Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Et tu, Arlen?

Arlen Specter was elected to the Senate on the coattails of the Reagan Revolution in 1980. While I've never liked him, I have to admire his tenacity. He's beaten cancer. In 2004, he narrowly beat back a furious primary challenge for his Pennsylvania Senate seat by Pat Toomey. Recently, it's looked like Specter's long career was finally coming to a close. Pat Toomey has opted for another challenge for Specter's seat in the GOP primary for 2010, and polls have shown that Toomey was very likely to give Specter the boot this time around.

Today however Specter unleashed a big surprise for all those who had already written his political epitaph: He switched to the Democratic Party. I've come up with two different metaphors for what Specter has done.

It might be said that Specter is the Republican Party's "magic bullet." Specter of course was the young Warren Commission counsel who authored the single-bullet theory which suggested that only one bullet caused seven different wounds in President Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally in Dallas in 1963. Specter's defection has wounded the GOP in at least seven ways, probably more.

But a more poetic metaphor would be to think of the Republican Party as Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Mortally wounded, the GOP in 2009 staggers toward one of its most venerable supporters, only to be administered the coup de grace by Arlen Specter as Brutus.

So what does it all mean?

Al Franken will probably be sworn in to the Senate around the Fourth of July, when the court battles over the 2008 Senate election in Minnesota finally run their course. The make up of the Senate will then be 60 Democrats, 40 Republicans. 60 is the magic number, as it takes that many Senators to pass a cloture vote, which stops debate on any bill and brings it to a final vote. The bill then requires only majority support to become law. Since the GOP has gotten into the practice of filibustering pretty much every vote in the Senate, Democrats may finally get the chance to stop the obstructionism and get good government working again.

Speaking of Al Franken, the Specter defection gives Democrats some good leverage to finally get him seated. Specifically, Democrats can tell Republicans: Seat Al Franken and give him his committee assignments now, or we'll block a new organizing resolution that would let you reassign Specter's previously Republican committee seats to one of your own.

The Specter defection also reinforces the image of the GOP as a regional party reluctant to embrace anyone except conservative Christians in the American south. Senator Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican from Maine said today, "For me personally and then for the party, it's devastating... I've always been concerned about the Republican party nationally, about their exclusionary policies towards moderate Republicans."

Finally, the Washington Monthly has a good summary on how Specter's defection demonstrates that Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele is not getting any traction in his attempt to rebuild a party that has been devastated in the last two national elections: "Over the last month, the Republican Party has humiliated itself with a ridiculous alternative budget. Multiple polls show the GOP shrinking into a tiny national minority. The party lost a special election in New York where Republicans enjoy a significant advantage, and where Steele said the results would "send a powerful signal to the rest of the country." And today, the party lost one of its few remaining moderates, who noted upon his departure, "[T]he Republican Party has moved far to the right.""

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was in full damage-control mode today when he told reporters that Specter's move, "is not a national story. It is a Pennsylvania story." Mitch, I'm afraid that it's the Republican Party that's "no longer a national story."

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Start the Revolution without me

A little follow-up from my last post will dovetail nicely into today's topic. A new poll finds that half of Texas Republicans favor secession from the United States. I hope they get their wish.

Republican Congressman Ron Paul of Texas this week offered support for the principles of secession, calling them "very much American."

I like Ron Paul. I appreciate the fact that he's not afraid to criticize the Republican Party line. I was particularly amused by his "alternative convention" in Minneapolis last year for conservatives who had grown tired of the Bush/Cheney/McCain neo-conservative nightmare.

This post is my review of Ron Paul's The Revolution: A Manifesto. This slim volume was published last year at the (rather steep) retail price of $21.00.

The Revolution is Paul's libertarian plea for a return to "the principles of our Founding Fathers: liberty, self-government, the Constitution, and a noninterventionist foreign policy." Much of this book is good, much is not so good.

The book gets off to a really strong start. Chapter one is a searing indictment of the Bush Administration's foreign policy. Paul astutely notes that our conflicts in the Middle East are not due to a hatred our of freedom by the Muslim world. Instead they are the natural outcome of American policies. "People grow resentful," Paul points out, "when your government bombs them, supports police states in their countries, and imposes murderous sanctions on them," and, "about the only thing that can hold together the very loose coalition that Osama bin Laden has assembled is a common Muslim hatred for the impact of U.S. foreign policy." He also points out that if the American media were actually liberal, it would have challenged the Bush Administration's "intelligence" before the War in Iraq. Finally, he calls for a draw-down of our overseas commitments that currently require taxpayers to support 700 military bases around the world. Good stuff.

Unfortunately, most of the rest of this book is off the mark. He's very much against the Federal government coercing anyone to do anything, but if local government wants to tyrannize you, that's pretty much okay with him. He suggests that the issue of prayer in school was never meant to be decided by federal judges, because America is based on the principle of local self-government. So apparently, if your local school board wants to coerce children to pray in public school, that's just fine. Thanks Ron, very libertarian of you. If we logically continue this same line of thought, I guess the South should be free to re-instigate racial segregation if it so chooses.

Having suggested that the federal government is not legally entitled to do much of anything, Paul next suggests that it's also not capable of doing anything competently anyway. The examples he uses are premises to this argument are not good at all. He condemns the National Endowment for the Arts because it offers grants equally to all those apply. This in his mind is inferior to private support of the arts, which is more likely to give support to only "the best artists." So apparently, the only art worth funding is art judged worthy by the very wealthy. I disagree.

Paul's views on social security and medicare also make no sense to me. He claims that, "we do not have the resources to sustain these programs in the long run." The fact is, every other leading nation in the world provides old age pensions and health care for their elderly citizens, and few of them are as wealthy or productive as the U.S.

The balance of his views on American health care really scare me. He notes that Americans are unsatisfied with HMO's, but he blames this on the federal government, as it endorsed the creation of HMO's in the 1970's. He seems to believe that the greed and corruption to be found in the HMO industry are somehow the government's fault rather than the fault of the HMO's themselves. As the solution to America's health care woes, Paul endorses private, tax-free health care savings accounts for non-catastrophic care. He makes no mention however of how such a system would cope with the fact that many if not most Americans are not capable of saving a lot of money just for the day when they will need cash-and-carry health care services.

Many of Paul's economic arguments are based on an incorrect understanding of historic fact. For example, he seems to long for the Gilded Age of the 19th century, before the trust-busting federal government decided to interfere in the free market. Paul says that American history books claim that, "Alleged 'monopolies' dictated prices to hapless consumers. Laborers were forced to accept ever-lower wages. And thanks to their superior economic position, giant corporations effortlessly parried the attempts of anyone foolish enough to try to compete with them." But, he says, "Even single aspect of this story is false." I'm sorry, but it's Paul's beliefs that are false. Before the anti-trust laws began to be enforced during Teddy Roosevelt's administration, it was standard operation procedure for the leaders of every industry to destroy all innovative competition, while at the same time fixing prices and wages, and as financier Jay Gould said, "hire one half of the working class to kill the other half."

Paul rounds out the book with two more topics, civil liberties and monetary policy. In the chapter on civil liberties, he provides a good summary of the ways in which the Bush Administration threw the Bill of Rights out the window. The chapter on monetary policy however, is kind of a rambling mess. He sure doesn't like the Federal Reserve. He thinks the policy of injecting more money into a sagging economy is extremely inflationary. Well, the Fed is injecting money like crazy into the economy right now in 2009. Are we seeing runaway inflation? No.

The most chilling argument I found in this section of the book was Paul's suggestion that the activities of the Fed, "prevent the liquidation of bad debt and the elimination malinvestment and overcapacity," which helps to, "keep financial bubbles inflated and make the eventual collapse all the more severe." So apparently, if financial markets are crashing and the economy is headed for recession or depression, we should just let the crash happen and do nothing. This was Hebert Hoover's approach from 1929-1933, and it did not work, to say the least. By contrast, FDR's approach of government investment restored America's Gross Domestic Product to 1929 levels in just four years.

To summarize, I agree with Dr. Paul on the principles of a non-interventionist foreign policy and on civil liberties, but I disagree with him on everything else. Still, I'll take his brand of conservatism over that of Bush-Cheney and McCain-Palin any day of the week.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Texas secession: yes please

What is a "Tax Day Tea Party?" Well, I'm told that it's a protest "aimed at expressing outrage over government spending."

Apparently there really isn't all that much outrage out there. Only about 3,500 people attended the Tea Party in New York City, and only 1,000 in Washington D.C. That's pretty weak turnout, considering that the events were openly sponsored and extensively promoted by Fox News, as well as by a lot of big-money Republicans. When 500,000 or more protested the war in Iraq in New York, I thought it was worthy of attention. These protests were more like, well, a tempest in a teacup.

I did find one thing about this week's protests to be interesting. Texas Governor Rick Perry suggested Texans might at some point get so fed up with the Federal government that they might want to secede from the Union.

Texas wants to leave the Union? Good. Don't let the door hit you on the way out. Lincoln should have let the South go at the end of the Civil War. Once the institution of slavery was dead, why not?

This country has always had two fundamentally opposed philosophies. One is the "Christian Conservative" philosophy, mostly popular in the South. The other is the "rational" philosophy, favored by people who actually use their brains. We live mostly in the North.

So please, Texas, take America's evangelicals and go. Make a new country the way you want it. This will give the rest of us the chance to make the U.S. government work without having to worry about you winning the next election and dragging us back down into another superstitious, war-mongering nightmare. Nate Silver wrote a nice post this week about how the secession of Texas would cripple the Republican Party in the U.S.

What would the independent government of Texas look like? To answer that question, I think we just need to review the platform of the Texas Republican Party. Details here, here and here:

* Christianity as official state religion.

* Education based on vouchers for private, religious schools rather than public schools.

* Assistance for the needy based only on government supported "faith-based initiatives."

* The elimination of income tax, inheritance tax, gift tax, capital gains, corporate income tax, payroll tax and property tax. Sales tax, of course, is just dandy.

* No social security.

* No institutions equivalent to the Bureau of Tobacco and Firearms, the position of Surgeon General, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Departments of Energy, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Education, Commerce and Labor, the National Endowment for the Arts and Public Broadcasting System.

* No membership in the United Nations.

* No minimum wage.

* Perpetual war against "radical Islam."

* Prayer in schools.

* Teaching "intelligent design."

* No affirmative action.

* No reproductive freedom.

* Legal prohibition of homosexuality. Also, the re-imposition of archaic "sodomy" laws that affect even married heterosexuals.

* Criminalization of illegal immigration.

* A private sector "unencumbered by excessive government regulation."

* No nude statues in public places.

You probably think I made that last one up. I wish I had. I wish I didn't live in a country with people who think this way. Yes, I wish they'd leave.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Dare to dream: Bill O'Reilly's Enemies List

I mentioned to some friends this week that Fox News crazy person Bill O'Reilly maintains his own Enemies List on the web. They assumed that they had misheard me. "Do you mean," they asked, "that someone is keeping a list of all the people and/or groups that O'Reilly has condemned? I'm sure Fox News itself wouldn't actually maintain something like that."

No, you heard me right the first time. Bill O'Reilly maintains an enemies list on his web site, which he calls his Media Outlets "Hall of Shame."

It all started you see in 2005, after Bill invited Al Qaeda to destroy the Coit Tower in San Francisco. Once again, I am not kidding. Criticizing a ballot measure passed by San Francisco voters urging public high schools and colleges to prohibit on-campus military recruiting, O'Reilly declared in November of 2005 that the rest of America should tell San Franciscans that, "[I]f Al Qaeda comes in here and blows you up, we're not going to do anything about it. We're going to say (to Al Qaeda), look, every other place in America is off-limits to you, except San Francisco."

Not surprisingly, O'Reilly's remarks became the talk of the Internet. His reaction was swift: "I’m glad the smear sites made a big deal out of it. Now we can all know who was with the anti-military internet crowd. We’ll post the names of all who support the smear merchants on billoreilly.com. So check with us."

And of course as far as O'Reilly's concerned, if any source quotes his outrageous remarks and criticizes them, that source is "smearing" him.

When the Hall of Shame was first posted later in November, 2005, it only included three names, all of them mainstream media rather than web-based sources: MSNBC, The St. Petersburg Times, and the New York Daily News. The News was presumably chosen because it had the distinction of breaking the 2004 story of O'Reilly's sexual harassment of Fox News employee Andrea Mackris. Referring to the Hall of Shame as O'Reilly's "Enemies List" stems of course from memories of Richard Nixon's Enemies List. Nixon's original list was compiled for him by Charles Colson in 1971. Actor Paul Newman once stated that his inclusion on the list was one of his greatest accomplishments.

Since 2005, O'Reilly's list hasn't grown very much. He also has not, alas, added any web-based news sources or bloggers to the list, despite the fact that he originally promised to do so. The list did make news again this past week when Roger Ebert thanked O'Reilly for adding the Chicago Sun-Times to the Hall of Shame. Ebert observes that the Sun-Times is not looking for the favor of, "a man who turns red and starts screaming when anyone disagrees with him."

Mister O'Reilly, I implore you: add bloggers to the Hall of Shame. I can think of no greater achievement for Joe's Prediction than to one day earn membership.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Victory for Equality and what it means for 2012

My recent posts on gay marriage have proven more timely than I expected. In the space of a few days, Iowa has legalized gay marriage, the Vermont Legislature has voted to let same-sex couples marry, and so has the House of Representatives in New Hampshire.

Loony Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King has demanded that the state legislature now enact marriage license residency requirements so that Iowa does not become "the gay marriage Mecca." This strikes me as an odd attitude, as Iowa can certainly use the money.

So hooray for equality! I have one other observation. Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post made a good point last week regarding the impact that gay marriage in Iowa will likely have on the Republican race for the Presidency in 2012. As much as the rest of the country may hate it, winning the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus is still critical to winning a Presidential nomination. Gay marriage in Iowa gives a boost to the Republican Party's social conservatives, who will undoubtedly compete to see who can go the craziest demanding that equality be repealed. Given that the Christian Right and the GOP aren't as cozy with each other as they used to be, this is a significant development.