Saturday, April 15, 2017

Something amazing is happening in Georgia's 6th District race

Tuesday, something pretty amazing happened in a Kansas special election to fill a seat in Congress left vacant by one of Trump's cabinet appointees, Rep. Mike Pompao to head the CIA.   In a district that he won by 30% and Trump by 27% just five months ago, a Democratic candidate came within 7% of defeating the state treasurer for the seat.

That's a 20% decline in Republican support in a deep, deep red state, with Republicans controlling both houses of Congress and the White House.  In 2016 Republicans won 75 House seats by less than 20%.  A turnover of only 24 of those in 2018 would win back control of the House.  Read on;  it could be only 23 after next Tuesday.

Look at what's going on in Georgia's 6th District race to fill the seat left by Trump's choice for Health Secretary, Tom Price.   Price has handily won re-election multiple times, and easily won by 23 points in 2016.   But Trump won the district with less than 2%.   GA-06 is suburban, better educated (60% college degrees), affluent (triple average state income), but increasingly diversified both ethnically and economically.

Enter Jon Ossoff, a 31 year old Democrat whose campaign has roared out of nowhere to capture the excitement of the millennials who got energized by the 2016 election and wanted to do something about it.   While in college at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, Jon worked as an aide in John Lewis's congressional office, and later was on the staff of Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson's office.   He learned how to get things done in Washington, learned how to conduct an investigation of corruption in government contracts, and won the admiration and strong support of both Johnson and Lewis.  It was John Lewis who encouraged him to run, saying "If anyone can win the 6th [for the Democrats], you can do it."

Jon followed this experience in Washington with study at the London School of Economics, where he wrote his masters thesis on trade policy between the U.S. and China.   He currently is the CEO of an investigative journalism and documentary film company that focuses on corruption and graft worldwide.  They have helped expose corrupt judges in Ghana, doctors in Zimbabwe selling HIV/AIDS medicine on the black market, and kidnapping and sex slavery in ISIS.

This campaign then is not just a bunch of naive, idealistic young people who don't know what they're doing.   They're idealistic all right, but they're also smart, wise and practical. They're managing a terrific campaign.   Fueled by an unheard of $8.3 million war chest raised by grass roots with some nationwide fund-raising help from progressive blogsites -- all coming in with an average donation of less than $50.   They're putting a lot of money into some great tv and internet ads.  But the core of the effort is the thousand-plus group of volunteers making phone calls and knocking on doors, talking intelligently and interestingly to neighbors.   This is, after all, a geographically small congressional district within the confines of a section of metro Atlanta.

Republicans are running scared that they're going to lose this seat, so they're countering with millions of dollars from national GOP political organizations and dark money, mostly from out-of-state SuperPACs, running negative and dishonest smear tv ads.  It's beautiful to watch these young people not take the bait and get defensive.   They shrug and say that negative smear tactics is what people do when they think they're losing.   They're sticking to the high road of a positive campaign.  Their ads are emphasizing what Jon will bring to our district, and what he can bring to Washington.

Nothing I can write, however, can explain this campaign as well as this message, written by Jon's long-time friend, Jon Mitchell, who designed the campaign website.   It's well worth reading to get a sense of these young, smart, practical idealists -- the kind of people who might really change things in Washington.

*     *     *
"I am probably almost as thrilled as he is to announce that my friend Jon Ossoff is running for Congress in Georgia.

"He and I started talking and writing about politics together when we were sophomores in high school. . . . and now look at him -- running for Congress! . . .  This is the moment we've been preparing for. . . .  He came to his friends and said, 'Hey, I'm gonna run for Congress.   Can you help?, and we just said, 'Well, yeah!  Sure!'

"This is not political theater, this is the realest thing ever.   You see, our friends are a hopeful, progressive, rather intelligent bunch.  We don't respond kindly to gaudy, self-interested, willfully ignorant presidents who really just want to be crowned king.  It is our natural tendency to want to snatch back the first national election after such a president takes office.  Leave it to Jon Ossoff to actually try.  I couldn't be prouder of him already.

"I'm not just proud of him.  I'm grateful to him.  His decision to run is unquestionably good for America;  he's rather well qualified to be a freshman congressman, and he's the kind of Democrat who gets a deserved endorsement from John Lewis calling him 'committed to progress and justice.'   

"But I'm grateful to Jon in a more personal way, too.  He's galvanized his whole tribe.  He's given us something to do to respond constructively to the political emergency in America:  We can do everything in our power to get a good, talented person elected to national office.

"So yeah, I did the website. . . for my best friend.  It was also my first political job, and I have to say, it was incredibly rewarding to design for that purpose, especially in collaboration with dear friends whose values I know and share.   The tagline says that I work for 'clients who want to repair the world,' a reference to the 20th century, social justice-oriented reinterpretation of the mystical concept of tikkun olam.  I never thought of the U.S. House of Representatives as deserving of the sacred sense of that term until now.   The world looked dark to me a few weeks ago.   Thanks to Jon Ossoff, now there's light streaming in. . . . Let's do this!"
*     *     *

The thought of this practical idealism and these values being defeated by run-of-the mill Republican politicians, who would go to Washington to help Donald Trump repeal Obamacare, defund Planned Parenthood, build walls, and throw the world into chaos is just not acceptable to me.

A month ago, I would have said:  go for it, but don't get your hopes up and be disappointed.  This is, after all, a Republican district.    But these young folks have run an extraordinarily intelligent, efficient, personableenlightened campaign.   They put jaded politicians to shame -- not just with their idealism but with their political skills and smarts. Jon was impressive in an interview with Lawrence O'Donnell on MSNBC Thursday night.

In the latest poll in this jungle special election with 18 candidates of all parties, Jon was leading with 43%.   The Republican vote is essentially split among three politicians in the low teens, with 7% undecided.   With the superior get-out-the-vote efforts of Jon's team, it's possible he could get over the 50% mark next Tuesday and avoid a runoff.

[Added Sat. noon:   a later poll released Friday has Jon at 45% with Karen Handel in a comfortable lead over other Republicans for second place.]

I'll let you know next Wednesday how it turned out.


PS:   I also have a personal interest in Jon's campaign.   He and my grandson David are friends, going back to elementary school.   David lives in Santa Fe and is about to move to New York for a job with the ACLU;  but I'm sure, if he were here in Atlanta, he would be part of this campaign.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Interesting factoid about "Moonlight"

According to, the independently produced film and Best Picture Oscar winner, "Moonlight," was made with a budget  of $1.5 million, the lowest cost of any best picture winner in history (in adjusted dollar value).   In fact, making the film cost less than a 30 second tv ad shown during the Oscar ceremony ($2.2 million) at which it was named Best Picture.

Did Russia know Syria still had sarin gas?

Regarding the 59 missile strike on the airfield in Syria where the chemical weapon attack originated:   We've been concentrating so much on Trump's decision and what it means vis a vis our foreign policy (or lack thereof) that we've paid little attention to Russia's role.

Our intelligence has suggested, though not yet concluded, that the Russians knew in advance about Syria's plan to use gas on civilians.   S. V. Date, writing for the Huffington Post, asks how could they not have known?   Russian troops had been at this same base, using their runways, mingling with Syrian pilots who use Russian-made planes.

Russia has countered with the suggestion that Syrian planes could have inadvertently bombed an installation where rebel forces stored chemical weapons.  Russia has called for a thorough investigation to determine who is responsible.  This is most likely a sign that they have covered up any evidence that chemicals were ever at the airbase.

Date's report quotes a U.S. official saying that there is simply too much corroborating evidence.  “It’s just too massive for any intelligence organization to fabricate in that short a time. . . .  I think it’s clear the Russians are trying to cover up what happened there.”

Ever since 2013, when Russia assumed the responsibility for receiving and destroying Assad's cache of chemical weapons, in a deal brokered by Obama, “The Syrian regime and its primary backer, Russia, have sought to confuse the world community about who is responsible for using chemical weapons against the Syrian people in this and earlier attacks,” according to an unclassified U.S. memo.

Why another chemical attack now?  Again, U.S. officials at a briefing suggested that Assad is trying to punish civilians in a territory where rebel forces have been making progress and moving closer to government-held population centers and military bases.  Others have suggested it was more a test to see how Trump would respond, especially since, days before, Trump had stated that it was up to the Syrian people to decide about Assad's regime.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) addressed the "why now?" question in light of his belief that Assad is in a stronger position in Syria than any time since 2013.   He wrote in an op-ed:  
 "The answer likely lies in the green light that the Trump administration gave Assad just a few days before the chemical weapons attack was launched. . . . "

If Assad's future, as both Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had said just prior to this, is up to the Syrian people -- which Murphy points out is "a regular Russian talking point" -- then Assad assumed he was "free to act without repercussions," a point also made by Sen. Mark Rubio (R-FL).

There is also the concern about how Russia has carried out its agreement to destroy the chemicals (did it allow Syria to keep some?) and to make sure that they did not acquire new chemicals.  Assuming that it is shown beyond reasonable doubt that it was Syrian forces that used them, Russia has some explaining to do.

One other thing that hasn't received much commentary:   On the surface anyway, Trump's response to this suggests that Putin does not have as much control over Trump as we had feared -- unless, of course, we're seeing play out a covert agreement between Trump and Putin to have a sham confrontation to throw us off the trail.

Frankly, Trump is so bad at subterfuge that I think that is unlikely.   Political theater -- creating a lot of obfuscating smoke -- I grant, he does well.   But actual, closely-observed, spy-worthy deception, he usually flunks.


Thursday, April 13, 2017

Sean Spicer's best asset: he makes Trump look good

Sean Spicer is having a bad week.   After his terrible reference to Hitler having "not used chemical weapons on his own people," Rachel Maddow also shredded him for constantly mispronouncing words.

He stumbles over acronyms, always referring to the President's Daily Briefing, not as PDB, but as PBD.  He mangles names, as in "Ashad" instead of "Assad," calling  Australia's President "Trunbull" instead of "Turnbull," and referring to the nightclub massacre being in "Atlanta" instead of "Orlando."  These were only a few examples.  Sean really needn't worry about losing his job though.   As someone observed:   "He makes Trump look good."

As if on cue, Trump proved it today when he related to a reporter how he had told China's President Xi about having launched 59 missiles at Iraq. (Sic!)   The reporter quickly corrected him that it was Syria.


PS:  Trump misstated because what he was really interested in was bragging to the reporter (and the world)  that he had told President Xi about the attack as they were finishing their dessert of "the most beautiful chocolate cake."   It was the greatest chocolate cake, ever.    At a Trump restaurant, of course.

How trivializing of an act that could have started a war.  What an immature way to treat a visiting head of state.  This is not behavior we should normalize.

More on Trump's motive for Syria attack

John Oliver noted that Trump got a lot of praise and admiration "for bombing someone;" and he said that we should be very very worried, because this is a man who "feeds off of praise."  (see Apr. 11 ShrinkRap post)

Paul Krugman said something equally concerning in his Tuesday New York Times column:
"Showy actions that win a news cycle or two are no substitute for actual, coherent policies. . . . The [Syria] attack instantly transformed news coverage of the Trump administration.   Suddenly stories about infighting and dysfunction were replaced with screaming headlines about the president's toughness.
". . . [T]here's no reason to believe that a one-time action will have any effect on the course of Syria's civil war. . . .  To achieve any lasting result, Mr. Trump would have to get involved on a sustained basis in Syria. 
"Doing what, you ask?  Well, that's the big question -- and the lack of good answers to that question is the reason President Barack Obama decided not to start something nobody knew how to finish."
As to why President Trump made a different decision and what comes next, Krugman is concerned about the rapid shift from a few days before.  He writes:
"What changed?  The images of poison gas victims were horrible, but Syria has been an incredible horror story for years.  Is Mr. Trump making life-and-death national security decisions based on TV coverage? . . ."
Krugnan then chastises the media pundits for overpraising and lowering the bar of expectations for normality with this president.
"You may recall how, a month and a half ago, pundits eagerly declared that Mr. Trump "became the president of the United States today" because he managed to read a speech off a teleprompter without going off script.  Then he started tweeting again.  
"One might have expected that experience to serve as a lesson.  But no:  The U.S. fired off some missiles, and once again Mr. Trump "became president."  Aside from everything else, think about the incentives this creates.  The Trump administration now knows that it can always crowd out reporting about its scandals and failures by bombing someone."
I have to agree, despite my initial positive feeling that, at least, Trump had some emotional response to human suffering and that the operation itself had been carried out competently by his stable of generals.  But that was admittedly not a consideration of the wisdom or long-range appropriateness of the action.

The Chinese press also weighed in -- after President XI had taken his leave from his host at Mar-a-Lago.   Xinhua, the state news agency, called the strike "the act of a weakened politician who needed to flex his muscles."  They also said Trump ordered the strike to distance himself from Syria's backers in Moscow, to overcome accusations that he was "pro-Russia."

I welcome this more sober analysis of this latest action of the 45th president of the U.S.   If Donald Trump were in fact a mole for Putin, with the mission to undermine our democracy from the inside, he could claim a measure of success already.   Trump and the media coverage have so lowered our expectations of what is normal behavior for a president that it may never be the same, just as the Supreme Court may also never be the same, now that Republicans have cemented in the partisan nature of the choice by eliminating the necessity for a measure of consensus rather than a simple majority.


Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Poor Sean Spicer -- he tries; but, man, sometimes he just shoulda stayed in bed.

Sean Spicer, White House Press Secretary, must have one of the worst jobs in the world.   He has to go out there every day and try to explain Donald Trump and his actions to a bunch of news reporters.   And he really, really tries.

But yesterday, YEOW.   Sean really messed up.   Trying to emphasize how bad Bashar Assad is for having used chemical weapons on his own people, he said:   "[Back in World War II] You know, you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn't even sink to using chemical weapons."

Oh, Sean.  Shame.   And on Passover . . . no. No. NO.


Breakinig News: FBI got FISA warrant for surveillance of Carter Page, whom Trump once named as a foreign policy adviser.

The Washington Post just reported this story last night. The FISA Court (for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) is a special court set up to approve warrants required before our intelligence agencies can put individuals in this country under surveillance, like wire taps, etc., for suspicion of working for a foreign power.

There are two categories of those who come under this court:  (1)  Non-US citizens in this country who are suspected of being agents of a foreign government;  those are fairly easy to get approved;  and (2) US citizens, for whom the FBI, etc. must present probably cause to think they might be acting as an agent of a foreign power.  A judge has to then review the case and decide.  This is not a warrant that is easily obtained.

The breaking news is that the FBI obtained such a warrant to put US citizen Carter Page under watch last summer.   Warrants are for 90 days and may be renewed, and it reportedly has been, at least once.   Carter Page has had an interesting relationship with the Trump campaign.   Last year, during the campaign, Trump was asked who his foreign policy advisers would be.  The second name he mentioned was Carter Page.

However, Page apparently never had an official position on the campaign, even though he was sort of around on the fringes, his name would come up, etc.  A spokeswoman said that he was "an informal adviser."  But it sounds more than that;  because, while Corey Lewandowski was still campaign manager, Page repeatedly asked his permission to make a trip to Russia.   The first time was fairly soon after it was first reported that Russia had hacked DNC emails.

Now Page is a wealthy businessman in the energy business, who has had business dealings in Russia of billions of dollars.  He lived in Russia for several years.   Why would he need the Trump campaign's permission to go to Russia -- and more than needing it, be turned down by Lewandowski more than once before he finally got permission.   What's that about, if he had no connection to the campaign?

This next is known, because Carter Page has acknowledged it himself, that in 2013 he was befriended by three Russian men in New York who wanted to discuss the energy business with him.  After several meetings, and at their request, Page supplied them with a report, presumably that he had access to as an insider in the business.

Later, these men were identified by the FBI as Russian spies;  and the one still in this country was arrested, tried, and has just finished his prison sentence.   They admitted to the FBI that in 2013 they were trying to recruit Page as a foreign "asset" (aka spy).  Carter Page apparently was unaware prior to that that they were spies, and he was not charged because, at that point, he had done nothing illegal.

However, in 2016, during the Trump campaign, this same Carter Page was put under surveillance by the FBI.   And now information from the warrant that allowed this has been leaked.  He has not been charged with anything.  News reports have emphasized how unheard of it is for a FISA warrant's mere existence to be leaked.  In this case, extensive information about the substance of the waiver request itself has been leaked.   So it sounds like some insider wanted to get this information out.  Page told the Washington Post reporters that this is simply evidence of the government's spying on people for political purposes.

We do not know whether they have picked up anything about Page or about his links with Russia, beyond that 2013 unwitting episode.   Nor do we know whether anything suspicious has been found about the Trump campaign's connections with Russia.  But we do know, beyond doubt now, that the FBI is looking.

It is an important development in the investigation into Trump/Russia.  The fact that someone has chosen to leak it is significant, because it probably is someone pretty important to have access to the warrant itself.

Stay tuned.


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Once again, listen to the comedian if you want the truth.

President Trump's missile strikes on the Syrian airfield did not get universal praise.   Many people were outraged, a lot more were concerned that the rapid change of policy, without a long range plan, could be the first step toward blundering into war.

But Trump also got a lot of admiration and approbation -- from pundits and from politicians from both parties.  Some admired the action itself, feeling that it was proportionate to the humanitarian tragedy created by Assad.   Others, who had chafed under President Obama's more studied and cautious approach, felt vindicated by a leader who would just draw a line and say "Enough.  Take THAT."   And worry about the consequences later.

For me, the initial positive note was not a judgment on the wisdom of the decision but the simple fact that, in an emergency, the Trump national defense team could assess analytically and act decisively; and, at least in first assessment, could do so successfully.  Of course, it wasn't an emergency, but it did demonstrate a level of competence that I had worried was not there, especially after the botched planning for the raid in Yemen.

Now, a few days later, as the results begin to become clear, assessing the wisdom of the decision puts a broader range of considerations in the spotlight.  I'll write about that in another post, but I'll let John Oliver have the first crack at it.  After some scathing criticism of the overblown -- Oliver called it "orgasmic" -- praise for the action by some cable news hosts, here's his important contribution.

He enumerated some serious questions that must be answered. Then he said that the truth is that, even though the bombing made some people feel good ('There!  We finally stood up to evil.'), in fact the strikes actually achieved nothing.   The airfield still works, planes took off from there the next day.

But here was his pithy assessment:  "There needs to be a tangible strategy acknowledging how difficult taking on Assad actually is.   Because right now we have a president who feeds off praise.  And he just got a lot of it for bombing someone.  And that should make everyone very, very worried."

Right on, John.   This president does not think deeply;  he reacts to the moment.  And he especially reacts to the size, and the roar, of the crowd -- either for him or against him.  So let's be careful what we reinforce.

The risk here is that what he internalized from this is the link:   "I ordered air strikes.  And people loved me for it."

That's very dangerous with those hands on the button.


Monday, April 10, 2017

Gorsuch = #9. What now for SCOTUS?

Judge Neil Gorsuch was confirmed as the ninth justice on the Supreme Court.   Will he make as much difference as liberals have been predicting?   Probably not, but still a lot.

First, I have to say that I think the Republicans have behaved outrageously in denying President Obama's constitutionally mandated right to nominate the next Supreme Court justice.   Nowhere does the law add "except in an election year" to that mandate.  Instead, the Republicans just said "No" to the process, refusing even to interview Judge Garland.

Even their "excuse" is false justification.  "Let the people decide" through the election favored the Democrat.  Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3 million votes.   Only the arcane math of the electoral college gave the presidency to Trump.  The people "chose" the liberal option, which would not have led to a Gorsuch nomination.

But now we have to deal with the reality that Gorsuch has been confirmed, and we now have a full complement of nine justices again.   How will he do?

My initial reaction when Trump announced his choice was relief that he had chosen someone who was highly qualified as a legal mind and a seriousness about the law -- not some outrageous, typical Trump pick, who has no experience in the field and/or who wants to destroy the department he's been nominated to run.   Aside from his position on the conservative/liberal spectrum, he seemed a good choice . . . better than expected from Trump.

Even on that spectrum, my initial thoughts were that he is replacing one of the most conservative justices on the court, so at least it wouldn't be worse than with Scalia.  It's the next vacancy that will be important in tipping the balance to the liberals or solidifying it for the conservatives.

However, as we got to know Gorsuch's history of legal opinions, concerns began to grow.   It's very clear that he strongly and consistently has favored business interests over individual claims of rights or injuries.   So expect him to be a reliable vote with Roberts and Alito for big business.  Forget overturning Citizens United.

On other issues, such as reproductive rights, "religious liberty" (aka LGBT discrimination), marriage equality, affirmative action, voting rights, expect him to vote with the conservative justices.

The big question to me, however, is:   Will he be able to take a tough stand against President Trump, if it should come to that -- say, on the travel ban?   I expect him to follow the law, as he reads it.   But will he be an independent voice within the law?   It's not always so clear-cut, black-or-white obvious what the law is.  Usually cases that make it to SCOTUS come down to a clash between two conflicting values.

We lost this round -- even if it was the Russians' and James Comey's fault that Clinton lost.   Our next real chance comes is November 2020.  Even if Trump gets impeached, then we have Pence.   So we wait, hoping that Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kennedy remain in good health and eager to continue serving until then.


Sunday, April 9, 2017

Trump's attack in Syria -- 24 hours later

The Friday night attack on a Syrian airbase in retaliation for Assad's chemical weapons attack on Syrian people is being characterized by Team Trump as having the limited goal of sending a warning message to Assad and to Russia.   They do, however, say that further action is not ruled out.

Thus far, it has had little concrete effect.  Syrian planes -- some said to have taken off from this same airport -- were out again on Saturday on bombing missions.  Syria's ability to make or use chemicals weapons remains intact.

Aides say a comprehensive plan for defeating ISIS is expected soon.  Such work has been hampered by the woefully inadequate staffing at the deputy and assistant secretary levels in both Defense and State Departments.

Whether there will be any long-range effect of this dramatic episode remains to be seen.


The big divide of income inequality

This chart was published by MarketWatch from the original by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

What is measured is a comparison of the incomes of the lower 50% of the U.S. population with that of the upper 1% over a 38 year span, 1980 to 2014.  The green line is for the lower 50%, the red line for the top 1%.

A group of economists, led by the noted Thomas Piketty, discussed the findings and concluded that, for the bottom half, growth has been nonexistent for a generation.  Income has actually gone down for the working class, who can no longer expect that their kids will have a better life than they did.

These experts said:  "An economy that fails to deliver growth for half of its people for an entire generation is bound to generate discontent with the status quo and a rejection of establishment politics."

Donald Trump's attention-seeking antics have come to eclipse anything like an economic message;   but "income inequality" used to be what the 2016 election was about -- 2008 and 2012 as well.   Remember John Edwards theme of "Two Americas" -- and all the talk abut Wall Street vs Main Street?

Trump is still making empty promises about bringing back coal miners' jobs, but everything he has actually done in office will hurt that lower 50%  even more, while making the 1% even richer.   His cabinet and senior staff are replete with Goldman Sachs financial people;  and the talk of a shakeup in White House staff will likely result of increased prominence of Wall Street interests -- and a decrease in anyone who represents that lower 50%.

In addition, Trump's tax cuts and budgetary proposals will help the wealthy and hurt the middle and lower classes who depend on social services.  His answer to this is that his policies will also greatly increase jobs and therefore income.  But that remains to be seen.   At this point, it looks like, under a Trump presidency, the income inequality is likely to increase, not decrease.