Saturday, January 3, 2015

Blackmail politics -- Former KKK Grand Wizard threatens to expose his links in Congress

Anyone who thought we were in a fallow season for politics until congress returns to Washington later this month had a rude awakening just before the new year.  That was the revelation that House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) -- the #3 leadership position among House Republicans -- spoke at a 2002 conference of white supremacists organized by former KKK Grand Wizard and sometime political candidate David Duke.

Scalise did not deny speaking to the group but offered in his defense that at that time, as a Louisiana state legislator, he spoke to any group that invited him to talk about the conservative fiscal legislative agenda he was attempting to pass.   He claimed not to have known anything about the nature of the group (European-American Unity and Rights Organization) and that he did not attend any of the meetings other than the one he spoke at.    He also explained that, in those days, he was operating without a staff to thoroughly vet such invitations and that he had never supported any hate organizations.

Other questionable quotes from Scalise have surfaced, such as having told a Duke supporter that he was like Duke but without the racist, anti-Semitic, KKK baggage.   He is on record of having voted twice against establishing a holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr.   

None of that seems insurmountably damaging, and Republican leaders have defended Scalse, indicating that, unless something else surfaces, they are likely to keep him in the leadership.

Now, David Duke has entered the picture, saying that he was flabbergasted at all this furor over Scalise's speaking at a meeting he organized.   He says he hosted both Republican and Democratic leaders at meetings many times over the years, and that he has met with Democratic legislators at least 50 times in his political career.

He also said that he is "inclined to release" those names.   “If Scalise is going to be crucified — if Republicans want to throw Steve Scalise to the woods, then a lot of them better be looking over their shoulders.”

Nothing like a little political blackmail from your own ranks to spice up the fallow period between sessions of congress.    With President Obama suddenly getting his groove back and acting boldly on one side, and now scandal and in-fighting among their ranks on the other, it should be an interesting year ahead.

And that doesn't even factor in the pawing-the-ground lead-in to all the announcements of presidential campaigns that will be coming.

Buckle your seat belts, ladies and gentlemen.   Flight 2015 is taxiing down the runway and we are next in line for lift-off.


Friday, January 2, 2015

In the ongoing battle betteen NYPD and its critics, the P.R. advantage keeps seesawing

The tension between the New York City Police Department and Mayor Bill de Blasio has been an ongoing battle since his campaign.    Running on it as a major issue, de Blasio promised to get rid of the "stop and frisk" policy and to bring in other reforms.   And he was good to his word on that, bringing in William Bratton as his Police Commissioner to do for the NYPD what he had accomplished in reforming a badly functioning Los Angeles Police Department.

Things came to a head with the choke-hold death of an unarmed man accused of petty street crime (selling untaxed cigarettes) but who resisted arrest.    Let it also be said that he did not resist in any kind of violent way -- a bystanders' video tape shows that.   No, he questioned why they were bothering him, tried several times to walk away.    But, to my eyes, the escalation of violence came from the police, who could not tolerate his disobeying their orders and who tried to take him down and finally resorted to a choke-hold -- or what looked very like a choke-hold -- with several officers piling on to hold him down on the sidewalk, ignoring his pleas that he couldn't breathe.

Apologists for the police got very creative to blame anyone but the police officers holding him down in a chokehold:   if only he weren't obese, if only he didn't have a heart condition, if only he took better care of himself, if only he had cooperated with the arrest, if only he had not been committing a crime.    Those may all be true, but there are conditions police should be traied to handle some way other than killing a man who represents no threat and whose suppossed crime is petty.    Not everyone who resists arrest needs to be killed on the spot.

After a NY grand jury did not indict the officer (a repeat of the Ferguson, Missouri case)
New York erupted in large street protests that were mostly orderly and peaceful.   As I remember, there was very little looting or vandalism, even from fringe people.    Mayor de Blasio spoke several times;  and there is no doubt in my mind that his sympathies seemed to be with the protestors and those who felt mistreated by the police.   As were mine.

However, he did not speak disparagingly about the police, and he often made sure to praise those who put their lives at risk every day for our common safety.   I thought his response was entirely appropriate to the situation.

At that point, it felt like the minority communities and the protestors had the advantage in public opinion and that we were experiencing too many unnecessary killings by police.   One news reported even cited the fact that an American citizen was 29 times more likely to be killed by a cop than by a terrorist.

But then a deranged young black man from Baltimore, after killing his girlfriend, traveled to New York with the express purpose of killing some police.    He ambushed and shot at close range two NYPD officers sitting in their squad car relaxing after lunch.

Some of the police unions -- especially one with the seethingly angry spokesman Patrick Lynch -- seized the spotlight to lash back at the mayor, literally blaming him in part for the killing of these officers because of his supposed helping to create a climate of hate for the police.    Public opinion then shifted to sympathy for the police and the risky lives they lead for our safety.

Then some of the police went too far in expressing their disdain and anger for the mayor, turning their backs to him when he came to participate in the funeral, speaking harshly about him to the press, and then in the work slowdown that they have engaged in during the week since then.     Public opinion began to shift against the police again;  specifically the New York Times denounced their unprofessional reaction.

But then a news release two days ago revealed that there has been a 56% increase in police office deaths in the line of duty.   And then a separate report a day later pointed out that the numbers killed by gunshots had not in fact increased, even though numbers of deaths had (for example in high speed auto chases).

So at this point, it's a little confusing which direction this is all going.   What is clear, however, is that people's feelings are very strong about our police forces and about whether they can trust the police to be for them rather than against them,  At the same time, it seems that many police officers feel that they do not get the respect due them for risking their lives for us all the time.   

There seems to be good reason for some people to feel that the answer, for them, is no, they cannot trust the police to treat them fairly.  In too many of these police shootings of unarmed black men, including a 12 year old boy playing with a toy gun in a city park, it does seem obvious that the police would probably have treated a white person differently.   In many cases this seems to be a systemic problem, an attitude infecting a city force that must come from the top.

And that needs fixing.   In a democracy, everybody's life matters.   


Thursday, January 1, 2015

An old 'new' idea for the new year 2015

Our complex system of government assistance for families in need could be so much simpler if we could eliminate politics and use common sense.   For example, how much time and resources went into the policy debates, the crafting, the vetting, and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act?    And then how much cumulative time has been spent fighting about it, both in congress and in the media?

How much simpler if we had gone directly to a single payer, Medicare-for-All system of medical care?   Cheaper too.   It's not a new idea.   Neither is the idea of a guaranteed minimum income for all Americans.

When Richard Nixon was president (1969-1974), Daniel P. Moynihan was his Assistant for Urban Affairs.   Moynihan had a PhD in sociology and had served in the administrations of four presidents, beginning with Jack Kennedy as Assistant Secretary of Labor.  He later went on to be our Ambassador to the United Nations, Ambassador to India, then was elected as a Democratic senator from New York for three terms.

Despite being a Democrat, Moynihan had influence with Richard Nixon and was part of his inner circle.   It was probably his influence that gave Nixon the idea that conservative leaders can sometimes do progressive things that more liberal leaders cannot.   Many have said that only Nixon could have made that first opening to China because he would not be dismissed at home as a communist sympathizer.    

Just as the Republican Nixon, voted into office in large part because of his scorn for the dependency of poor people, was the president to introduce the idea of  a guaranteed minimum family income as a pragmatic, not an ideological, solution.  He announced his Family Assistance Plan the day after commenting that "Tory men and liberal policies are what have changed the world. " Moynihan later wrote the 1963 definitive book:   The Politics of a Guaranteed Income:   The Nixon Administration and the Family Assistance Plan.

The proposal was approved by the House Ways and Means Committee by a vote of 21 to 3, and it was subsequently passed by the full House.   But then it ran into trouble with conservatives in the Senate Finance Committee.    As changes were made to gain conservative votes, support from liberals slipped away and ultimately defeated the plan.

Moynihan's book details and analyzes the politics of this complex subject.  The idea was put into practice in the Canadian province of Manitoba from 1974 to 1979.   Individual families were given an annual amount based on their needs to provide a basic floor of support.   Unfortunately, records were poorly kept and an academic researcher has been unable to arrive at much usable data of this five year experiment, which was ended when the political party in power changed.

It is a complex subject, but compared with any of our government assistance programs it may be an idea worth taking another look at.   What fascinates me most is that, at least for a brief moment in history, it seemed to a Republican president like a practical solution to a real problem.

Or was Daniel Patrick Moynihan just a superb salesman of liberal ideas dressed up in conservative pragmatism?

Moynihan went on to have a long career as a public intellectual who cast a wide pathway through public administration, academia, elective politics, diplomacy, and sociological theory and policy-making.   He was a prolific author of 19 books.   Hitorian Michael Barone wrote in the Almanac of American Politics that Senator Moynihan was "the nation's best thinker among politicians since Lincoln and its best politician among thinkers since Jefferson.  

I don't know whether someone like Moynihan could do much with our current, insanely reactionary political state;   but wouldn't it be great to see some such bold idea come as a next president's sequel to Obama's Affordable Care Act?

It's a bright thought as we begin the slog towards the 2016 presidential election:   A bold new idea (that isn't new at all) for a Happy New Year.


Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Obama ends 2014 on a surprisingly high note

For all the talk of lame duck and the walloping Democrats took at the polls in November, the year 2014 is ending on a high note for President Obama -- because of his own actions.

First, his signature major legislation, the Affordable Care Act, has been a success beyond expectations on multiple counts -- numbers of people enrolled, cost of premiums, and overall declining increase in cost of medical care in general.

He has formally ended our war in Afghanistan, leaving behind only 13,500 troops to train and support the Afghan military.

News of the economy and job growth are the best since the 2008 recession, with Wall Street and the stock market at record highs, even though middle income families and Main Street still lag behind.

In the last two months, President Obama -- freed from any political considerations for Democrats in conservative states -- has been acting boldly.   In the last few weeks he has:

1.  Secured a historic climate treaty with China.

2.  Taken executive action to drastically reduce deportations of undocumented immigrants -- the most significant move on immigration reform possible, short of congressional action.

3.  Announced an opening up of diplomatic ties with Cuba.   He cannot removed the embargo without congress, but there is much he can do, and he will.    Further, the simple logic cannot really be argued with:    When you've been doing something for 50 years that hasn't worked, it's time to try something different.    Marco Rubio hurt himself and his presidential chances by arguing with that.

This new boldness is reflected in an increase in his approval ratings.    We can speculate that, if he had done this before November, Democrats might have done better in the elections.   We can't know that.   Let's be glad he's doing it now.

Happy New Year.


Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Mayor de Blasio and the NYPD

Tension between New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and some of the New York police officers has reached crisis level, with one union police union spokesman laying the blame for the assassination deaths of two police officers at the mayor's feet.

What is this about?   Superficially it seems to be that police officers feel that the mayor sided with those protesting the killing of a black man  by a police officer and should have backed the police instead.    Any time an officer is killed in the line of duty, the police close ranks and give him a hero's honor;  nothing negative can be said.  

Because the deranged man who killed these two officers himself justified it as payback for the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and other black men -- these two completely different categories of public tragedy have become intermixed and confused.

Nevertheless, it has resulted in a general feeling that, if you continue to protest the unjustified killing of Brown and Garner and others, it's showing disloyalty and disrespect for police officers at a time when two of them have lost their lives simply because they are police officers.  In fact, Mayor de Blasio called for a suspension of protests until after the funerals.

 But inevitably, the mayor is in the middle and under attack from both sides.    Protestors were unhappy that he asked them to suspend their public protests until after the funerals.   A police union official has spoken very harshly against the mayor for remarks he made before this happened, in which he seemed to be agreeing that young black men had to be very careful not to provoke violent responses from the police.

Now we have the spectacle of uniformed police officers standing outside the church during the funeral of their comrade and turning their backs to the mayor as he delivers his eulogy.    And, when de Blasio spoke at the police academy graduation, some of the graduates booed him.

De Blasio's appointed Police Commissioner William Bratton is in the middle and trying to hold them together.   He said in a news interview that he "does not condone" that behavior.  Personally, I think he needs to go further.

Just as our federal government puts civilians in control of our military, so do cities put our civilian elected officials in charge of the police department.    Mayor de Blasio is, in effect, the commander in chief of the New York Police Department.    To show such disrespect is never warranted and borders on insubordination;  and that is especially true in this case, because the mayor has done everything he could and should have done to show his own grief over these losses and to support the police force at this difficult time.

No, the difference goes back way before any of this -- to a basic philosophical difference in how he thinks about policing policy and in how he views diversity, inclusiveness, authority, and cooperation.     As discussed by "liamcdg" on Daily Kos, de Blasio first spoke about the non-indictment of the police officer who killed Eric Garner with a chokehold on a Staten Island street:
"Emphasizing his multiracial family and personalizing issues of social and economic inequality has allowed him to capture the support of an Obama-esque coalition of people who never had access to the halls of power.   Like Obama, he projects a masculinity that is empathic and introspective -- anathema to the patriarchal attitudes that dominate hierarchal institutions like the police.
"When Mayor de Blasio first spoke about the non-indictment of the police officer who killed Eric Garner, he placed the case in a personal context:
'Chirlane and I have had to talk to [their high school aged son] Dante for years about the dangers that he may face. A good young man, law-abiding young man who would never think to do anything wrong. And yet, because of a history that still hangs over us, the dangers he may face, we've had to literally train him—as families have all over this city for decades—in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him..'"
Now, President Obama had said something very similar acknowledging the increased risk that young black men face in being stopped by police;   this is a national phenomenon and is backed up by statistics.   But the New York police union took great offense and provided members with a form letter of protest to send to the mayor, asking that, if they were killed in the line of duty, that the mayor and his wife not attend their funerals, saying they felt he had thrown them "under the bus." 

Frankly, I think this police union and those officers who booed or turned their backs on their commander in chief are the ones who are out of order.    First, like the president, the mayor is facing a reality of shootings of young, unarmed, black men that seem unnecessary, resulting only from the escalation of some minor offense into a killing.   Second, the mayor has a philosophical difference with how policing should be approached -- for one thing, he got rid of the "stop and frisk" policy.    And it is his job to set the tone and to hire a commissioner who can implement his policies.    Of course, he cannot change an entire policing practice in a short time, but having public displays of disrespect for the commander in chief is not appropriate.   I think it deserves something more than the commissioner simply "not condoning" such display while in uniform.

The Daily Kos writer goes on:
"What is needed is a cultural shift in how we understand law enforcement. Police officers must be people who understand that they are agents of the people and work for our elected officials, not against them. Mayor de Blasio has, willingly or otherwise, become an icon for these efforts. And that's why he has drawn the wrath of those invested in upholding the status quo."
The deranged killer who sought his own personal vendetta against white police officers unfortunately made things much worse for the reasonable protestors and for ultimate reform of police work.   His action only tilted this argument toward the police's position to the extent that it tends to stifle any serious discussion of the real issues of how black youth are treated differently by the police.   I'm sure that is not what the killer intended


Monday, December 29, 2014

End of U.S. war in Afghan . . . . Who knew?

On Sunday, December 28, 2014, the U.S. war in Afghanistan formally came to an end with the ceremonial lowering of the green-and-white flag of the the International Security Assistance Force and the raising of the flag of a new international mission called "Resolute Support."

Only a small, invited audience was present . . . for the formal end to the longest war in our nation's history.  The occasion recalled nothing quite so much as the ending of T. S. Eliot's poem, The Hollow Men: "This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper."

No parades down 5th avenue, no home town salutes to the conquering heroes.   No big-font newspaper headlines.  What is there to celebrate?    That it didn't end worse than it did?

Thirteen years of sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, thirteen years of a huge drain on our treasury -- and still Afghanistan's own military cannot hold off the Taliban and Al Qaeda in its own country without major assistance from others, mainly us, the U.S.

Our new mission will provide training and support for Afghanistan's military through a residual force of some 13,500 NATO troops, about 80% of which will be Americans.  In addition to the training, NATO forces will engage in counter-terrorism operations as well as air support for the Afghan military.

Flash back to 2001, before we began our military attack on Afghanistan.   I floated the question:    What if, instead of bombs, we dropped food, medical supplies, and other things the Afghan people need?   What if we captured the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, instead of inciting their enmity?

Now, 13 years later, I can't help but wonder:   What if that is what we had done.   Would things have been worse?   Maybe better?


Sunday, December 28, 2014

Ted Cruz's Obamacare nightmare coming true

From Jonathan Chait's article in New York magazine, "Ted Cruz's Obamacare Nightmare Comes to Life:"

"In the summer of 2013, with the Affordable Care Act about to begin enrolling its first customers in the new health-care exchanges, Ted Cruz warned Republicans that they were facing one final chance to kill the law. Once Americans had grown accustomed to the sweet comfort of affordable health insurance, Cruz foresaw, they would never give it up. . . .   

"Cruz may have been completely misguided in his belief that this logic dictated that Republicans instigate a government shutdown, but on the political economy of Obamacare, he was completely right. Indications of Cruz’s prescience are popping up everywhere.

". . . .  Unpopular Pennsylvania Republican Governor Tom Corbett recently agreed to accept Medicaid expansion.   Four more Republican governors — in Tennessee, Utah, Indiana, and Wyoming — have taken steps toward following suit. In Washington, the river of attacks against Obamacare issuing from Republicans has slowed to a trickle. . . .  

". . . the anti-Obamacare community fixated on a final hope: that consumers looking to enroll this fall for next year would encounter soaring premiums. Not only has the hoped-for premium shock failed to materialize, . . .  In a market where annual large price hikes have occurred for decades, the result is almost unfathomably positive. . . . 

". . . the next Republican candidate will be running in an environment where repealing the law would create millions and millions of now-identifiable victims. Since the start of the year, Obamacare has gone from a weakness Republicans were salivating at the chance to exploit to an issue they no longer want to talk about. Two years from now, matters could be worse still."

My prediction is that in the 2016 presidential campaign, it won't even be called "Obamacare" anymore, and it will not be a viable campaign issue -- unless the Supreme Court screws things up with this challenge before them about the supplements.   If they do rule those illegal, then my guess is that it will be Republican governors who previously refused to set up state exchanges, who will be scrambling to do so, in order for their citizens to continue to get health coverage -- which, under such a SCOTUS ruling, would require states to set up their own exchanges in order for their citizens to get subsidies.

Won't that be a hoot?