Friday, January 22, 2010

How to Recapture Democracy from Corporate Money

Yesterday the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Citizens United v. FEC that campaign financing laws that prohibited corporations from directly spending money on campaign advertisements violated the First Amendment free speech rights of those corporations. In doing so, the Supreme Court overruled (or ignored) nearly one hundred years of jurisprudence and precedent (and isn’t that just the sort of “judicial activism” that so incenses the right?). The concern with this ruling is that corporations (especially large corporations) will be able to spend large amounts of money to influence elections notwithstanding that the expenditures of large amounts of money in that way is seen to have a corrupting influence on elections and also may have the effect of rendering an individual citizen’s voice even less relevant. By the way, I do recognize that the Supreme Court’s opinion also appears to let unions spend on political advertising in the same way; my comments here, though addressed to corporations, should also be thought of as applying to unions, too.

The perception (which could, I suppose, be wrong) is that this ruling benefits Republicans who are generally seen as being more closely aligned with “big business”. Just imagine what the next election will look like if the drug companies and insurance companies are able to spend unlimited amounts of money on campaign advertisements (and you thought all of the ads for Viagra, Cialis, and Levitra were obnoxious…). Or just think of the impact locally if a particular corporation was denied a zoning variance. What might the next mayoral or city or county council election look like. Another concern worth noting is the possibility that foreign-owned corporations could spend money to influence American elections. Just imagine if Hugo Chavez decided to have CITGO (now owned by Venezuela) or if China used any of the corporations that is has purchased to air campaign advertisements.

So what can be done to rectify the problem? First, straightforward revisions to campaign finance laws probably won’t work, especially while the right holds a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court. For that matter, while the Republicans hold their 41-59 majority in the United States Senate, it will be tough to get anything to pass there, either. But presuming that Democrats could get a Republican or two (Sen. McCain, for example, co-sponsor of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, and a strong supporter of campaign finance reform…), what sorts of laws might solve the problem without running afoul of free speech issues?

So, here are just a few thoughts that I brainstormed (but note that I haven’t read the Supreme Court’s opinion); I admit that I haven’t worked through all of the ramifications, but it was a fun exercise:

  • Congress (or a state that wanted to limit the actions of corporations in that state’s elections) could pass a law that provides that corporations (which, you’ll recall, must be incorporated or organized according to the law of a particular state; they’re not born like, say, humans) can only spend money on campaign advertisements if a majority of shareholders approve of the expenditure. That should have nothing to do with First Amendment issues, as the law deals with corporate governance instead. The law could even provide that only individual shareholders (not other corporations) would be entitled to cast votes in such a corporate vote. Or maybe the law could provide that only shareholders eligible to vote in the election in which the advertisement would air would be eligible to vote on whether the corporation should expend the funds to advertise in that election campaign. And imagine if the law required the prospective advertisement to be shown to shareholders not less than, say, 90 days before any vote could be taken. And maybe, to pass, the advertisement would need the affirmative approval of 60% of the shareholders (after all, it apparently takes 60% to pass any legislation in the Senate…).
  • A law could be passed that would require the CEO of the corporation (or even the entire board of directors) to be filmed and shown in the advertisement saying “I approved this ad” much as candidates have to do now in their own ads.
  • Ordinarily, the standard for defamation is much more difficult to meet when a “public figure” is the target of the allegedly defamatory statement. In many jurisdictions, to be found liable of defamation against a public figure, the speaker must be found to have acted with actual malice (rather than just being shown to have made a false statement). Perhaps we could pass a law that would lower that standard to be the same as applied to allegations of defamation against non-public figures when the alleged defamatory statement is made in the context of a campaign advertisement. While corporations may now have a constitutional right to free speech, they have no constitutional right to a different standard to be applied in determining whether speech is defamatory. At least with this approach, corporations would most likely tend to be careful of what they might say about a candidate that the corporation opposed.
  • I’m not sure if this would fly, but what about a law that taxed, at a much higher rate, the fees received by media outlets for campaign advertisements, but provide a safe harbor if the fees were received from a not-for-profit or candidate?
  • Or we could enact laws similar to those for non-profits that provide that a non-profit is allowed tax-exempt status only if it refrains from certain forms of political advocacy. We could provide a base corporate tax rate of 99% but provide that the rate would be reduced if the corporation refrained from certain forms of political advocacy.
  • We could require corporations who spend money on election advertisements to provide a copy of each advertisement to each and every shareholder of the company (imagine the cost of having to send DVDs of each advertisement to each of potentially millions of shareholders). Remember when AOL used to send all those CDs?
  • Here’s a nasty little idea: We could provide that in the event of a corporate bankruptcy, the debts of a corporation are not wiped out to the extent of spending on election advertising and that the shareholders would be responsible for those outstanding debts to the extent of that spending.
  • Or how about a law that provides that only corporations that pledge not to expend funds on campaign advertising are entitled to enter into contracts with the government.

Well, that’s all I’ve come up with so far. What do you think? Setting aside whether Senate Republicans would ever sign on to any of these sorts of proposals, would any of these ideas help restore balance to the electoral process?

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

IN Touch: Ties That Bind Us

My third post on The Indianapolis Star's IN Touch blog is now online. I wrote the piece as I listened to President Obama's inaugural address.

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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Do As Norm Says, Not As Norm Does

Since election day, political junkies like me have been following the never-ending recount process in the Minnesota Senate race between incumbent Norm Coleman and challenger Al Franken. If you remember, after election day, Coleman held a razor thin lead; however, as the recount progressed (and the sides battled about this vote and that vote, the recount methods, what to do about missing ballots, and numerous other issues), Coleman's lead narrowed, narrowed, and eventually disappeared. Yesterday, Franken was declared the winner. So what now?

Well, the day after the election, Coleman held a news conference:

"Yesterday the voters spoke. We prevailed," Coleman said Wednesday at a news conference. He noted Franken could opt to waive the recount.

"It's up to him whether such a step is worth the tax dollars it will take to conduct," Coleman said, telling reporters he would "step back" if he were in Franken's position.
Coleman also said that there was "too much at stake for a recount":

Now that the recount has been completed and Franken has been named the winner, Coleman says that he wants to "take the time to get it right" and, to that end, is filing an election contest lawsuit challenging the results of the recount. Senate Republicans have said that they will filibuster the swearing in of Al Franken pending the resolution of any lawsuit that Coleman might file.

In other words, when Coleman thought that he was the winner, there was "too much at stake" but now that he has lost, he wants to be sure to "take the time". Hmm. Nothing like a hypocritical politician that can't even take his own advice... Too bad the "new" Al Franken can't write a comedy sketch about this farce.


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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

IN Touch: Frivolous

My second post on The Indianapolis Star's IN Touch blog is now online. I wrote the piece last week, but it didn't make it onto the website until yesterday. (Incidentally, my proposed name for the post was "Frivolous Lawsuits Not Newsworthy".)

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bachmann Calls Her Own Comments an "Urban Myth"

During the election campaign, I wrote repeatedly about the demand by Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-Minnesota) for an investigation to see which members of Congress have "anti-American" views (see Republican Congresswoman Follows Palin's Lead and Calls for Investigation Into Anti-Americans in Congress, Bachmann Misreads Herself! Huh?, and Another Republican Accuses Liberals of Being Unpatriotic). Following her initial comments on Hardball, Rep. Bachmann claimed that she had been "misread" and later suggested that she had been led into a trap. Somehow (and I have a hard time understanding how...), Rep. Bachmann won reelection. Shorty after the election, Rep. Bachmann seemed to include herself in the group of people who had elected President-elect Obama, calling his election "a tremendous signal we sent" (see Bachmann Now Supports Obama? Do These People Ever Listen to Themselves?).

So what does Rep. Bachmann have to say about her calls for an investigation into the "anti-American" views of members of Congress now that the election is over? She says she never said that and calls the allegation an "urban myth". Watch:

Now, go back and watch this highlight reel from her original appearance on Hardball:

It sounds to me like Alan Colmes (how can he stand to share a stage with Sean Hannity?) repeated Rep. Bachmann's comments verbatim, yet she has the nerve to claim that she never said those things. Has she never heard of YouTube? Has she never seen that interview replayed time and time again across the networks? The question to ask yourself is whether Rep. Bachmann: (a) is simply too stupid to understand what she said and how offensive it was, (b) is simply too stupid to recognize that most people today have the ability to go back and check to see what she really said, (c) really does believe the things she said but is looking for some kind of cover, or (d) doesn't really care what others think, so long as her base (remember, these new comments came on Fox News) continues to support her.

Perhaps someone needs to explain to Rep. Bachmann how YouTube works and that simply claiming that you didn't say something doesn't make those words disappear. Moreover, things that really happened are not urban myths. You see, to be an urban myth requires an absence of truth; hence the word "myth". When an event is demonstrably provable as true, it is, by definition, not a myth. And if she can't understand that, should she really be representing anyone in anything, let alone in Congress?

But then why should truth or semantics worry someone like Rep. Bachmann? After all:
  • She says she doesn't believe in global warming;
  • She says that women who get abortions have been "horrifically violated";
  • She claims that "hundreds and hundreds of scientists, many of them holding Nobel prizes" believe in Intelligent Design;
  • She has made statements that suggest that she knows precisely the "secret" plans that Iran has to divide up Iraq (including the name that Iran plans for part of Iraq after its secret plans come to fruition);
  • She blamed the mortgage crisis on "loans made on the basis of race and little else";
  • She says that if homosexuals are allowed to marry, "little children will be forced to learn that homosexuality is normal, natural and perhaps they should try it";
  • She believes that a homosexual relationship is a form of bondage ("It is personal bondage, personal despair and personal enslavement");
  • She hides in the bushes to spy on gay rights rallies; and
  • She wrote that there is "almost no wildlife" in ANWR (on the basis of a single aerial flight over a tiny portion of the 19,049,236 acres; apparently she doesn't understand that the 2,000 acres where drilling would be conducted is non-contiguous and scattered throughout that enormous area).

Rep. Bachmann is far more articulate than Gov. Palin; you almost have to wonder whether Rep. Bachmann will become a standard-bearer for the right-wing of the Republican Party. In any event, I'd love to hear some of the conversations between her and her Democratic colleagues in the House: "Gee, Rep. Bachmann, how was your vacation, and do you still want an investigation to see if I'm anti-American?"

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

I Blog, But I Don't Live in My Parents' Basement

In yesterday's interview with Greta Van Susteren of Fox News, Gov. Palin apparently discussed the media coverage of the campaign (I haven't seen the interview). As The New York Times' politics blog noted:

Ms. Palin directed most of her media criticism at liberal bloggers, whom she twice called, “those bloggers in their parents’ basement just talkin’ garbage.”

Just for the record, while I may be a liberal blogger, I don't live in my parents' basement. For that matter, I don't think that many liberal bloggers fall into that category either. For example, Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, has a BA/MA in economics from Cambridge. She was president of the Cambridge University debating society. The list of columnists for Huffington Post reads like a who's who of writers and thinkers. Markos Moulitsas, founder of Daily Kos, served in the U.S. Army before obtaining two undergraduate degrees from Northern Illinois University and a J.D. from Boston University School of Law. Daily Kos averaged about 2.5 million hits in the week leading up to the election and 5 million hits on election day. A review of the biographies of the other Daily Kos writers will reveal quite a few graduate degrees. Josh Marshall, editor and publisher of Talking Points Memo has an undergraduate degree from Princeton and a graduate degree from Brown. He lives with his wife and kids, not his parents.

Just this past weekend, I wrote about how I hoped that this election was a victory for thought and that intellectual prowess and educational achievement would be valued rather than remain an apparent source of derision. The fact that Gov. Palin continues to view those who expressed opposition to her and to the Republican platform as "talkin' garbage" from their "parents' basement" demonstrates that she (and, I suspect, many of her supporters) simply don't understand the nature of that opposition (either in terms of content or source). If she wants to be a viable candidate in the future (shudder at the thought), she might want to try thinking before talking and actually listening to and trying to comprehend some of the criticism that was leveled against her and Sen. McCain. Then again, understanding just what socialism really is or what it means to be told that you violated state ethics laws or grasping just why people were concerned with her lack of experience and education and views on social issues or recognizing the Constitutional role of the Vice President is all a bit more complicated than knowing which countries are in North America or knowing that South Africa is a country while Africa is a continent.

So, maybe it would be better for all of us if she just keeps huntin' moose and leaves the deep thinkin' to those of us on the left.

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Sunday, November 9, 2008

Bachmann Now Supports Obama? Do These People Ever Listen to Themselves?

During the final weeks of the election, I wrote several times about Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann and her vile suggestions that some Americans, some members of Congress, Barack Obama, and those with whom he associated, might be "anti-American". She even called for an investigation to determine which members of Congress were "anti-American". Following those statements, her race, which should have been an easy Republican win, became one of the closely watched and heavily funded races. In the end, Rep. Bachmann won reelection, but by a narrow margin.

So now that she will be calling Barack Obama "Mr. President" from her position in a smaller Republican caucus in the House of Representatives, what does Rep. Bachmann think about the election? According to The New York Times, Bachmann said that she was "extremely grateful that we have an African-American who has won this year". She also referred to Obama's victory as "a tremendous signal we sent" (emphasis added).

Now I've previously written favorably about President-elect Obama's desire to work with Republicans and to be the President of everyone, including those who opposed him. And I've written about how important I believe it is that we get beyond some of the vitriol and rhetoric -- such as that employed by Rep. Bachmann -- to move our country forward. And, I continue to believe in those ideals.

But why do I have such a hard time accepting Rep. Bachmann's claim to be part of the "we" that sent a tremendous signal in electing Barack Obama? I guess that means that she doesn't plan to ask for investigations into which members of Congress or the Obama administration are "anti-American". I'm glad that she's "seen the light" and views Obama's election as a "tremendous signal". But I'd still like to hear her (and others like her ... Gov. Palin, Sen. Dole, are you listening?) stop blaming others for trapping her or "misreading" her statements, and simply say, "I'm sorry" or "I was wrong" and recognize that the type of rhetoric that she used has no place in our democratic process. Feel free to challenge someone on the issues, but leave claims that the opponent is unpatriotic out of the discussion.

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A Victory for Thought?

As the Presidential election began to heat up in late-September, I wrote about "Elitism in Politics" and the seeming disinterest in the electorate in having elected officials who were, in fact, "elite" in terms of education and intellectual prowess. In that article, I noted:

For some reason that I don't understand, Americans seem to have a love-hate relationship with education and intellectualism. We want our kids to get the best education possible (except for home-schoolers who I just don't get...) and we admire the best institutions of higher education. Many of us dream that our children will be able to go to one of the top colleges and get a superior education. Yet too many Americans seem to hold academics and intellectuals in disdain. I'm sorry, but what is wrong with someone who thinks deeply about certain subjects?

And I concluded:

It is time to stop denigrating academic success; it is time to start applauding those who work hard, attend good schools, get good educations, and then put those educations to work. And, it is time that we recognized the value of someone who is capable of "deep thought" on complex issues and who exercises that capacity. Someone who revels in their own ignorance or who brags about the ability to make a decision without pondering all of the possible outcomes is not someone who should lead our nation.

So, now the election is over and I can't help but feel, at least a bit, as if perhaps one of the reasons that Sen. Obama won was precisely because of his intellectual prowess. Through three debates, numerous interviews, and countless rallies, he talked about ideas and, in doing so, he appeared, well, presidential. He didn't talk down to voters and he often discussed real issues (especially the economy) in more than mere sound bites (for example, go back and listen to the entire discussion with "Joe the Plumber"). Now, as he begins the transition process, President-elect Obama is working to select the best and brightest to surround him and party affiliation or past allegiance doesn't seem to be as much of a factor as ability. As President-elect Obama has stated, he relies upon advisors to help him make the best decisions for the country. His willingness to seek advice and, more importantly, to listen that advice, is one of the things to that attracted me to his candidacy in the first place.

And, apparently, I'm not the only one taking note of what the results of this election may mean for the importance of intellectual elitism in American politics. Michael Hirsh, writing in Newsweek:

We can finally go back to respecting logic and reason and studiousness under a president who doesn't seem to care much about what is "left," "right" or ideologically pure. Or what he thinks God is saying to him. A guy who keeps religion in its proper place — in the pew. It's no accident that Obama is the first Northern Democrat to be elected president since John F. Kennedy. The Sun Belt politics represented by George W. Bush — the politics of ideological rigidity, religious zealotry and anti-intellectualism — "has for the moment played itself out," says presidential historian Robert Dallek.

From the very start of his campaign, Obama has given notice that whatever you might think about his policies, they will be well thought out and soberly considered, and that as president he will not be a slave to passion or impulse. While his GOP opponent, a 72-year-old who has battled skin cancer, was cynically deciding for political reasons that a woman who apparently did not know that Africa is a continent rather than a country should be a heartbeat away from the presidency, Obama was setting up work groups to study every major international issue and region of the world. Through three debates with John McCain, he refused to be baited into personal attacks. And the more we have learned about his transition process, the clearer it becomes that he intends to be that kind of president as well. Against the very political concerns of some of his loyalists that he, the candidate of "change," is bringing too many ex-Clintonites on board, he is dispassionately welcoming-in the best brains (like Larry Summers, Laura Tyson and Gene Sperling) and most experienced hands (considering an extension of Bob Gates's tenure at the Pentagon, for instance). He is actively considering other Republicans for high posts.

How very presidential. And how very unusual.

Similarly, writing for The New York Times, Nicholas D. Kristoff notes:

Barack Obama’s election is a milestone in more than his pigmentation. The second most remarkable thing about his election is that American voters have just picked a president who is an open, out-of-the-closet, practicing intellectual.

Maybe, just maybe, the result will be a step away from the anti-intellectualism that has long been a strain in American life. Smart and educated leadership is no panacea, but we’ve seen recently that the converse — a White House that scorns expertise and shrugs at nuance — doesn’t get very far either.

We can’t solve our educational challenges when, according to polls, Americans are approximately as likely to believe in flying saucers as in evolution, and when one-fifth of Americans believe that the sun orbits the Earth.

Almost half of young Americans said in a 2006 poll that it was not necessary to know the locations of countries where important news was made. That must be a relief to Sarah Palin, who, according to Fox News, didn’t realize that Africa was a continent rather than a country.

Perhaps John Kennedy was the last president who was unapologetic about his intellect and about luring the best minds to his cabinet. More recently, we’ve had some smart and well-educated presidents who scrambled to hide it. Richard Nixon was a self-loathing intellectual, and Bill Clinton camouflaged a fulgent brain behind folksy Arkansas aphorisms about hogs.

As for President Bush, he adopted anti-intellectualism as administration policy, repeatedly rejecting expertise (from Middle East experts, climate scientists and reproductive health specialists). Mr. Bush is smart in the sense of remembering facts and faces, yet I can’t think of anybody I’ve ever interviewed who appeared so uninterested in ideas.

Some may say that Obama's intellectual strengths had nothing to do with his election, arguing instead that it all came down to race and the economy. But I don't think that is right for two reasons. First, don't forget that Obama had to defeat several, highly qualified opponents (Sen. Clinton, anyone?) in the primaries before earning the right to face Sen. McCain. Something drew people to Obama in the primaries and it wasn't just race (his first primary victory was in Iowa...) and the economy hadn't imploded (and, even if it had, probably would not have necessarily been more "helpful" to Obama than to Sen. Clinton or John Edwards or any of the other candidates).

Speaking for myself, I remember one of the things that drew me to Obama (in the days when I was still undecided) was his decision to oppose a temporary ban on the federal tax on gasoline (supported by Sen. Clinton). That was one of those issues that sounded good on its face and made for a great sound bite, but when you really stopped to think about the real impact of the plan, you realized that it really was nothing more than a good sound bite. But it wasn't the issue that was particularly meaningful to me or that led me to support Obama; rather it was the way that Obama seemed to take time to think about the issue and make the right decision, rather than the decision that would play well in a sound bite and earn him a few extra votes.

Second, the fact that so many liberals and intellectuals (including some conservative thinkers like Christopher Buckley) were willing to work to make Obama's election a reality suggests that there was something to the candidate that inspired effort. I wanted John Kerry to win and I wanted Al Gore to win, but during neither of those elections did I do anything other than listen and vote. In this election, I (and apparently several million of my closest friends) did more than listen; we contributed, we wrote, we called, we talked, and then we voted. Something that Obama did or said made people like me take a more personal interest in this election campaign.

I don't know that Obama's intellectualism was the sole reason that people became interested and involved, but I do think that it was a reason.

So, as we watch the formative stages of the Obama administration and we see President-elect Obama being unapologetic about his desire to think about issues and to surround himself with the best and the brightest, I have great hopes that we will, indeed, leave behind the days when "intellectual" was a derogatory term and enter a new period in which those willing and able to engage in "deep thought" and careful, intellectual analysis of complex issues and problems will be valued. The President should be able to take a few deep breaths and think before making decisions that will effect the entire world. I'd rather that he get it right even if that means that we need to rely on his intellectual capacity and the intellectual abilities of those surrounding him.

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Thursday, November 6, 2008

Shifts in Voting Patterns

Sometimes graphs and maps really do explain things better than words and numbers. Take for example this map (originally from The New York Times) showing which counties voted more Republican in 2008 than in 2004:

Look at that large red swath that runs right through Appalachia and into northern Texas. With only a few scattered exceptions elsewhere on the map, that was the only region to increase its Republican vote. Now, compare that first map with the following map that also includes increases in Democratic voting:

Look at Indiana. The entire state voted more Democratic, and not just by small margins. And look at the Mountain West. With the exception of Arizona (Sen. McCain's home state) and a few other isolated counties, virtually the entire region (once a Republican stronghold) voted more Democratic.

Data like this must worry Republican strategists who have to figure out what went wrong (hint: Sarah Palin didn't help) and what to do differently in the 2010 Congressional races and 2012 Presidential election.


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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Election Is Over -- Now What?

Well, the election is finally over. For the first time since before I was born, Indiana is blue, and I couldn't be more ecstatic. I didn't do a lot to help Sen. Obama win yesterday, but I didn't sit on my hands, either. I spent countless hours writing this blog. I took time to talk to friends and family to try to explain my rationale for supporting Sen. Obama and to try to address their concerns (and, if I do say so, I think that I was largely successful). I attended campaign rallies and information sessions, bought and wore an Obama t-shirt, proudly displayed an Obama bumper sticker on my car (and my wife's car), and posted an Obama sign in our yard. And I spent yesterday serving as a volunteer member of Sen. Obama's "army of lawyers" stationed at a poll in Muncie, Indiana, working to be sure that every eligible voter that wanted to vote had that opportunity (without regard to party affiliation...). I may not have put my life aside and joined the campaign in Iowa or New Hampshire, but I feel as if I did do something -- even if very small -- to make last night possible. And of that, I am immensely proud.
But what now? I have mixed feelings about the election being over. On one hand, I've thoroughly enjoyed blogging about the issues and the problems and the candidates. It gave me a sense of purpose (even if I did become a bit obsessive at times). The number of people who've been reading my blog has increased dramatically, which I'll admit did not hurt my own ego. I've enjoyed the conversations that I've had over dinners and at family gatherings. My brother-in-law and I have probably never had as many substantive conversations as those that we've had in the last few months and an ongoing email thread among my extended (and widely scattered family) has been a terrific opportunity for all of us to connect in ways that we can't do at bar mitzvahs and weddings. So, while I will certainly find new things to write about, I will miss much of what has gone on these last few months.
Then again, I won't miss the more negative aspects of the campaign. I would have preferred to have spent my time writing positive thoughts about the issues rather than taking time to refute baseless attacks or try to even the playing field by showing that Sen. McCain was not the idealized heroic figure he tried to portray. I would have preferred writing about why I support abortion rights or why I think gay marriage is not a threat or why I preferred Sen. Obama's healthcare proposals or why I think that we should negotiate with our neighbors; and I would have preferred not to have spent time writing about G. Gordon Liddy or African witchhunters or lobbyists or offensive campaign ads. That's not really who I am or what I'm all about, but it is what I felt that I needed to write about.
More importantly, I won't be sad to see an end to some of the strife that has infected civil discourse these last few months (and years...). As much as I enjoyed that email discussion with my family, I was troubled that the passions evoked by the campaign allowed one brother to use the word "hate" when talking to another; as much as I enjoyed discussing the issues with friends and family, I was troubled to see instances of racism and bigotry where I did not expect it; and as much as I enjoyed the opportunities to communicate and share with my friends and family, I was troubled by just how polarized some viewpoints were and how unwilling some people were to engage in open, honest debate without resort to talking points and simple (often hurtful) rhetoric. An honest examination of a candidate's record and proposals is one thing; a recitation of unsupported talking points or unsubstantiated rumors is something else; and comparisons terrorists or to Hitler or Mugabe is simply beyond the pale. (And, for the record, to address the comparison that Hitler, like Obama, was able to draw large crowds to rallies, I would suggest two major differences: Hitler used the rhetoric of hate and exclusion; Obama used the rhetoric of hope and inclusion.)
It saddened me that some people would just take something that they heard and assume it to be the truth and I was gratified when I saw others taking the time to actually think about issues, let alone research those issues or the history behind them. I will acknowledge that I, too, used harsh words. But, whenever possible, I made a concerted effort to back up my allegations with sources and citations and I did my best to try to explain, in a reasoned manner, my viewpoints.
Over the last few months, I've repeatedly noted my concerns about the level of vitriol that has infected political debate and discussion. I recited the story of my campaign for county office several years ago in which a voter told me that "Democrats don't have a right to serve in office, because you're all traitors" and I've bemoaned campaign rhetoric that emboldened supporters to shout "terrorist", "traitor", or "kill him". I've written about campaigns that alleged that the opposing candidate was "godless" and the failure in responding to that attack to rebut the presumption that atheists were somehow lesser members of our society. I've written about the smears based upon a person's race or religion and noted prominent statements (such as that by Colin Powell) that recognize that this sort of bigotry stands in opposition to the very foundations of our society. I've worried about rhetoric that presumes that some areas and some people are more "American" than others or that presumes that those who disagree with a certain philosophy are somehow "anti-American". I've lamented exclusionary laws and policies and xenophobic rhetoric. And I've discussed how damaging the politics of personal destruction are, not just to the targets of the attack, but to our democratic process itself.
Just yesterday -- election day -- my 9-year-old daughter came home from school crying because her friends had been mean to her just because she wanted Sen. Obama to win. My wife and I have tried to explain to our kids that we vote for candidates on the basis of their positions on issues that are important to us and that it is imperative that, as they grow up, our kids learn to think about those issues and make choices and decisions for themselves. Sure, we'd love for them to grow up with ideas that reflect ours, but we'd prefer that they grow up willing and able to think rather than just mimic. But while we tried to impart this lesson to our children, they were being confronted by "friends" whose parents instructed their own children to repeat vile lies to our kids, including that Sen. Obama "was a terrorist who had killed people", apparently in the hope that our kids would somehow sway our vote. Maybe that is one of the reasons that we let our kids go in to school a bit late this morning; instead of sending them off to the bus, we let them watch President-Elect Obama's victory speech on TiVo. We told them not to gloat at school. But we also told them to hold their heads high and be proud of last night's historic events. And I suggested to them that if anyone was mean to them today, they should just smile and say, "Yes We Can".
I have no idea what it must have been like to live through the Civil War. But we've all read about how that war and the issues of slavery and state's rights tore not only the nation but also families apart. How many times have we all heard about brother facing off against brother. Today, we're not faced by issues anywhere near as momentous or contentious as slavery. But the issues that we do face, whether economic issues like taxation or social issues like abortion and gay marriage or civil issues like patriotism and voter rights, seem to be having many of the same corrosive effects. And that worries me. If an issue like progressive taxation can bring one brother to use the word "hate" (even if only rhetorically) in a discussion with another brother, if the questions surrounding our "associations" can lead others to question our very patriotism, if discussions of the candidates' merits and of the electorate can lead one family member to question whether another family is a racist, if our own deep-seated prejudices can allow us to believe unsubstantiated rumors or make us want to believe the worst about a candidate, just because he or she is different, if a lie, told often enough, really does become the truth, and the use of a lie really is an effective campaign tool, and if parents will resort to using children to try to sway the opinions of their neighbors, then I have grave concerns about how our country and our civil society will be able to repair and heal these differences and move forward without tearing ourselves apart.
Which, I guess, brings me back to one of the main reasons that I voted for Barack Obama. Sure a great speech is just a bunch of words. But the content of his speeches, the desire to look beyond skin color, to look beyond party affiliation, to look beyond any of the myriad divisions and distinctions that have been used to tear us apart, is a powerful idea. And, though ideas may not be tangible -- I may not be able to take those ideas and use them to feed my children -- our country was founded and succeeded on the basis of ideas, and idealistic ones at that. For too long, we've allowed ourselves to be a collection of interest groups and for too long too many politicians have used wedge issues and the fear of each other and the unknown as a means to their own success and petty ambitions.
Maybe I'm an idealist; maybe I'm naive. But I do believe in Barack Obama's idea of hope and I reject the politics of fear and division embodied by Sen. McCain, Gov. Palin, and much of the Republican party (and if you still don't see that fear and division were at the core of the McCain campaign, not to mention many Republican Senate and House campaigns, then you simply haven't been paying attention). I want our country to be a better place, but I want our country to be one in which diversity, both in terms of who were are (whether race, religion, or any of the other categories used to divide us) and in terms of our ideas, is valued. I want our country to be a place where people are not afraid to stand up and articulate their ideas and their visions for the future and to debate those ideas and visions with others in a civil manner and with an open mind and willingness to, if nothing else, at least listen without first passing judgment. And I want our country to stop valuing mediocrity and again place a value on education and intellectual prowess. There is nothing wrong with a little "deep thought" now and then, and, when it comes to resolving the most important and difficult issues facing us, I'd much prefer leaders who really think about those issues and have the intellectual capacity to understand not only the challenges but the options and potential solutions and unintended consequences.
I don't know if Barack Obama will be a great President. I hope that he is. But I do think that if we at least give him a chance, if we all make a little effort to stop shouting at each other and start talking to each other, if we all spend a little more time thinking about issues instead of just repeating what some talking head tells us is right or true, then maybe, just maybe, America can live up to the ideals that we all learned back in junior high civics class and that the Founding Fathers believed would lead our country forward. One portion of President-Elect Obama's speech last night had a particular resonance for me:
Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long. Let us remember that it was a man from this state [Abraham Lincoln] who first carried the banner of the Republican Party to the White House -- a party founded on the values of self-reliance, individual liberty, and national unity. Those are values we all share, and while the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress. As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, "We are not enemies, but friends ... though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection." And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn -- I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President too.
We are living in difficult times. I hope that we are now at the beginning of a new more positive epoch for our country and the world that has so often looked to us as the example of justice and equality. I hope that my children won't have to explain to their children why some people hate others because of their skin color or because of their religion or because they have different ideas. I hope that my children never again experience the politics of hate and can, instead, grow up in a land where hope is not just a word.

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Monday, November 3, 2008

My Daughter Has a Message

When my daughter came home from school today, she decided to send a message:

Lily's Message

Just because she's out of cheerleading (with an injury) doesn't mean that she can't still lead cheers.

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I Voted!

I cast my vote this morning. I showed up at the Hamilton Country Government Center at 7:55 (the polls were supposed to open at 8:00). The line stretched from the doors of the building down the street to the corner. By a few minutes after 8:00, the line went around the corner and down the street, almost to the bridge. Then, for almost an hour, we waited ... and the line didn't move. Finally, at a few minutes before 9:00, the line started to move and from then, it seemed to move fairly steadily and at a fairly quick pace. From the time that I got in line until the time that I pressed the confirmation button on the voting machine (and yes, I went back and checked and re-checked that the machine registered my vote as intended), a total of about an hour and a half had elapsed. Not too bad, I guess.

So why did I vote early? Because I've agreed to work at the polls tomorrow!

(And sorry for the lack of updates over the weekend; my son had a soccer tournament a hour or so away from home and time was not something that I had an abundance of. There were a number of things that I wanted to write about; maybe I'll still write about some of them post-election, although I know that they'll be less meaningful. Oh, well.)


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Friday, October 31, 2008

It Takes a Brit to Put Our Politics Into Perspective

Tonight, Keith Olbermann interviewed former Monty Python star John Cleese. The interview is fairly long and touches on a number of issues, but Cleese makes one point exceedingly well (beginning at about 1:50). Watch the whole video if you're a Cleese fan; I'll provide a mini-transcript of the part that I'm referring to below:

Here's the part that really caught my attention:
I think the problem, the problem came when they all wanted George W. to be President because he was someone they could have a beer with. You know, someone you feel comfortable with. I don't want a President I feel comfortable with. I want a President who's so damn smart and well-informed and sharp and a good assessor of people that if I was there I'd just keep my mouth shut so that he didn't realize what a fool I was, you know? But that seems to be the opposite of what a certain kind of -- I don't know if I should say Republican, but largely it seems Republican voters want someone who's going to be comfortable with. And you know, the Americans are terrific about not being envious about money compared with the Europeans. They seem to be very envious about intelligence. And the idea of actually being with someone who's sort of intelligent, well-informed, and educated, you know Ivy League coll- [Cleese makes a funny face and funny noises] not a proper American, you know? And there's a sort of envy of that with the result that they want someone that they'd be comfortable with who is not going to be terribly bright or very highly intelligent or awfully sharp or a very good judge of people. Considering its for the job, it's the most powerful man in the world, it's rather alarming.
I guess it takes a Brit to put our politics into perspective.

Update: Oops. Forgot to give the post a title...


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Are Long Waits to Vote the Equivalent of a Poll Tax

Poll taxes have been illegal for a long time. But this evening, I heard MSNBC's Rachel Maddow suggest that long lines that force people to wait for hours to vote is the modern equivalent of a poll tax. How's that, you ask? Simple. Many professionals can afford to take off half a day (or more) to wait in line to vote. Stay at home moms and the retired can afford to spend the day at the polls. But can workers earning an hourly wage, often with unsympathetic employers, take off half a day, probably without pay, just to vote? It won't cost me anything to take time off to vote. I can work extra hours another time to make up billings lost while waiting in line (heck, I can probably even do some work while I wait in line). But the single mom who works two jobs just to feed her kids and pay her bills probably can't afford to miss a day (or even half a day) of work. So, if she can't take time to vote because it will be too costly, then those lines are, in effect, no different than a poll tax. That is wrong. That is not what our democracy should be about.


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Looking Out for the Jews?

I saw a query from Josh Marshall on Talking Points Memo that got me thinking:
Why are right-wing freaks now the self-appointed defenders of Jews, defending us from the candidates the overwhelming proportion of us Jews plan to vote for?

Over recent days, we've heard Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin and even Joe the Plumber talking about Sen. Obama being bad for Israel. What is it that these people (Joe the Plumber?) know that we Jews, we who think about Israel on an almost daily basis, we who have friends or family either in Israel or from Israel, we who have visited Israel and eagerly look forward to visiting again, what do these people think that they know that we Jews don't know?

One thing that I've said repeatedly, is that we Jews need to recognize that friends of Israel are not necessarily friends of the Jews. People like Gov. Palin who need Israel (perhaps even a "Greater Israel") for her "end of days" and rapture may be "friends" of Israel, but only to the extent that Israel is necessary for the fulfilment of their own religious ends. Go listen to some of Rev. Hagee's sermons for a better understanding of this (remember Rev. Hagee, who Sen. McCain pursued for an endorsement for months...?). I wish that those "friends" of Israel would take a bit more time learning about Jews here in America and learning about issues that are important to us (oh, like, maybe separation of church and state, for example...) rather than simply presuming that they are "friends" of Jews solely because they are "friends" of Israel. I think that we Jews have a little bit more understanding of the issues that involve Israel (not the least of which are the existential threats to Israel) than those on the religious right who, as Marshall suggests, seem to feel the need to be our "defenders".

Speaking for myself, I don't really need the "friendship" of someone who only wants to be my friend because I am, myself, the friend of a country that person believes necessary to their own religious salvation. And I don't particularly want to hear those people tell me that Sen. McCain will be better for Israel when I know that he will neither be better for Israel (wars is the Middle East, easpecially ones that empower and embolden Iran are not good for Israel) nor good for the Jews.

Perhaps if Israel is such an important issue for those on the right, they will look to us Jews for advice and, when they see that we support Sen. Obama by a large margin, maybe they'll change their minds and switch from red to blue. And maybe Elvis will come endorse Ralph Nader tomorrow.


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Updates on Hagan-Dole Race

Over the last few days, I've written about the despicable smear ad from Sen. Elizabeth Dole and my thoughts on the response from challenger Kay Hagan. Well, today has seen more action in this increasingly ugly campaign. First, Sen. Dole (not surprisingly) ignored Hagan's cease and desist letter. So Hagan filed a defamation suit against Sen. Dole and Dole's campaign committee. And, for her part, Sen. Dole has released yet another smear ad:

First, a quick look at the facts. Hagan attended a fundraiser in Boston. It was hosted by dozens of donors and featured, among others, Sen. John Kerry. Two of those donors happen to be the heads of an organization called Godless Americans PAC (couldn't they come up with a better name that that?). That PAC did not give any money to Hagan, but one of the individuals associated with the PAC did give her just over $2,000. And Hagan says that she did not know that the individual donor was also associated with that particular PAC.

But what is more important is to really think about Sen. Dole's charge and what it really says about Sen. Dole's version of America. Her charge -- she's now dropped the allegation that Hagan herself is an atheist -- is that Hagan ... gasp ... took money from atheists and implies, from that charge, that Hagan is unfit to represent the citizens of North Carolina. Again, replace atheist with any other minority group, whether Muslim, Jew, Mormon, Catholic ... or black. Presume, for a moment, that Hagan knowingly accepted money from atheists. What of it? Would Hagan be criticized for taking money from Muslims, Jews, Mormons, Catholics, blacks, Latinos, or any other group? Of course not. So what makes atheists toxic? Or is it, perhaps, that what Sen. Dole is really saying is that Hagan should be suspect for accepting money from somebody who "isn't like you"? But then, that would imply that taking money from any minority group would be "bad". And that is, it seems, precisely what Sen. Dole's ad is intended to imply.

I'd be curious to hear from Sen. Dole whether she believes that atheists are somehow lesser members of society or less entitled to constitutional protections or civic participation and, if she answered either in the affirmative, her explanation of why.

As I've said before, the suggestion that any legal segment of society is somehow untouchable is dangerous for our society. But as we've seen this campaign (and in other campaigns of recent years), the politics of fear and division far too often seem to work. This year, those politics have taken many forms, from the rumors that Sen. Obama is an Muslim (or Arab), to the charges that some areas are "pro-America" (or "real Virginia") or some members of Congress (not to mention Sen. Obama) are "anti-American", to the use of darkened photos of a Congressional candidate of Indian decent that make him look sinister (like an Arab, maybe?), to the repeated use at some Republican rallies of Sen. Obama's middle name, to Sen. Dole's use of atheists as if she was talking about devil worshippers or pedophiles.

But what is gratifying to see is that this year, for a change, it appears as if many Americans have finally decided that they're tired of these kinds of divisive politics and many of the candidates relying upon those tactics are trailing in the polls. Right now, challenger Hagan is leading Sen. Dole.


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Hints and Whispers Don't Equal Facts - But They Do Create Fear and Mistrust

Here is one of the stranger interviews that this campaign season has brought. CNN anchor Rick Sanchez, was interviewing McCain campaign national spokesman Michael Goldfarb who claimed that Sen. Obama has a "long track record of being around anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, and anti-American rhetoric." Sanchez then challenges Goldfarb to provide examples:

Whether Sen. Obama "hangs around with" people with anti-Semitic or anti-Israel views is a legitimate issue and is worth discussing (for example, to analyze whether Sen. Obama "hangs around with" those people, whether they have any influence upon his worldview and decision-making, whether he has expressed agreement or repudiated their ideas, and whether those ideas are, in fact, either anti-Semitic or anti-Israel). But just saying "there are people" without providing names is one of the worst kinds of political smear tactics.

In essence, Goldfarb wants people to fear Sen. Obama but won't identify those he is apparently referring to so that his claims can be analyzed and, if appropriate, refuted. I could claim that Sen. McCain hangs out with fascists or neo-Nazis or anti-Semites, too, but saying it doesn't make it true (although one might want to consider the U.S Council for World Freedom...). If Goldfarb -- who speaks for the McCain campaign and, thus, for Sen. McCain -- wants to make the allegation, he needs to spell it out so that we can analyze it and evaluate it. But, as the McCain campaign has demonstrated throughout this campaign, it isn't the truth that matters; no, it's simply about sowing the seeds of mistrust and fear. Even if those tactics led to a McCain victory, what kind of legacy would those tactics leave for our country? Only a resounding defeat of Sen. McCain, one where pundits can, for years, point to the sleaze and lies as being among the reasons that Sen. McCain lost, will help start us down the path to healing the hate that this election has engendered.


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Eagleburger Critical of Choice of Palin

Last weekend, Sen. McCain was interviewed on the Meet the Press:

Well, it appears that one of those former Secretaries of State, Lawrence Eagleburger, doesn't admire Sen. McCain's judgment in selecting Gov. Palin:


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Even More Humorous Campaign Videos (and a Serious One)

Once this election is over, I suspect that there will be quite a bit of withdrawal as the pipeline of new campaign videos dries up. But, the campaign isn't over yet, so here are a few new videos that caught my attention (two funny and one serious):

And on a more serious note:

Sally Anthony: "So Long"

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

McCain Admits Obama Not a Socialist

I didn't get to watch Sen. McCain's appearance on Larry King's show last night (sorry, but I just can't take Larry King...), but one interesting question and answer from the interview is worth noting (I'll post video if and when I can find it...):

KING: You don't believe Barack Obama is a socialist do you?

McCAIN: No, but I do believe that he has been in the far left of American politics and stated time after time that he believes in spreading the wealth around. He has talked about courts that redistribute the wealth. He has a record of voting against tax cuts. And for tax increases.

(Transcript from Politico.)

So now that Sen. McCain has acknowledged that Sen. Obama is not a socialist, do you think that the Republicans can finally give this constant allegation a rest? If so, they need to let former Congressman Tom Delay know; last night on Hardball he actually called Sen. Obama a Marxist! And he tried to defend that statement.

Apparently, Joe the Plumber was none too pleased to see his candidate of choice admit that Sen. Obama was not a socialist:

Nothing quite like standing up a candidate for President...


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Hagan Fires Back at Dole -- But Misses the Point

Yesterday I wrote about Sen. Elizabeth Dole's despicable ad that accused her challenger, Kay Hagan, of accepting campaign contributions from atheists and, via the use of a voiceover at the end of the ad, suggested that Hagan herself didn't believe in God. Well, apparently, I'm not the only commentator who thought that Sen. Dole's smear went too far:

Newspapers in North Carolina have also taken a harsh view of Sen. Dole' ad. The Charlotte Observer said:

This is indecent. It is the modern-day version of the “white hands” ad, a lie born of Dole's desperation in a race in which she has trailed for weeks. It is also a deliberate attempt by Dole's campaign not just to distort the truth, but to shatter Hagan's admirable record as an elder for more than a decade in Greensboro's First Presbyterian Church, as a Sunday School teacher and a volunteer in her church's fundraising campaigns, worship services and community service programs.

Political campaigns in this state are often hard-fought, with bitter, overwrought accusations that stretch the truth, embellish the facts and attempt to confuse voters. Hagan has hit Dole hard. Dole has hit Hagan hard. That is par for the course.

This ad is something else, an attack on a Christian woman's faith against all evidence to the contrary. It is wrong. It may well backfire on Dole.

It has no place in N.C. politics. Unless she admits this egregious, shameful mistake and acts appropriately, Elizabeth Dole has no place in N.C. politics, either.

And the Greensboro News-Record said:

If Elizabeth Dole is still the gracious person North Carolinians have admired for many years, she'll pull her new attack ad off the air. It's worse than dishonest in its depiction of rival Kay Hagan as a "Godless American."


Even in a campaign long ago driven down in tone by Democrats and Republicans, this is a low blow. Making false insinuations about a candidate's religious beliefs is beyond the bounds of acceptable political disagreement.

Hagan actually had her attorneys send a cease and desist letter to Sen. Dole. The letter makes a number of fine points and hits hard on the fact that the ad is false and that the Sen. Dole's campaign new that it was false. The letter also includes the following quote from Garrison v. Louisiana, a 1964 decision of the United States Supreme Court:

At the time the First Amendment was adopted, as today, there were those unscrupulous enough and skillful enough to use the deliberate or reckless falsehood as an effective political tool to unseat the public servant or even topple an administration. That speech is used as a tool for political ends does not automatically bring it under the protective mantle of the Constitution. For the use of the known lie as a tool is at once at odds with the premises of democratic government and with the orderly manner in which economic, social, or political change is to be effected. Calculated falsehood falls into that class of utterances which are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth than any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality. Hence the knowingly false statement and the false statement made with reckless disregard of the truth, do not enjoy constitutional protection.

Hagan is now airing her own ad in response:

But you know, all of this still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Why? Two related reasons. First, let's look at why Hagan is angry:

I believe in God. I taught Sunday School. My faith guides my life, and Senator Dole knows it.

In the cease and desist letter (and in statements to the press and emails to voters), Hagan has expounded on her church involvement. So, while I recognize that Hagan is upset that her own religious beliefs were challenged, I'm more concerned with the fact that religious beliefs (or atheist non-belief) was interjected in the first place. Recall Colin Powell's comments following his endorsement of Sen. Obama (on the subject of rumors that Sen. Obama is a Muslim):

I'm also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, "Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim." Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he's a Christian.  He's always been a Christian.  But the really right answer is, what if he is?  Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America.

(Emphasis added.) Go back and read Powell's comments again, but simply replace "Muslim" with "atheist". I guess that I can't expect Hagan to stand up and say, "Gee, I do support atheists, even if I'm not one." But why not? She might make such a statement about African-Americans or Muslims or even criminals who have completed a prison sentence. What is so hard -- so wrong -- with supporting an atheist's right not to believe and to be a part of the political process.

This concern of mine is further exacerbated by the last line of the Hagan's response:

Sure politics is a tough business, but my campaign is about creating jobs and fixing our economy, not bearing false witness against fellow Christians.

(Emphasis added.) Um. Would it be OK to bear "false witness" against a Muslim or a Jew? What about an atheist? The problem is that, while Hagan has responded forcefully to Sen. Dole's bigoted and nasty smear, her response has actually allowed Sen. Dole to control the issue by allowing religion to be interjected into the debate. That is wrong.

I hope that Sen. Dole loses. I hope that the voters of North Carolina give her a strong message that her attack ad was way beyond the pale. But I also hope that Kay Hagan will come to realize that the right response was to recognize that religion and religious beliefs should not be issues in the campaign and that there is nothing wrong with supporting minority religious (or anti-religious, as the case may be) viewpoints. Hagan's anger is just; her response is strong; but she misses the point.


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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Charges of Socialism Are Ridiculous

A few times over the last week or so, I've started (and stopped) writing posts to explain precisely what Sen. Obama's tax policies are, to explain why they are not socialism, to explain what, precisely, socialism really is, and, just for good measure, to explain why the progressive tax system is a good thing. Each time that I've started, I've put the essay aside; not because I didn't believe what I was writing, but because I don't have time to give the material the depth of discussion truly necessary. Plus, as my wife keeps telling me, essays that are too long won't be read anyway.

But as the election draws closer and the charges of socialism keep on coming, I decided to try my hand at a brief analysis of the issue, not via a detailed economic or historical analysis, but rather, by simply looking at what the candidates have done and said. But, before I do that, I want to offer a "quickie" from Sen. Obama's speech earlier today:

What is scary about this, is that the charge that Sen. Obama jokes about isn't too far removed from the charges of socialism that are being leveled against him.

So, let's look at that charge of socialism. The basic premise of the charge really goes back to the conversation with "Joe the Plumber" (by the way, if you listen to the entire exchange between Sen. Obama and "Joe" you will see that it was a much more thorough and engaging discussion of economic and tax policies than the oft-repeated sound bite) in which Sen. Obama speaks of "spreading the wealth". Again, I don't want to get into a detailed analysis of socialism (or capitalism or communism or any other -ism), but the very notion of taxes that do anything other than pad the monarch's pockets is, essentially, spreading the wealth. Thus, when we use tax revenues to build a strong military, we're spreading the wealth to defend all of society. When we use tax revenues to build roads, we're spreading the wealth. When we use tax revenues for public transportation, to send humans into space, to research cures for cancer, to subsidize certain crops, or to help people stricken by disaster, we are spreading the wealth. When we provide Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, GI Benefits, and Pell Grants, we are spreading the wealth.

Thus, the issue isn't really about spreading the wealth at all; no, the issue is about who we tax and at what rate. That is really all that is behind the charge of socialism. Sen. Obama wants to give a tax break to the middle class and raise the tax on the wealthiest Americans to the level that it was before President Bush's tax cuts. Sen. McCain wants to keep President Bush's tax cuts and place and not give a tax break to the middle class (because prosperity will "trickle down" just as it did(n't) for the last eight years...). That is the dispute. So now, let's look at a bit of history (sorry for the small bit of duplication between these videos):

In other words, Sen. McCain favored a tax policy very similar to Sen. Obama's tax policy, at least until he had to change his mind in order to become more appealing to the Republican base. In these videos there is an exchange between Sen. McCain and a young woman at Michigan State University back in 2000. Here's a bit more on that taxes and that exchange in particular (from The New Yorker):
Of course, all taxes are redistributive, in that they redistribute private resources for public purposes. But the federal income tax is (downwardly) redistributive as a matter of principle: however slightly, it softens the inequalities that are inevitable in a market economy, and it reflects the belief that the wealthy have a proportionately greater stake in the material aspects of the social order and, therefore, should give that order proportionately more material support. McCain himself probably shares this belief, and there was a time when he was willing to say so. During the 2000 campaign, on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” a young woman asked him why her father, a doctor, should be “penalized” by being “in a huge tax bracket.” McCain replied that “wealthy people can afford more” and that “the very wealthy, because they can afford tax lawyers and all kinds of loopholes, really don’t pay nearly as much as you think they do.” The exchange continued:

YOUNG WOMAN: Are we getting closer and closer to, like, socialism and stuff?. . .

MCCAIN: Here’s what I really believe: That when you reach a certain level of comfort, there’s nothing wrong with paying somewhat more.
So what Sen. McCain thought was "nothing wrong" and was not socialism in 2000 has now become socialism and an example of why Sen. Obama should not be elected.

I also want to spend a brief moment talking about Gov. Palin. She has been very vocal in her charges against Sen. Obama. But remember what they say about throwing stones when you live in a glass house? That same article in The New Yorker points out:

For her part, Sarah Palin, who has lately taken to calling Obama “Barack the Wealth Spreader,” seems to be something of a suspect character herself. She is, at the very least, a fellow-traveller of what might be called socialism with an Alaskan face. The state that she governs has no income or sales tax. Instead, it imposes huge levies on the oil companies that lease its oil fields. The proceeds finance the government’s activities and enable it to issue a four-figure annual check to every man, woman, and child in the state. One of the reasons Palin has been a popular governor is that she added an extra twelve hundred dollars to this year’s check, bringing the per-person total to $3,269. A few weeks before she was nominated for Vice-President, she told a visiting journalist—Philip Gourevitch, of this magazine—that “we’re set up, unlike other states in the union, where it’s collectively Alaskans own the resources. So we share in the wealth when the development of these resources occurs.” Perhaps there is some meaningful distinction between spreading the wealth and sharing it (“collectively,” no less), but finding it would require the analytic skills of Karl the Marxist.
In reality, Sen. Obama is no more "socialist" than Sen. McCain or Gov. Palin. Rather, the Republicans have hit upon a buzz word that they have been exploiting to try to make their case. Rather than try to win on the basis of a careful and detailed discussion of economics and policy, they have resorted to the political equivalent of name-calling. If we can make the electorate fear Sen. Obama, the reasoning must go, then we have a chance to win. Never mind the policies (damn the torpedoes?), let's just call him a name that will scare voters!

That sort of politics is at the core of what is wrong with our political system these days. Our politicians don't give the American public credit for being able to (or wanting to) understand nuance and details about complicated issues. And perhaps many people can't understand some of those issues. But I'd like to see our politicians try to explain their policies rather than trying to scare people.

Finally, in the last few days, much has been made of Sen. Obama's comments in a 2001 radio interview in which he ... gasp ... used the word "redistribute":

One of the I think the tragedies of the Civil Rights movement was because the Civil Rights movement became so court focused I think that there was a tendency to lose track of the political and community organizing and activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributive change and in some ways we still suffer from that.
(If you want to read the entire quote, it can be found here.)

Of course, Gov. Palin, that great legal mind, reads this quote exactly backwards:

Sen. Obama said that he regretted that the Supreme Court hadn't been more radical. And he described the Court's refusal to take up the issues of redistribution of wealth as a tragedy. And he said he also regretted that the Supreme Court didn't break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the founding fathers there in the Constitution.
And from this, she extrapolated:

So you have to ask, is this a suggestion that's he’d want to re-write the founding document of our great nation to accomplish his goals.
Here is what law professor Cass R. Sunstein (formerly of the University of Chicago School of Law and presently at Harvard Law School) had to say about this in The New Republic (I apologize in advance for the length):

In the last few days, the McCain campaign has portrayed Barack Obama as a "socialist," and apparently the campaign and others are combing through Obama's past statements to see if he has ever favored "redistribution."

The latest ridiculousness, featured in a screaming headline on the Drudge Report and described under the title "Shame" on the National Review website, involves some remarks made by Obama on public radio in 2001.

In that interview, Obama was discussing efforts, in the 1960s and 1970s, to redistribute resources through the federal courts. Obama said that the Warren Court was not so terribly radical, because it "never entered into the issues of redistribution of wealth, and sort of more basic issues of political and economic justice in this society." He complained, not that the Court refused to enter into those issues, but that "the civil-rights movement became so court-focussed," [sic]

In answering a caller's question, he said that the court "is just not very good at" redistribution. Obama added, with approval, that the Constitution "is generally a charter of negative liberties."

Obama's principal claim--about the institutional limits of the courts--was made by many conservatives (including Robert Bork) in the 1960s and 1970s: Courts should not attempt to guarantee "positive" rights, or interpret the Constitution to redistribute wealth. Obama is squarely rejecting the claim that was made by many liberal lawyers, professors, and judges at the time--and that is being made by some today.

Apparently, though, some people are thinking that Obama is displaying his commitment to redistribution, at least in principle. We have to make some distinctions here. The word "redistribution" is easily politicized, but, in terms of actual policy, it seems to include the Social Security Act (which redistributes wealth), the Americans with Disabilities Act (which also redistributes), educational reform that would improve schools in poor areas, Head Start programs, statutes allowing parental leave, the Earned Income Tax Credit, the progressive income tax, and much more. Almost all candidates for public office (including Senator McCain) favor significant forms of redistribution. With his court-skeptical statements in 2001, Obama was referring to the sorts of claims being made in courts in the relevant period, for which the word "redistribution" has often been used. (Those claims involved denials of education and medical care, and discrimination in welfare programs.)

It is true that Obama supports the Earned Income Tax Credit (an idea pioneered by Republicans). It is also true that Obama supports the minimum wage. It is true too that Obama is centrally concerned with decent education for all -- and the right to education was at stake in perhaps the most important case that Obama is discussing. It is true, finally, that Obama wants to make health care available for all. But it is truly ridiculous to take Obama's remarks in 2001 as suggesting that the nation should embark on a large-scale redistributive scheme.
OK, OK. I know that I started by saying that I wouldn't go on for too long. Sorry. But these are important issues. And for these still undecided, for those who are listening to Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin and trying to understand the issues, I believe that it is important to really understand those issues and really understand what the candidates are (or not) saying and have (or have not) said. Our system presumes an informed electorate and "informed" does not mean just listening to sound bites from the candidates or Fox news; instead, "informed" means taking the time to learn about and really think about the issues.

Sen. Obama is not a "socialist" -- at least no more so than Sen. McCain.


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When Sports Are Used for Political Hypocrisy

Here's another one of those "you can't make this stuff up" moments. Yesterday, Sen. McCain complained about Sen. Obama's purchase of prime time television airtime tonight before the World Series:
No one will delay the World Series with an infomercial when I'm president.

However, there are two teeny tiny problems with this complaint. First, according to Politico:

A Fox Broadcasting executive denied that Barack Obama's half-hour ad, scheduled for tomorrow night, forced Fox and Major League Baseball to delay the start of a World Series game.

That notion -- which had been reported repeatedly, including here, has become a Republican talking point.

"No one will delay the World Series game with an infomercial when I'm president," John McCain said today.

But the Fox account executive who negotiated the ad buy said Obama's ad isn't delaying the first pitch -- it's just replacing the pre-game show.

"Our first pitch for the world series is usually around 8:30 anyway – so we didn’t push back the game, it was really just about suspending the pre-game -- you know, Joe Buck," said the account executive, Joe Coppola. "That’s all we did."

He said World Series games this season have begun between 8:22 p.m. and 8:35 p.m."We didn’t push back the game at all," he said. He also said Obama had initially arranged to buy the time only if the Series were over before Game Six (in fact, a rain-delayed Game Five will continue tomorrow night), but Fox then decided to sell the campaign the time whether or not the game was played."

By no means did they push to get us to accommodate them with Game Six," said Coppola, whom the Obama campaign suggested I call. "We’re just missing the pregame, which isn’t a big deal for us. It was a business decision."

And remember, this is Fox that we're talking about. You remember Fox, don't you? Hannity? O'Reilly? Yeah, that Fox.

Second, I wonder how many people remember that the opening game of this year's NFL season was moved from a 8:30 kickoff to a 7:00 kickoff. Why? To accommodate Sen. McCain's convention speech! I guess that was OK while delaying (not really) the start of a baseball game is problematic. I'm gonna have to work my brain around that one...


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Today's Offensive Campaign Ad

In North Carolina, Republican incumbent Senator Elizabeth Dole is running in a hotly contested campaign against challenger Kay Hagan. Recently, Sen. Dole has been running ads that assume Sen. Obama will win and asking voters not to give the Democrats control of both houses of Congress. But now, Sen. Dole has hit another new low in campaign ads:

That's right. Sen. Dole is telling voters to vote against Hagan because ... gasp ... Hagan got money from atheists.

A few quick thoughts come to mind on this. First, how is casting "shame" on the basis of relationships with atheists any different from doing the same for Jews or Muslims or Catholics or any other religious group? Answer: It isn't any different. It is simple bigotry (maybe mixed with a bit of good old hatred and fear-mongering, too). Second, I'd love to see Hagan run a response pointing out how many of the Founding Fathers were, at most Deists, and more likely, atheists. You know, people like Thomas Jefferson, who made his own revision to the Bible to remove all of the supernatural elements. Finally, I don't know how many atheists there are in the US; I suspect that there are more than most people think (as I suspect many atheists are hesitant to share that view with others for fear of discrimination as evidenced by Sen. Dole).

So, while Sen. Dole's ad may play well to the religious right, I suspect that those (like me) who view religious (or areligious) diversity as good and who believe that discrimination on the basis of religion is bad (not to mention, generally illegal), will be offended by Sen. Dole's ad and, by implication, by Sen. Dole herself. I'm curious: Would Sen. Dole stand on the floor of the Senate and criticize atheists? How about Muslims? Jews? Catholics?

Some people will do anything to get elected, even if it tears at the very moral fiber of our civil society.


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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Parents in Minnesota Shouldn't Have to Protect Their Kids From Campaign Literature

The race for one of Minnesota's seats in the Senate has become very heated. As some of you may know, Republican incumbent Norm Coleman is facing a strong challenge from Democrat Al Franken. Yes, that Al Franken, the former comedian, writer and actor for Saturday Night Live, and Air America host. In the primary and in the general election, Franken's challengers have tried to use his former career against him, but by and large these efforts have failed. It seems that Minnesota's voters are able to understand that what he wrote and said in his capacity as a comedian, even if vulgar or profane, really has nothing to do with how he would perform as a United States Senator. But in the closing days of the election, with polls showing that Franken has a narrow lead, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has stooped to a new low; so low, in fact, that Sen. Coleman apparently has tried to disavow the advertisement that his party mailed to voters:

What idiot thought that it was acceptable to create a comic book with images that would invite children to open and read about serious (non-)issues like pornography and rape? If Republicans want to talk about Franken's prior career, that is certainly fair game and (maybe) an appropriate subject. Whether you approve of Franken's humor or found his jokes to be funny is not the issue. Some may have enjoyed him as an entertainer; others, not so much. But to talk about these issues in a way that may force some Minnesota parents to answer difficult questions from their kids is just wrong. Plus it shows that Republicans still don't recognize that voters can distinguish between humor and reality and between a former profession and a current occupation.


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This Doesn't Mean Anything, But...

This is one of those little pieces of news that doesn't really mean anything at all when compared to the real issues of the campaign, but is nevertheless interesting and instructive. Earlier today, Sen. Obama held a rally at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania. It was cold and pouring rain and 9,000 people showed up anyway.

According to Politico:

Wearing jeans, white sneakers and an insulated windbreaker, Barack Obama delivered his stump speech this morning in a chilly, steady rain in Chester, Pa.

"A little bit of rain never hurt anybody," Obama said, surveying the soaking, umbrella-covered crowd at Widener University, occasionally rubbing his hands together for warmth and squinting through the raindrops.


The Obama campaign considered moving its event inside, but couldn't find an appropriate venue, an aide said. An estimated 9,000 people turned out.

And, also according to Politico:
Obama took the stage less than an hour after the McCain campaign announced it was postponing a rally at 1:15 p.m. in Quakertown, Pa., about one hour north of Chester, "due to weather."
The comparison of how the campaigns handled the weather says, in some small way, something about the campaigns and the candidates.


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One Way to Deal With Stolen Yard Signs

In the past, I've written about campaign yard signs (one for Sen. Clinton and one for Sen. Obama) that have been stolen. Yesterday, we heard from a friend that she has had several stolen, one thrown onto the roof of her house, and garbage thrown all over her yard. Another friend related that people in her neighborhood have had signs stolen and hate mail placed in their mailboxes. Nothing like civil discourse at work!

Anyway, I came across this photo showing a particularly inventive way to handle the problem of stolen yard signs:

Too bad I don't have a hill in my front yard!

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