Saturday, April 18, 2015

Sen. Tom Cotton: very smart, knows his facts, absolutely sincere -- and far scarier than Ted Cruz

Tom Cotton official Senate photo.jpg
My impressions of Sen. Tom Cotton have been based on sound bites of news;  and thus I have tended to think of him as another right-wing kook in the same category as Ted Cruz and other wingnuts who will say anything just to get media attention and rev up the anger of their base.

Not so.   Cotton is a greater threat to progressive policies because he is so smart, has such a command of  facts, both historical and current global affairs, and because his passionate commitment to his assumptions and beliefs about our place in the world is so genuine and so deeply felt.

Unlike Ted Cruz, he seems to be acting from those strong beliefs rather than for political gain.   That is, winning is a means to changing the world, not just for the sake of having power and perks and attention.

What gave me this new view of him was an in-depth interview by Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic magazine (online April 13, 2015), supplemented by an earlier Atlantic article by Molly Ball (Sept. 17, 2014).

Growing up in rural Arkansas, even as a teenager, Tom was described as focused, intent and serious, pursuing his ambition to go to Harvard, where he discovered political philosophy and wrote his senior thesis on the Federalist Papers.   A Harvard professor recalled him as “very smart, but not a future professor—a man of action.  He was always very political, wanting to be engaged.”  Friends saw him as someone who always accomplished what he set out to do.

He went on to graduate from Harvard Law School, a clerkship with a federal judge, and then a short stint with a Washington law firm before joining the Army and serving three years as an infantry officer in Iraq.   He could have opted for the safer military lawyer corps, but he wanted to be involved in the fighting.

Goldberg said this of him:  
"I went to speak to Cotton . . . because he is quite obviously positioned to lead the most hawkish wing of the Republican Party. He is exceedingly bright, and blessed with a wonk's mind—I will readily admit that his knowledge of Middle East minutiae is impressive, even if I disagree with much of his analysis. And he is a superior standard-bearer for the confront-Iran-before-it's-too-late faction in the Senate because, as an Iraq combat veteran, he cannot be labeled a chickenhawk."

In a nutshell, Cotton believes that the agreement negotiated by the G5+1 nations and Iran is not "a deal" but a list of concessions by the United States.  While he gives lip service to wanting a stronger deal, he clearly believes that a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities -- and soon -- is the only thing that will prevent a future nuclear armed Iran.  He argues that:  "If we agreed to the kind of proposal the Obama administration has made, then military confrontation may be further off, but it might also be nuclear."

Beyond his strongly held views about what needs to be done about Iran, however, what makes Cotton a formidable force to be reckoned with are his underlying views of America's role in the world -- and his ability to back up those views with historical facts and a certain kind of logic.  As Goldberg said, we may disagree with his analysis, but Tom Cotton is an impressive debater -- at a completely different level of discourse than Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, Ben Carson, and Mike Huckabee, who make outlandish claims they can't back up.

The difference is that Cotton has facts and examples clearly available on the tip of his tongue, and he is articulate in his arguments.   No "Oops" moments for him.   And he sticks to principles and beliefs.   He doesn't wander into flights of fancy or sound bites to rev up anger.   He reasons based on a clear-cut set of principles and ideas -- even when those principles are wrong, in my opinion.

This new respect for Sen. Cotton's intellectual grasp and articulate discourse does not mean that he has won me over.   Far from it.  I disagree strongly with many of his underlying premises and his pessimism about other nations.  He has clearly divided us and our enemies into good and bad.  We should not trust that they can change, or that they might even have self-interests that would coincide with our own self-interests.   His is a world in which we must maintain power and control from a position of supremacy;  nothing Iran can do will result in his trusting them;   he thinks it is naive and dangerous to do so, even with all the inspections and verifications built into the proposal.   He says simply and confidently:  "They will cheat."

I think he ignores that our relationships in the Middle East, and especially with Iran, have a long and complex history and that we bear some responsibility for their mistrust of us, just as we do of them.   Nor does he believe that negotiating with a former enemy can work -- enemies must be subdued by our superior forces.   Cotton also obviously does not trust in the possibility there is a new mood in Tehran, one that gives them incentives to want to rejoin the world as a respected nation, whether as a nuclear power or not.   

So let's give peace a chance.  To do that, Tom Cotton is going to continue to be a formidable opponent.   He's already being touted by some as a presidential candidate for 2020.


Friday, April 17, 2015

House votes another tax break for the upper 0.2%

Hypocrisy and shamelessness.   While even some of their Republican colleagues give lip service to the problem of income inequality, the House Republicans just voted to make life a little bit sweeter for the top 0.2% of wealthy Americans.

The House voted 239 to 179 for a bill that would eliminate estate taxes.   Because of already very high deductibles, only estates over $5.4 million ($10.9 million for couples) are subject to the tax -- estimated to affect only the upper 0.2%.

That decimal point is not out of place.  It is not the upper 2% but the upper upper 0.2%.  The other 99.8% of Americans do not have large enough estates to owe any estate taxes.

Most Democrats voted against it, and some had scathing comments for the bill.  "Today's vote to repeal the estate tax is just the Republican's last attempt to tilt the U.S. tax code in favor of their ultra wealthy campaign donors" (Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.)  "Today my Republican friends have discovered there’s $270 billion of revenue that somehow the federal government no longer needs" (Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) “They have decided to give an additional tax cut to people who need the help the least."

Republicans' defense of the bill focused on calling the tax immoral because it "prevents families from passing businesses and farms down to their children."    Let's stop the crocodile tears.   No one who inherits a $5.4 million estate is going to be losing the family farm or the family owned corner grocery.   Think, instead, of vast real estate holdings, stock portfolios, multiple homes in luxurious places, yachts and private airplanes.

Besides, the effective top estate tax rate has already been reduced by loopholes to 17% -- far less than most people pay on their hard earned salaries.

As if this hypocrisy weren't enough, Rep. Christie Noem (R-N.D.) even tried to blame the current income inequality on President Obama.  "One-in-five children are on food stamps because of the policies of this administration. Fifty percent of our college students can’t find work or are underemployed because of the policies of this administration. . . .  We talk about income inequality, and we are seeing it because of those previous policies. This tax is a very unfair tax."

I honestly cannot even imagine the tortured (non)logic that would explain that talking pointIf anyone can, please explain it in a comment to this ShrinkRap post. 

Fortunately, the bill likely will not get the 60 votes needed in the Senate (thanks to the Republicans teaching Democrats how to use the filibuster to thwart the other side) -- and, as a backup, a veto by the president. 


Thursday, April 16, 2015

The overlooked passenger in the S.C. police shooting

On Friday, April 10th, writing about the shooting in South Carolina of an unarmed, fleeing black man by a police officer, I mentioned that -- for the first time in any media report I had seen -- that there had been a passenger in the car with Walter Scott, the man who was shot and killed.    This was about 5 days after the shooting.

But there was no information about this man, what he told the police about what he saw happen --- just nothing.    Now four days later, the existence of a passenger has been mentioned again.   In fact, on Monday night, one of the MSNBC news shows had some footage of the man standing outside Mr. Scott's car, being patted down by a police officer.

He did answer a couple of questions on the video, saying that he had no idea why Mr Scott took off running.   He did say, however, that "he did not deserve to die."   He would say no more because he had not yet been questioned by the police.

We're still left with the puzzling question of why this man's existence has been, if not covered up, at least almost ignored in police reports and the media.   It's almost seems like the police are trying to make his testimony seem unimportant.   'Nothing to see here, folks.   Move along.   Nothing to see.'

That arouses my suspicions.   Here is the only witness who presumably saw it all.   The young man who made the video didn't see the beginning of the encounter or any physical struggle;   he only filmed the chase and the shooting death and aftermath.    You would think his testimony would make him the star witness.

Perhaps the police didn't want a witness.

But let's think about time line.   The murder happened on Saturday.   It was not until several days later that the police had a copy of the video.   Until the video was revealed, they were treating it as a justifiable use of force, perhaps not eager to have a passenger suggest otherwise.   So that may be why he was initially treated casually and not mentioned to the media.

At this point, however, this man has to be the person of most interest to the police -- to find out what he knew about Mr. Scott and events leading up to the encounter;  and then the eye witness account of what he saw.

Stay tuned.


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Choosing a VP for Hillary

Now that Hillary Clinton has formally declared her candidacy for president -- and is in Iowa doing retail politics, stopping at gas stations, family businesses, restaurants to meet and talk with people -- it's not too early to start thinking about balancing the ticket.

Hillary is a woman, 72 years old, currently a resident of New York, and thought of as somewhat centrist within the Democratic party.   She is suspect of being too close to Wall Street and too quick to think of military solutions to suit the more progressive wing of the party -- although early indications are that she is starting out her campaign from a more populist, people-oriented stance.

My first choice for the perfect running mate for Hillary would be:  a young man, preferably Hispanic from a Southern state, someone the progressives could feel good about, and someone who has personal charm and warmth.    Here he is:    Julian Castro, 40, former three-term mayor of San Antonio, Texas;  now Obama's Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and the hit keynote speaker at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.  (Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama first came to national attention when giving the keynote address at the DNC).   Julien's identical twin brother Joaquin is a congressman from Texas.  Both are graduates of Stanford University and Harvard Law School.   Obviously a high achieving family.   He is married to a former school teacher, and they have two children.

Julien and Joaquin were born in San Antonio and raised by their single mother after the parents split when the twins were 8.   The grandmother had come from Mexico as an orphaned young girl, taken in by relatives, and never went beyond the fourth grade in school.   Julien's mother got a college education, later ran unsuccessfully for city council, and was an activist in the Chicano political party, instilling in her sons the idea that activism can bring change in people's lives for the better.

Besides having the requisite smarts and charm, Julien is very articulate, delivers one hell of a stump speech.  This theme from his 2013 DNC speech perfecftly captures the theme of Hillary's 2016 campaign: 
My family’s story isn’t special. What’s special is the America that makes our story possible. . . .  America didn’t become the land of opportunity by accident. My grandmother’s generation and generations before always saw beyond the horizons of their own lives and their own circumstances. They believed that opportunity created today would lead to prosperity tomorrow. That’s the country they envisioned, and that’s the country they helped build. The roads and bridges they built, the schools and universities they created, the rights they fought for and won — these opened the doors to a decent job, a secure retirement, the chance for your children to do better than you did.
 And that’s the middle classthe engine of our economic growth. With hard work, everybody ought to be able to get there. And with hard work, everybody ought to be able to stay there — and go beyond. . . .   [But hard work is not enough;  there also has to be opportunity.]
Twenty years ago, Joaquin and I left home for college and then for law school. In those classrooms, we met some of the brightest folks in the world. But at the end of our days there, I couldn’t help but to think back to my classmates at Thomas Jefferson High School in San Antonio. They had the same talent, the same brains, the same dreams as the folks we sat with at Stanford and Harvard. I realized the difference wasn’t one of intelligence or drive. The difference was opportunity.
We all understand that freedom isn’t free. What Romney and Ryan don’t understand is that neither is opportunity. We have to invest in it. . . .   

In the end, the American dream is not a sprint, or even a marathon, but a relay. Our families don’t always cross the finish line in the span of one generation. But each generation passes on to the next the fruits of their labor. My grandmother never owned a house. She cleaned other people’s houses so she could afford to rent her own. But she saw her daughter become the first in her family to graduate from college. And my mother fought hard for civil rights so that instead of a mop, I could hold this microphone.
And he brings perfect balance for Hillary:   Male, young, Hispanic from Texas, top notch education, very personable with an adorable family, and engaged in a favorite progressive activity -- dealing with housing for poor, inner city people.    Further, if either Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush (with his Mexican wife) is the GOP nominee, Julien Castro easily cancels out any advantage they might have in the Hispanic vote.

So put Julien Castro (or his brother) high up on the list of VP possibilities.   I can't think of a better balance for the ticket.    He could even put Texas into play. 


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

NYT: Anti-Obama attacks are getting "angrier and more destructive"

The New York Times printed the following editorial yesterday as a consensus opinion from the entire editorial board.   That in itself is important and relatively rare.  It usually addresses a topic of grave concern about which the editorial board speaks with one voice.   Here are extensive quotes:

"It is a peculiar, but unmistakable, phenomenon: As Barack Obama’s presidency heads into its twilight, the rage of the Republican establishment toward him is growing louder, angrier and more destructive.

"Republican lawmakers in Washington and around the country have been focused on blocking Mr. Obama’s agenda and denigrating him personally since the day he took office in 2009. But even against that backdrop, and even by the dismal standards of political discourse today, the tone of the current attacks is disturbing. So is their evident intentto undermine not just Mr. Obama’s policies, but his very legitimacy as president.

"It is a line of attack that echoes Republicans’ earlier questioning of Mr. Obama’s American citizenship. Those attacks were blatantly racist in their message — reminding people that Mr. Obama was black, suggesting he was African, and planting the equally false idea that he was secretly Muslim. The current offensive is slightly more subtle, but it is impossible to dismiss the notion that race plays a role in it.

"Perhaps the most outrageous example of the attack on the president’s legitimacy was a letter signed by 47 Republican senators to the leadership of Iran saying Mr. Obama had no authority to conclude negotiations over Iran’s nuclear weapons program. . . . .  

"Arizona legislators, for example, have been working on a bill that “prohibits this state or any of its political subdivisions from using any personnel or financial resources to enforce, administer or cooperate with an executive order issued by the president of the United States that has not been affirmed by a vote of Congress . . .

"Laurie Roberts of The Arizona Republic wrote that it was just 'one of a series of kooky measures aimed at declaring our independence from federal gun laws, from the Affordable Care Act, from the Environmental Protection Agency, from the Department of Justice, from Barack Obama.'

"Republicans defend this sort of action by accusing Mr. Obama of acting like a king and citing executive actions he has taken . . . .  [but they] had no objection when President George W. Bush used his executive authority to authorize the torture of terrorism suspects and tap the phones of American citizens. It is not executive orders the Republicans object to; it is Mr. Obama’s policies, and Mr. Obama. . . .

"If this insurrection is driven by something other than a blend of ideological extremism and personal animosity, it is not clear what that might be. But it is ugly, it deepens mistrust of government and it harms the office of the president, not just Mr. Obama."

*   *   *  
Those are strong words -- stronger, still, because the editorial is from the entire editorial board speaking with one voice.   It amounts to a throwing down of the gauntlet to the Republicans.


Monday, April 13, 2015

Hillary enters the race -- here's why she will win.

Hillary Rodham Clinton has formally entered the race for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during a during a round table event at the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute on July 23, 2014 in Oakland, California.

No big surprise here in this long-anticipated announcement.   News coming out about the campaign team she has assembled is encouraging, suggesting she has learned from the mistakes of her 2008 campaign.

And her theme is good:   focusing on strengthening the middle class and equal economic opportunity.  Jonathan Chait, writing in New York magazine, explains why Hillary is probably going to win.   He discusses demographics, Clinton's popularity, Obama's increasing popularity, and assuming no economic recession before the election.   Then he sums it up this way:
All of the above brings us back to the central challenge facing Clinton. She cannot promise her supporters a dramatic change or new possibilities; she is personally too familiar, and the near certainty of at least one Republican-controlled chamber of Congress suggests continued legislative stalemate. Her worry is that ennui sets in among the base and yields a small electorate more like the kind that shows up at the midterms, which is an electorate Republicans can win.
The argument for Clinton in 2016 is that she is the candidate of the only major American political party not run by lunatics. There is only one choice for voters who want a president who accepts climate science and rejects voodoo economics, and whose domestic platform would not engineer the largest upward redistribution of resources in American history. Even if the relatively sober Jeb Bush wins the nomination, he will have to accommodate himself to his party's barking-mad consensus. She is non-crazy America’s choice by default. And it is not necessarily an exciting choice, but it is an easy one, and a proposition behind which she will probably command a majority.
Without disagreeing on any of Chait's points, I would just add one that I think is important:   It depends on how Hillary presents herself personally during the campaign.   There is the warm, outgoing, funny Hillary that is present and engaged in small groups and one-on-one encounters;  and there is the stiff, defensive, evasive, and distant Hillary that emerges when she is speaking into a microphone -- which can make her appear haughty and unengaged.  

I believe the first Hillary is the real one, and if she can allow that Hillary to emerge and engage the public, she will win big time.   And she will be a very good president.


Sunday, April 12, 2015

Another thing that happened this week: Cuba

President Obama attended the Summit of the Americas in Panama this weekend -- and used the occasion for a meeting with President Raul Castro of Cuba.   

The two are shown here in the historic handshake that symbolizes a thaw in the 50+ year era of mutual animosity, during which there was no diplomatic relationship, trade and most travel were forbidden, and the U.S. listed Cuba as a sponsor of terrorism.

The two presidents met in a private meeting on Saturday afternoon, after each had addressed the summit assembly earlier in the day.    President Obama said that, despite our continuing differences in how society should be organized, "The U. S. will not be imprisoned by the past" but will look to the future.  He vividly illustrated how long it has been by saying that he wasn't interested "in having battles that began before I was born."

President Castro recounted many of the grievances that his country had toward the U.S.;  but then, in an abrupt shift in tone and direction, he said:  "I have told President Obama that I get very emotional talking about the revolution. . . .  I apologize to him because President Obama had no responsibility for this."

This is the beginning of a long and complicated process.   Lifting the more onerous sanctions will require congressional action, reopening long-closed embassies will take time, and trade and travel agreements will have to be worked out.   The U.S. also wants to continue using some leverage to pressure Cuba on human rights.

But it is another important foreign policy accomplishment for Obama's legacy, along with a major climate change agreement with China and, if it succeeds, the Iran nuclear settlement by negotiations rather than war.    The Nobel Peace Prize judges gave the award to President Obama early in his tenure -- at the time, more as a challenge and a recognition of potential than for accomplishments.

Perhaps we are now seeing the wisdom of those judges in giving him this challenge.