Saturday, January 7, 2017

Paying for The Wall? Another broken promise.

Remember the defiant promise Donald Trump made at his rallies?    "We're going to build a big, beautiful wall. . .  such a great wall. . . .  And Mexico is going to pay for it."

Well, now that reality is setting in, the backtracking begins.  The transition team has reportedly been working with congressional Republicans, trying to find budget money to pay for the wall -- i.e., U.S. taxpayers.

Trump blames the media, tweeting that the "dishonest media" fails to include the fact that Mexico will pay for it "later."    Uh huh.

Pardon me, bud;   but, if you believe that, I've got a nice bridge you might be interested in.


Former CIA Director resigns from Trump transition team; another signal of trouble ahead.

Phillip Rucker, of the Washington Post, has reported that former CIA Director (from 1993 to 1995) R. James Woolsey, Jr. has resigned as a senior adviser to the Trump transition team.   His stated reason is "growing tensions over Trump's vision for intelligence agencies."

Woolsey is considered one of the nation's leading intelligence experts, having served in four different presidential administrations (Carter, Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton).   According to Rucker's reporting, Woolsey "has been excluded in recent weeks from discussions on intelligence matters with Trump and retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the incoming White House national security adviser. . . .  Consequently he has become increasingly uncomfortable lending his name and credibility without being consulted."  The final straw seemed to be reports that Trump is considering revamping the intelligence framework.

Uh huh.   Lots of people were predicting that Gen. Flynn -- the one Trump does seem to be influenced by -- was going to be trouble.   He is opinionated, doesn't listen to other people, and has a terrible reputation for poor working relationships.    He's also one of the Trump people with Russian connections, having been a paid speaker at a gala event in Moscow at which he sat next to Putin some years ago.

Stay tuned.


Friday, January 6, 2017

GOP senators wary of repealing Obamacare without a plan to replace it.

Senators Tom Cotton, Susan Collins, John McCain, and Lamar Alexander are four Republican senators who have expressed concern about repealing Obamacare without offering a plan to replace it.   That's more than their 52-48 margin, and several other more moderate Republican -- and all 48 Democrats -- would probably join them.

Of course, being wary about it does not mean that they would vote against it.   And there does seem to be intense political pressure from the leaders to repeal it right away.   But that, too, is telling.   If they think it's more important to do it immediately, rather than carefully, then they're going to screw it up, sooner or later.


Let's get this straight: Trump has no mandate.

President-elect Donald Trump has been proclaiming that the election gave him "a clear mandate."  Vice-President-elect Mike Pence says Republicans will repeal the Affordable Care Act, claiming that the voters gave them a mandate to overturn Obamacare.  Neither statement is true.

The strict definition of mandate is:  an official order to carry something out.   In the case of an election, the winner has a mandate to perform the functions of the office.   But, by common usage, citing an election as a mandate to pass certain controversial legislation requires winning by a rather large amount.   Merriam-Webster Dictionary gives this definition:   "A mandate is an official command or a go-ahead.   When a politician wins an election by a wide margin, that's a mandate to implement her ideas."

The Republican ticket of Trump-Pence won office by getting more than 50% of the 538 electoral votes, i.e.  at least 270 (Trump got 306) and being affirmed by the Electoral College as the winners.   But 306 out of 538 is not "a wide margin," even if you're only considering electoral votes.

In my opinion, you could never call it a mandate when your opponent won the popular vote, and certainly not when she got 2.7 million more votes than you did.

So, no, Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence, you did not win a mandate, no matter how many times you say it.


Thursday, January 5, 2017

Shame, public pressure -- not Trump's twitter -- worked to flip GOP ethics vote

Initial reports about the quick flip-flop of the Republican House on gutting its independent ethics commission over-emphasized Donald Trump's twitter comments and under-appreciated the effect of the thunderous public reaction to a shameless act.

Yes, Trump (or someone in his name) did send out message on Twitter;  but it did not actually object to the the changes per se but only to the timing and the mishandling of the process.   And public reaction was already intense before Trump jumped in front of the crowd to make it look like he was leading it.

This was followed by interviews Tuesday night on Rachel Maddows MSNBC show with Chuck Schumer (new House Minority Leader) and Bernie Sanders.   Schumer will be directing the Democrats' attempt to shape legislation from the minority position.   And he has appointed Sanders to a new position:  Director of Outreach for the Senate.   At first this sounded like a courtesy position to a loser;   but hearing Sanders' description, it may be the most important part of the opposition the Democrats will mount.

Sanders is already directing the organization of grass-roots protests.   The first event is to be January 15th and will involve asking senators and representatives and governors to attend rallies in their home districts to work for progressive policies -- and ultimately in coming elections to elect progressive office-holders from local school boards up through the U.S. Congress.

It will also be the basis for putting grass-roots pressure on Congress, just as was done more spontaneously and bipartisanly over the ethics debacle.   Both Schumer and Sanders emphasized their focus on holding representatives accountable for their acts.   Calling them on their very first act of trying to weasel out of accountability by gutting the ethics act was a great start.

The sponsor of the amendment, House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) tried to sell it as an improvement, claiming that it "builds on and strengthens" the current system.   That is a pure lie and an insult to the intelligence of voters.   As Jay Bookman wrote in the AJC:
   "Politicians don't strengthen ethics laws in secret, without warning or public debate.   They act that way only when they're ashamed of what they're doing, and this time they got caught."

This is the most hopeful thing we've seen since the election defeat.   Both Schumer and Sanders are signalling that the Clinton era is over.   The Democratic centrists have lost, and the progressives are in ascendance.   Another indication of that was (Clinton supporter) Howard Dean's quick withdrawal from the race for Chair of the DNC.    Sanders' candidate is Rep. Keith Ellison, clearly in the progressive column as a Sanders' supporter in the Democratic primary.   It's a big field, including several very capable people, such as Labor Secretary Perez.   Who wins will be another signal of which way the party is heading.  At this point it looks like the progressive wing has the momentum.

What'a needed, which was missing in the Obama era, was a true 50 state strategy.   Howard Dean has always advocated that, but his ties to Clinton were perhaps too strong for this time of a new direction.    Ellison or Perez would supply that.


Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Republicans bungle first day of new Congress

Yesterday, January 3rd, was the first day of the new Congress where Republicans will be in control of the White House and both houses of Congress (and before long also the Supreme Court).   With their eight years of obstructionism and criticism of Obama's policies without offering their own alternate plans, it was a serious question whether they know how to govern -- or only how to criticize and obstruct.

Their number one plan is their loudly proclaimed strategy on Obamacare:   Repeal and Delay.   Not repeal and replace -- because they haven't been able to come up with a workable replacement.   So they intend to pass a law to repeal it, but then delay the effect for up to four years while they figure out how to replace it.

That, in itself, is rather pathetic.    They haven't been able to make a workable alternative in the same time that Democrats crafted Obamacare, got it passed and up and going, in spite of tinkering by SCOTUS and the states that undid some of the parts that made it work.   And, yet, it is working anyway.    Up to 20 million people who didn't have health insurance before now have it.

So, of course, the Republicans want to kill it.    And hope some magic will occur to them in the next four years.   It won't.

So, what did they decide to do on the first day of the new congress under their full control?   Who could have predicted something so boneheaded?   The Republicans actually voted to attach an amendment to the rules resolution that would take all the power out of their own, relatively independent ethics watchdog, the Office of Congressional Ethics.    The amendment was adopted by a secret vote of 119-74 in the Republican caucus.

Here's what their decision would do, as explained by Huffington Post's Ryan Grim:

"The measure was extraordinary. It would rename the OCE to become the Office of Congressional Complaint Review. It would bar it from investigating any anonymous tips.  It would block the body from moving forward on any investigation without full approval by members of Congress who oversee it, yet it would have no investigative ability to uncover evidence in order to obtain that approval. It would require the body to shut down an investigation on orders from those same members of Congress. And if the office learned of potential criminal activity, it would be barred from directly contacting law enforcement, a restriction of dubious constitutionality (and one devoid of ethics)."

In the most hopeful evidence that the next four years may not be as bad as we fear, consider what happened next.    Word got out.   And public reaction erupted, first on Twitter, then in the New York Times, and then flooding congressional offices with phone calls.

Perhaps reading the public reaction, or perhaps from genuine opposition, President-elect Donald Trump jumped into the debate (on Twitter, of course), writing:

“With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it may be, their number one act and priority. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance!”

With the powerful public reaction shaming them, and with the president-elect's scolding, the House GOP members reconvened on Tuesday and scrapped the whole idea.   At least for now.   Many people of both parties believe that the ethics watchdog should be reformed.   But the timing and the lack of political wisdom shows that the Republicans may not be quite ready for prime time.   This was a failure both on policy and on political skill.   It even gave Donald Trump the chance to look presidential (well, doing it on Twitter doesn't quite look presidential) -- but at least he seemed more like the adult in the room.

Maybe there's just a wee bit of hope for the next four years -- primarily from the effectiveness demonstrated by grass-roots, public reaction that could shame members of congress into reversing a bad decision.   Public opinion still matters.


Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The problem of gun violence and gun safety laws

[Based on reporting by Sharon LaFraniere and Emily Palmer for the New York Times]

As one small piece of the puzzle of how to reduce the number of deaths from gun violence, the New York Times examined all 130 shootings in the year 2015 in which four or more people were shot, with at least one fatality, and in which authorities were able to identify at least one attacker.    Cases included drug shootouts, domestic violence, and chance encounters.

Exploring what could be learned of how the shooters obtained their guns, they were seeking evidence to inform the question of whether background checks help and whether it is too easy for "dangerously mental ill or violent people" to obtain firearms.

In more than half of the 130 cases, an assailant had obtained a gun even though they were already barred by federal law from possessing a firearm.    Most of these were due to a prior felony conviction.   If state and local permit violations were also included, 64% of the shootings involved at least one attacker who was violating an existing gun law.  In other words, having laws on the books is not a very effective deterrent where so many guns exist;  where so many guns are sold without regulation by the existing laws (gun show loopholes, one-to-one sales, online sales);  and where many shootings involve guns that were stolen or both illegally or that were bought legally by a family member or friend.

Of the other shooters, roughly 40% had never been in serious trouble with the law and probably could have bought a gun in states with the strictest gun control laws.   These typically were cases of men who killed their families and then themselves.

Despite the outsized public debate over assault rifles, only 11% of the 130 shootings involved assault rifles.    Most of the others used handguns.   This was interpreted to mean that reinstating the ban on assault rifles would have minimal effect on the number of people killed by gun violence.   However, my own reaction to that is that this is a statistician speaking.   Given that there is no rational reason for a civilian to own a weapon designed for nothing other than killing many people as rapidly as possible, and given that it is easier to get support for such a ban -- why not eliminate that threat?   Aren't the lives of those 11% worth saving?

With felons, the problem seems to be the ease with which they obtain guns, despite the laws.   With mentally ill or violent people, the problem is identifying who should not have guns, without stigmatizing all people with mental illness, the vast majority of whom are not violent.   The legal definition of "mental illness" is a woefully inadequate measure of who is likely to be violent.

At this point, federal gun restrictions based on mental state are limited to those who have been involuntarily committed to an institution.   That is a feeble compromise in the attempt to solve a problem we don't know how to deal with:   how to predict who will be violent and how to protect people without violating the rights of others who may or may not be dangerous.

The scandal here is not that we don't know the answers;  the scandal is that the NRA has convinced politicians that we should not even allow the question to be researched.

Did you know that it is illegal for any of the CDC budget to be used to study gun violence as a public health problem?    Or for a CDC official to write a report that says it should be studied?  Or that, in some states, it is illegal for pediatricians to ask parents whether there are guns in the home, so that they can counsel them about proper safety measures to keep their children safe?

The nature of this inquiry (shootings with multiple victims) does not include the single largest category of gun deaths -- suicides and accidental shootings in the home.   Those should be the easiest to prevent, but the love affairs with guns and the increasing felt need for protection have only increased the number of homes with guns.

Don't look for this problem to get solved during the present political climate in Washington.


Monday, January 2, 2017

If there's no post . . .

Over the next few days, I'll be changing over to a new computer.   With my knack for making things go wrong when it comes to the digital world, there might be a hiatus in finding how to navigate a new system.   So, if there's no blog one morning, that's likely the cause.


"Take a bad year . . . and make it better" - NYTimes

"Take A Bad Year.   And Make It Better" is the title of an editorial attributed to "The Editorial Board" in the New Year's Eve edition of the New York Times.   It begins by asking you to pretend that you're in a "cosmic therapist's office, in a counseling session with the year 2016."  The therapist asks you to face the year and "say something nice about it."

What a terrible requirement this seems.   Such a terrible year.   So glad it's over.    But was there anything good to say about 2016 . . . except maybe the Chicago Cubs?     It's easy to think of the bad things, beginning with "the election of  a president unfit for the job."

Then there was the trail of "blood and rubble across the Middle East and Europe.  Refugees drowned in the Mediterranean.  Right-wing extremism and xenophobia were on the march. The American election let loose old racial hatreds. The planet got hotter; the Arctic went haywire. The world was burning or smoldering or blowing up or melting."

The editorial then suggests that "it would help to have a frame of mind, a perspective with which to consider the year gone by. And with it, a sober but bracing way to meet the headwinds and miseries that await in 2017. It could be this: a recognition of the power of unity, of drawing close, and of speaking out. Of the strength that solidarity wielded in 2016, over and over."

"The most powerless of economic players, low-wage workers, kept pressing for a $15 minimum wage. Rallies across the country . . . invigorated the cause," and against all odds, "More than two dozen states and localities have raised minimum wages as the movement has gone mainstream."

"The most frequent targets of the dehumanizing rhetoric of the Trump campaign — immigrants and refugeesfound welcome in many communities. Families opened their homes to displaced Syrians. Churches gave sanctuary to unauthorized immigrants. Governors and mayors, teachers and lawyers, faith leaders and congregations vowed to resist any efforts to demonize the foreign-born."

"There and elsewhere was evidence that the center could hold, and reason and compassion prevail."

"National protests shone a harsh light on police killings of black civilians. Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama inspired millions, their achievements and grace rebuking the sour misogyny of the Trump campaign. American Indians in North Dakota braved rubber bullets and water cannons to protect their drinking water from an oil pipeline. Nations of the world — all threatened by a warming planet — ratified the Paris climate agreement. The global health community found ways to subdue the Zika virus and create an effective Ebola vaccine. The death penalty in the United States kept sliding into history’s dustbin. Some states, reflecting strong public support, began tilting the gun debate in the direction of sanity."

"The forces of disunity are strong, but our job is to make the country less divided than Donald Trump’s splintering campaign has left it."

After that inspiring beginning, the editorial left me feeling dissatisfied, though.   It preached a paean from an old song:  "to give one another the benefit of the doubt -- while remaining ready to defend the homeless, the unemployed, the underemployed, the disabled, the sick.”   And saying:  "That’s a message for these times. . . .  This may be the most heartening development in a dismal yearthe evidence all around that we know how to do this, and can indeed summon the will."

To me, that is not so much heartening as it is dismaying.   I thought that was the message that we'd been following at least since the civil rights days of 50 to 60  years ago.   The truth seems to be that we, as a society, had pretty much lost that "my brother's keeper" spirit.   We -- even we liberal Democrats -- had let the greed of Wall Street and consumerism creep into our more idealistic values, most vividly exemplified in the vast, and growing, income inequality.  So maybe they're right.   Maybe we need to learn it all over again.

So be it.   The myth of Sisyphus became a myth because of its universal and eternal truth.    Going back to Greek mythology, Sisyphus was condemned to repeat the same meaningless task of pushing a huge boulder up a mountain, only to have it roll back down, requiring him to repeat the task . . . again and again.

Albert Camus made this the center of his existential philosophy in his 1942 essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus."   In it, he raises the question of the seeming absurdity of such a life without meaning.    But unlike the pessimistic existentialists, Camus' answer is that "the struggle itself is enough to fill a man's heart.  One must imagine Sisyphus as happy."     Another way of saying that might be:   "It's not the destination but the journey that matters."   Or:   Life is not inherently meaningful;   but we create our own meaning.

I'm not sure this quite applies to our politics and continual effort to create a society that makes life better for all our people, but it's where this NYT editorial led my thinking.    I guess I'm saying that, rather than giving up in despair, let's take this election outcome as a challenge to renew our commitment to our principles of freedom, justice, and equal dignity and opportunity for all.

Perhaps four years (and, please, let's make sure it's only four) of being shocked and shamed by our elected leader will teach us not to let go of those principles again.  Those are worth working for, even if we have to start over again at the bottom.

Let this motivate us:   We will not be defeated by Donald Trump's superficiality, greed, and me-first view of life.


Sunday, January 1, 2017

The late, great Texans: Jordan, Richards, and Ivins.

Since we cannot feel good about the year 2016, and since the prospects of a good 2017 are equally slim, I'm just going to over-look all the fuss about New Year's Eve and "Happy New Year" -- all the horns and whoops and confetti and balls dropping at midnight.  It doesn't help that, in order to get our slightly-off clocking devices in sync with cosmic time, 2016 will last one second longer than the average year

Let's remember some happier times in politics.   The election of John F. Kennedy, the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the local pride when our own Jimmy Carter was elected president, and then the morally uplifting triumph of voting for our first African-American president, celebrated by that immense crowd gathered in Chicago's Grant Park -- when that beautiful family of Barack, Michelle, Malia, and Sasha Obama walked out on that stage as our new First Family!

And then my memories turn to three of my all-time favorite women in politics, who were all from Texas.    Rep. Barbara Jordan - Restoration.jpgFirst, there was Barbara Jordan (first African-American congresswoman from Texas), with a voice like God and a moral power to match.     A civil rights leader before being elected to the U.S. House from Texas, she was chosen to give the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention.   She distinguished herself mightily as a member of the Judiciary Committee hearings to consider the impeachment of Richard Nixon. She used her deep knowledge of the Constitution to explain the issues to a rapt audience of the live-televised hearings.    I was captivated by this extraordinary woman and was immediately ready to reserve her a chair on the Supreme Court.    She would have dignified that bench;   they needed her then, and they need her now.    We need her now.   I often think how she would have articulated, as no one else could, the absurdity of what our politics has become.   Unfortunately, she developed multiple sclerosis and retired from Congress, although she was able to continue teaching law in Texas for a few more years before her untimely death at age 59.   It became widely know, after her death, that she had been lesbian and had a life partner of many years.

Next was the fiesty Texas governorAnn Richards, a school teacher before running for office, first as Treasurer and then as Governor.   In 1988 she gave the Democratic Convention keynote speech, where her wicked wit, her strong feminist stands, and her celebrated one-liners gave her a national reputation.   George H. W. Bush was the Republican candidate, so Richards used her down-home Texas charm to rankle the patrician New Englander, who never mastered Texas ways or speech and even had trouble being articulate in English at times.    Here's Richard's zinger:   "I'm delighted to be here with you this evening, because after listening to George Bush all these years, I figured you needed to know what a real Texas accent sounds like. . . .  Poor George, he can't help it.   He was born with a silver foot in his mouth."   Richards was admired for her political skills and for her candor about her own struggles in the past with alcohol and heavy smoking, and she became a role model for enouraging others to stick with their rehab programs.    She died of cancer in 2006 and is survived by, among others, her daughter Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood.

Molly-ivins.jpgAnd then there was Molly Ivins, cracker-jack, liberal journalist who skewered politicians that trampled on causes she was devoted to:   freedom, justice, and straight-shooting.    With a masters degree from Columbia University School of Journalism, she later wrote for the New York Times and papers in Dallas and Fort Worth.  I had the privilege of being in the audience when she addressed the Atlanta branch of the ACLU just after George W. Bush had been elected president.   Having explained that she had known Bush since high school days, she began her talk by staring thoughtfully at the audience for a moment and then saying:   "People, we are in deep shit."   One wonders what she would say about our present situation.

Ivins was marvelous at the colorful phrase that echoed Texas-speak and made a serious point with irony, satire, and just plain gutsy folksiness.   She coined the nickname "Shrub" for Bush;   and she needled Pat Buchanan for his "culture war" speech by saying that "it probably sounded better in the original German."   Her rapier wit often sparked controversy, especially when directed at politicians -- such as:   "If his IQ slips any lower, we'll have to water him twice a day."    Her paper countered the criticism by putting up billboards proclaiming: "Molly Ivins can't say that, can she?" -- which became the title for one of her later books.  Some more Ivins' quotes:

"Good thing we've still got politics in Texas -- finest form of free entertainment ever invented."

"I dearly love the state of Texas, but I consider that a harmless perversion on my part, and discuss it only with consenting adults."

"I am intrigued by the arguments of those who claim to follow the judicial doctrine of original intent.   How do they know it was the dearest wish of Thomas Jefferson's heart that teen-age drug dealers should cruise the cities of this nation perforating their fellow citizens with assault rifles?   Channelling?"

She tackled the gun question by saying that she's not anti-gun;   she's pro-knife.   With knives, you have to chase down your victim to stab him, which gives you a good bit of exercise and could lead to a nation of better fit people.  Besides, knives don't ricochet, and few people die while cleaning their knives.

[Reference to George W. Bush presidency]
"Next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States, please pay attention."

"George W. Bush is a wholly owned subsidiary of corporate America. . . . We can find no evidence that it has ever occurred to him to questions whether it is wise to do what big business wants."

"It is possible to read the history of this country as one long struggle to extend the liberties established in our Constitution to everyone in America."

"I have been attacked by Rush Limbaugh on the air, an experience somewhat akin to being gummed by a newt. It doesn't actually hurt, but it leaves you with slimy stuff on your ankle."

[And perhaps this one could even be addressed to us all here on the eve of the coming Gilt Age in the White House.   Unfortunately,  Ivins developed breast cancer and died in 2007.]

"So keep fightin' for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don't you forget to have fun doin' it.   Lord, let your laughter ring forth.  Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce.   And when you get through kickin' ass and celebratin' the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was."

Barbara, Ann, and Mollie -- RIP, but Lordy, we need you now even more than we needed you back then.