated at how language about the transatlantic slave trade was watered down in the final out come document.

But considering what the previous drafts looked like this final outcome document is a dramatic improvement. What’s more, the NYT has correctly framed this as a victory for the UN process and a loss for Ahmedinejad and those who wanted to use the Israeli-Palestinian question to either overshadow all other global racial discrimination issues or not participate in the conference at all.

The adoption of the resolution by the committee that coordinates the conference ended months of negotiation that removed contentious clauses referring to Israel and Palestine and trying to make defamation of religion an offense against human rights.

The conference will formally adopt the document here on Friday, but it is no longer open to debate or amendment, diplomats said.

Announcing the adoption of the resolution to warm applause from delegates, the conference president, Amos Wako, who is from Kenya said: “What we have decided shows the outcome when you remain engaged in the process. It shows that boycotts do not assist.”

“This is very good news indeed,” said Navi Pillay, the United Nations human rights commissioner, who hosted the conference. “It’s the culmination of months of deliberation.”


Announcing the adoption of the resolution to warm applause from delegates, the conference president, Amos Wako, who is from Kenya said: “What we have decided shows the outcome when you remain engaged in the process. It shows that boycotts do not assist.”

I fully expect a lot of critics to focus on the language regarding foreign occupation and free expression. But in the meantime I think the administration has got to be reconsidering participating in the follow process, given how this turned out.

Plus, the outcome document is very progressive on a whole range of issues from calling for a aggressively punishing hate crimes to urging governments to embrace equal opportunity programs from establishing national human rights bodies to affirming the right to organize to calling for the humane treatment of migrant workers in addition to calling for the ratification of other U.N. social justice treaties.