Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Why do far-away citizens care about one lousy Assembly election in Milwaukee?

By Dominique Paul Noth

I had several themes when I wrote my article on the JohnHermes race for the State Assembly in District 82, but basically wanted to wake up the citizens in Franklin and Greendale (plus a sliver of Greenfield and tracts of the city) to a harsh reality. Given the holiday shopping date of the special election, December 17, they were in danger of being shanghaied by a minority who always shows up to vote way out of proportion to the community’s genuine rounded interests.

Unlike Brazil or many other countries where voting is high or nigh mandatory,  less than half the eligible US voters turn out for local, district or even statewide elections – a tragedy in itself.  But in this case, less than 5% could determine the new incumbent in the Madison legislature, as a similar sliver just did in nearby Assembly District 21.

However you lean in your philosophy, this is flat wrong and lazy. It robs reasonable and intelligent residents concerned about their communities a fair voice in their own future.

One of the larger themes in my article was political strategy around turnout  -- are we blaming those who run for public office for failures that are the consequences of our own ignorance, inattention or  indifference? The 82nd is shaping up as a precision attack on partisan gridlock at a horrible time for off-year elections. Hermes the Democrat is seeking out a middle ground emphasizing the need for locals to demand a bigger voice in Madison in the face of entrenched party machinery, power games and finances – all intrusions citizens said they loathed in my extensive interviews.  But then, again, few promised they would get to the polls Dec. 17 to express that loathing.

But there was another theme that, somewhat to my surprise, brought instant response by email, social media and phone calls from throughout Wisconsin and from states as far-flung as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Colorado, California and Georgia  where they don’t know John Hermes from Miley Cyrus.

Citizens and journalists had their own examples of local elections driven awry by special interests married to a simplistic narrative or kneejerk label.  One of the most popular labels seems this cry of “no new taxes!” to defeat any effort at local improvement. Yet the cry often comes from people uninformed of how badly their current tax burden already represents special interests running amuck that no one paid attention to.  Nor how that  “no new taxes” mantra actually destroys sensible corrections of current policy as well as new ways of generating jobs, revenue and the “quality of life” that taxes are supposed to be about.

 Legislative races don’t directly deal with local  taxes, but party labels propel some nonsensical  extremist views about lock-step tax and spend ideologies, as opposed to calculated correction and fresh ideas from individuals seeking public office. Meanwhile the “no new tax” cry drives to the polls a gaggle of government haters who don’t want politicians to do anything but follow their commands, whatever those may be.

The  messages to me  – and they came from devout conservatives as well as progressives  – provided  example upon example of what author and historian Thomas Frank explored in  his 2004 best-seller “What’s the Matter With Kansas,” how ideological exaggerations could get people to vote again and again against their own economic interests.

As one Appleton  correspondent told me,  this is not a right or left issue, but a case of whether sensible locally committed citizens show up at these “boring and wonkish” local elections (his description) to take back their municipal or state representation.  A colleague from Georgia shared an editorial about how unforeseen high turnout in a county election provided a surprisingly intelligent outcome:  “When there is a comparative strong turnout it is not the liberals that win, not even the progressives, but rather those who have thought about the matters at hand and reached their own conclusions.

From Pennsylvania as well as northeast Wisconsin  came details of how routine bond issues, property development, school expansions and the like were routinely defeated when 10% of the community controlled the ballot box. But several messages also celebrated the simple turn-around when a mere 30% of residents showed up to vote more reflectively about local needs.

No wonder the billionaires such as the notorious Koch brothers, the Walton family and other groups have shifted so much of their money away from failed national  frontal assaults (such as backing Romney) to targeting local elections, school board races, bond issues and the like.  It is here where citizens are hardest to rouse and a small committed group of ideologists can be stampeded to the polls against the desires of the community at large.

Frankly, though I sell to many outlets,  I had trouble pitching this story about the 82nd district and decided to post it myself.  The resistance  reminded me of the issues facing today’s journalism.  Democracy is indeed hard work, journalism has to explore nuances yet the Internet discourages discussions outside ideological confines or longer than four paragraphs  – and geographical terrain tends to dominate, so if you don’t have a lot of eyeballs in Franklin and Greendale, why run such a story?  The citizens of Milwaukee County are suffering from a narrowing rather than expanding exchange of research and analysis in the local mass media.

How curious that folks in other states picked up on the lesson faster. But they know. The shrunk turnout in local elections at odd times of year has crippled the general future of our democracy and republic and cost many communities forward-looking efforts to deepen community growth.  So this is no longer an issue of narrow geography or  Twitter one-liners but broad social and government policy.  How we get more people to vote is vital. Even in one lousy Milwaukee assembly race.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Hermes rides local desire for sensible middle in Madison legislature

The perfect test tube for a strategy that may roll out in many Wisconsin state elections in 2014:  Emphasize local desires. Downplay the partisan gridlock.

 By Dominique Paul Noth

John Hermes facing Dec. 17 election to Assembly.
During extensive chats in the shops and neighborhoods of Franklin and Greendale after Thanksgiving, residents active in both parties agreed: This time the Democrats have the best known, more energetic and proven candidate for State Assembly District 82.

So much so that two Republican headhunters even sheepishly confessed they had tried to recruit John Hermes for the GOP ticket, until they learned about the Democratic ties and principles of the Greendale village president.  Now he’s even been endorsed by the local Republicans’ original choice in next door AD21, Steve Scaffidi, the Oak Creek mayor who withdrew when pressured to toe the Madison majority line. 

But since the race occurs Dec. 17 the right-wing believes it has the edge. The special Tuesday election is a week before Christmas. A regular Assembly race in a presidential year – such as November 2012 -- drew nearly 30,000 district voters and even in off-year competition can easily garner 23,000.

Yet both parties estimate Dec. 17 could attract a total of 6,000– and maybe not that many if the weather is bad or citizens are behind on holiday shopping.  The GOP remains supremely confident that some 2,500 to 3,000 of their diehards will vote the R side of the ballot whomever.  Buying into that view, much of the local media has ignored this race because it is not partisanly juicy on the surface.

It’s an old off-year story. “The best qualified should win public office” – that’s  what  the people  always say. Yet they let a tiny group that actually turns up at the polls decide -- especially with these bizarre special elections for the Madison legislature that fall way outside the normal voting calendar.

But there is a contrary mood heavily at work when you talk with the residents – an underlying dislike for labeling expectations, a growing agitation about the pundit assumptions about past practices.

The contest is a perfect test tube for a strategy that may roll out in many Wisconsin state elections in 2014:  Emphasize the local desires and downplay the partisan gridlock. Get through to voters’ real concerns even at a weird time in an off-year.

The Republicans are  banking on how Romney won the district over Obama in 2012 and how GOP Rep. Jeff Stone – who rode a moderate conciliatory image in the late 1990s to win and maintain after decades of Democratic control – got  60% over popular teacher but novice politico Kathleen Wied Vincent in 2012.

But there is a relevant counter-narrative that exposes the danger of relying on old labels, past laurels and selective voting data. This is also the district where Tammy won handily over Tommy for US senate in 2012. And Stone lost all vestiges of a moderate label when he jumped away mid-term this fall to take a better-paying job with the Gov. Scott Walker administration, forcing this odd election.

“I know where these families came from,” noted Milwaukee historian John Gurda, recalling how these suburbs on the edge of Milwaukee County grew dynamically through government incorporation after World War II. Even the area’s state senate seat had for decades before Mary Lazich been the domain of Democrat Lynn Adelman, now an influential federal judge.  “This is hardly a locked Republican area,” Gurda commented. “And certainly not in this climate.”

There is no joining at the political extremist hip between Franklin and Greendale (the 50,000 population heart of the district) and AD82 includes a sliver of Greenfield and key tracts of the city of Milwaukee that lean more liberal.

Republican planners concede that their choice, Ken Skowronski, faced a lot of opposition within the party to win its Nov. 19 primary and draws little of the outside money that helped other GOP candidates survive.  He has been described by peers as “notably crusty” and gave a WisconsinEye interview that emphasized his faithfulness to whatever his party leaders are backing in Madison. He actually told a neighbor that he was running mainly because the Assembly would be a “feather in my cap” after combative terms as Franklin alderman.

But even left-leaning Daily Kos senses the right’s confidence. After noting Skowronski is “certainly not a top candidate,” Kos analysts  slyly added, “However, he may not need to be.”

Yet Hermes has won handily in a conservative environment since 1998 as village president (a position he will resign if he wins the Assembly).  He is a leading force in 76th St. business corridor expansion.  He’s an influential leader in the private-public Aerotroplis to interconnect and galvanize regional transit and is a respected commissioner on the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District. He champions academic ties to improve southeastern Wisconsin job creation through the Water Council and the University of Wisconsin NanoTechnology Hub.

All that, along with a clean campaign pledge, leads him to expect the opposition to play nice.  “I don’t think the Republicans would dare come after me on economic issues,” Hermes said, who modestly rated his own WisconsinEye interview at “80% okay” though his answers were forthright and his command of the issues voluminous.

But his Democratic roots (including negotiator and committee chair for the Air Traffic Controllers Association during his three decades as FAA controller) are not on blatant display in this contest. His campaign is hardly hiding the fact but rather emphasizing experience, service and rounded support from municipal leaders, education and community groups and such unions as the nurses and operating engineers.

That may not be enough for the Democrats that spit bile at the mere mention of Gov. Scott Walker, his agenda and tactics – an exorcism moment that creates hostility even among traditional Republicans now discovering the governor does not represent the Party they grew up in.

Hermes’ early literature was not developed around his reputation as pro-choice, anti voucher schools, pro equal pay for women and pro environment sensibility – though he frankly discusses all positions at the doors and has given speeches strongly defending women’s rights.  “I don’t think of those as left or right issues, just sensible,” he told me.

As village president he conceded some temporary gains from Act 10 he could take advantage of for taxpayers while excoriating the exclusion of police and fire unions that would have most helped Greendale’s bottom-line.  He also disliked Walker’s methods and treating “professional managers as wimps” incapable of negotiating across an even collective bargaining table. “To pretend we don’t know how to deal with our workers was just insulting,” he said in an interview. That’s a stance on Act 10 that Wisconsin could see more from many Democrats in state races in November.

Hermes was also one of the first municipal leaders to publicly attack the GOP assault on residency rules as destructive of local control.

This  “big tent” approach -- though embraced in national Democratic strategy -- has chilled a few activists in the party’s left-most wing. They want the D more prominent on his campaign literature and more “in your face” political tactics.

 “Everyone has their own style,” said Hermes in an interview. “All campaigns say they will reach across the aisle to work with the other side. The difference is that when I reach out, the other side actually wants to reach back.”

That’s why he has emphasized broad endorsements from municipal chiefs across ideological lines – Whitefish Bay, Cudahy, Brown Deer, city and county of Milwaukee, West Allis and even the mayor of Racine. “They know me as a common-sense facilitator, to get both sides together,” said Hermes.

His campaign manager, Democratic strategist Brandon Savage, thinks Hermes is the ideal candidate for the district and has strictly controlled the messaging, even stiffing more absolutist party voices. 

 “We’ve got to express the urgency of keeping local representation front and center in Madison rather than using the same old playbook,” Savage said. “We have to think outside that narrow box.”

But Dec. 17 still comes down to which voters jump out of the box.  Hermes needs to draw from traditional Democrats (11,854 turned out for Vincent) as well as crossover Republicans and those disenchanted with intrusive state politics.  

Vincent, who withdrew from the race in October with enthusiastic praise for Hermes --- “he’s the real deal,” she told me – has cooled of late, feeling her doorbell and signage techniques were not given fuller hearing by the Hermes managers. “I know he’s the better candidate,” she told me Nov. 30, “but I don’t feel my role should be endorsing anyone directly, more preserving my own options.  These are citizens who should make up their own minds.”

 “It’s the main thing I hear at the doors,” Hermes said. “People are tired of no middle anymore, of being told what brand to vote for. They want party extremists to stay out.”

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Triple weasel words -- Dolan, Walker and PolitiFacts

By Dominique Paul Noth
Dolan receiving Milwaukee  social justice award
We’ve entered strange times when New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan shows a shrewder  grasp of marketing language and more skill at semantic manipulation than either Gov. Scott Walker or those hired wordsmiths of the Journal-Sentinel PolitiFacts team.

It was in Milwaukee as archbishop that Dolan polished his ability to play all sides of the class warfare strata, spouting conservative rhetoric backing GOP style politics while supporting -- in newsletters and award ceremonies at least -- the church’s traditional progressive vision of social justice.

That’s a talent he has deepened as leader of the US bishops. Now he adroitly encourages media quotes on the horrors of the Affordable Care Act (opposing contraception despite those lavish religious exemptions) yet quietly backtracks in other statements to support the ACA as helping Americans to better health care.  If this is a selective and sanctimonious word game, how would you describe any politician’s campaign platform?

More recently Dolan has used the techniques of an infomercial pitchman to explain why gay marriage is on the upswing against his own bishops’ statements and actions.  (In state after state, 16 so far, many with high Catholic populations, full marriage rights for gay partners have become the law of the land, with more on the horizon.)

Catholics, he suggests, were falsely painted as “anti-gay” and had been “out-marketed” by “Hollywood” and vague “opinion-makers.”  It is typical Dolan shrewdness – and probably fair to let him have his say in a breaking news story, where readers can see the holes in his argument and decide for themselves. It is in analysis, the sort of digging into the facts that PolitiFacts is supposed to be about, that a different picture should emerge.

Since PolitiFacts hasn’t and probably won’t dissect Dolan, we will. As a reporter who actually interviewed Dolan, I know exactly what sort of misdirection he is up to – and it’s not quite what leaders of SNAP (the Survivors Network of Abused by Priests) are saying, that he is deflecting attention from the church’s pedophilia problem. He’s actually carving a public relations narrative of his own – that the church is not against gays or anyone, but has been outmaneuvered for the time being by clever opponents.

The hole is obvious.  Dolan has creatively ducked the central issue in a democratic society -- human rights – by suggesting this is all about better salesmanship. But religions abandoned exclusive control of the word “marriage” over centuries of letting secular powers determine who gets licensed to marry or perform the ceremony.

Blood tests, documents, elected or appointed officials as well as delegated religious leaders are all equally engaged and approved by secular regulation – and it goes deeper. Marriage had been legally limited in definition, in obeisance to dominant religions in the US, as between one man and one woman. To back that up, all manner of legal rights – tax laws, inheritance, hospital visits and dozens more in regulations  – were embedded in the process. Only now is the public catching on, thanks to activists. It’s dawned that such constricting legal binds have turned the word “marriage” into a “human right” far more than a religious term for a sacrament or ritual.

Dolan knows the church can’t win that debate in a free society, so he claims the church is losing to smarter PR rather than on  a moral ground.

If this were PolitiFacts, which analyzes news statements for accuracy and attempts to rate the truth or consequences, Dolan’s explanation  would require a robust discussion of semantic trickery and historic  rationale. But Wisconsin PolitiFacts  team, a curious mix of journalists and political mouthpieces, dodges and weaves when it comes to calling out Walker.

The gov now spends most of his time AWOL -- out of state pitching hay in the presidential sweepstakes. And he’s getting away with slick evasion in studio interviewers with  TV talking heads pretending to be journalists. Perhaps they can be excused for not knowing the ins and outs of his behavior in Wisconsin, allowing him to say he is not about hot-button social issues but focused on economic policies. At least it sounds to the uninitiated that he’s not vindictive on matters of women, marriage, worker rights and voter ID.

But what can possibly be PolitiFacts’ excuse for letting him say that? They know the real Walker intimately, as well as his statistically provable  ineptitude on the fiscal success he’s pitching.

It is Wisconsin journalists who have studied his whole career who should be stepping up immediately when he plays fast and loose in those studios and podiums far away. They know how heavily he has engaged in vaginal probe laws for women, against equal pay initiatives, opposing any municipality having better rules on wages or sick pay,  forcing poor families off Medicaid and so forth. They know how only while campaigning for president has he backed away from taking a position on issues he has privately supported, such as abstinence-only sex ed in schools,  demeaning mascot names and right to work legislation.

There is a movement afoot to have Amazon place Walker’s “Unintimidated” in the fiction bin where it belongs.  But his co-authored version of his reign as governor will not be heavily marketed in Wisconsin in any case. There are too many citizens, politicians -- and journalists -- who can tell the real stories. Not PolitiFacts, apparently.

Local journalists should jump all over the sales myth he is hawking outside the state. Yet JS amply discusses all these fables he pitches on the national campaign trail as news stories and in analyses don’t even trot out its standard  “Pants on Fire” or even the bizarre label  “Half True”  (why not half false?). Admittedly, these half and half  labels  have  become a PolitiFacts safety valve to avoid offending advertisers, using  fine print loopholes so that a statement that is completely true to the knowledgeable public  can be labeled half true to avoid upsetting conservative readers  –  especially if Mary Burke said it.

But the kicker came when Walker discussed his opposition to gay marriage and PolitiFacts treated it as an “In Context” discussion -- as if simply explaining on behalf of Scott  how he never intended to sound so extreme on gay marriage. It was quite a show since PolitiFacts usually pounces when a politician stands the dictionary on its ear.

Walker said he was merely following a state amendment (not mentioning how heavily it is under legal attack), yet the newspaper ignored the recent past when he gave  full-throated support against gay marriage, defending one man-one woman because it worked with voters. They also know through the John Doe probe he openly hired the sort of  gay staff members who can be arrested while opposing hospital visitation rights for gay couples.

To allow him to describe his current position as “a healthy  balance” between opposing camps is sheer nonsense that should have been nailed.  All this turns  PolitiFacts into a  bigger joke and  a deeper stain on objective journalism than it was.  And reminds readers that the worst mumbo-jumbo of labels or non-labels defending Walker can be traced back to one writer.

But frankly politics shouldn’t matter.  PolitiFacts is supposed to analyze and probe independently, opposing any fudging from any quarter --  rather than allowing more fudging.  It would be wrong if they protected Obama. What they are  doing to let Walker off the hook is shameful.

The author is a former senior editor at The Milwaukee Journal and recent editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Secret right-wing money steps hard into Wisconsin legislature

By Dominique Paul Noth

National news media have caught on that secretive right-wing funding networks are focused not just on the presidential race and major gubernatorial and senate contests but most effectively in the normally sleepy hollows of state politics. From Iowa to Ohio to Colorado to Wisconsin, from school boards to city halls and other local run-offs, under the guise of ALEC, Koch funded groups such as Americans for Prosperity and the innocent sounding State PolicyNetwork, outside wealth from the Citizens United case and other decisions have upset the homegrown apple cart.

Races that used to about local concerns and which candidate could make the best case and do the most doors have been turned into a sophisticated expensive blitz of mailers, radio ads and half-truth generalities.

Special legislative elections in Wisconsin are driving the point home.  In Milwaukee County’s Assembly District 21 (suburban communities Oak Creek, South Milwaukee and an inserted slice of Franklin), the state GOP  passed up the local Republican’s best choice (popular Oak Creek Mayor Steve Scaffidi quit after being told how to run by Madison powers and has now announced his support for the Democrat in the contest next door, John Hermes in District 82).
Jessie Rodriguez (left) had far more
 outside money than Elizabeth Coppola in District 21.

After turning down the preferred local choice,  the state GOP was forced to rely not on groundswell but on outside right-wing funders to push Jessie Rodriguez into the legislature (much to the anger of her four GOP primary opponents, equally right-wing but more reliant on community campaign support).

The money used to elect her as well as the deceptive motives proved staggering – and insurmountable Nov. 19.    It apparently works out to about $40 for every vote Jessie got.

Rodriguez drew a mere 4,546 votes to win a district of some 60,000 people. This was less than a third of the usual turnout in such assembly races, but not unexpectedly low given the week before Thanksgiving timing.  Here’s the first reality --- passivity. Only about a tenth of those of voting age in the district determined their representative, and it wasn’t even with their own money or sweat. Or their own issues, since voucher schools don’t yet exist in a district where public schools are much admired.

While the tale of the tape is in the math, deeper arithmetic is elusive since much of the money for Rodriguez came in unreported “issue advocacy” ads – you know, those misleading radio commercials that concoct a position for a candidate and then urge listeners to “call Elizabeth Coppola and tell her to oppose increasing property taxes” though the Democrat never mentioned increasing taxes in her campaign talks or literature. But under the current bizarre rules, this is not advocacy for Rodriguez because she was not named.

In Wisconsin in particular such issue ads played into the politics of divisiveness, with progressives and unions clearly still  upset over forced policies rammed through the legislature and believers in Gov. Scott Walker convinced that  landing hard on workers was the only way to cut tax costs.  The facts reveal that taxes are going up, as are state deficits, and that it is needed public services not fat that has been cut, but the dominant ads are more persuasive than the nuanced realities.

Smart guessers say an additional $60,000 was “spent for Jessie” in such undisclosed advocacy buys and in multiple home mailers from Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, not subject to the same reporting rules as conduits and contributions directly to a candidate.  What is known is that as a lobbying group, WMC is in third biggest spender in the state.

The $24,000 portion of radio buys by the Jobs First Political Coalition is reportable as is the initial $45,647 from the American Federation for Children, a national school voucher advocacy collection agency for the rich based in D.C. that intrudes on many local elections and usually disguises its actual voucher agenda. (It is No. 9 on the state lobbying list.) In a report now deleted from its website, AFC boasted of spending more in Wisconsin on elections than any other state, nearly $2.5 million. Its leader, Betsy DeVos, is the former chair of the Michigan Republican Party while her brother, Eric Prince, founded Blackwater, the private military contractor.

AFC was effective in District 21 by hiding its core mission.  It talked only vaguely about choice (obviously educational choice and definitely not choice for women’s reproductive rights) but quickly turned its mailers into attacking Elizabeth Coppola as the outsider – she had moved into the district from the southern edge of that foreign land known as Milwaukee -- and mainly defending Gov. Walker’s “rescue” of local property tax expenses (despite the reality they are actually increasing).

If you combine the known outside money, the unknown outside money and the direct campaign contributions to Rodriguez of $48,000 by individuals and such groups as the realtors – it’s clear that whatever doors Rodriguez  visited did not drive her appeal . It was the radically high advertising money, following the food coupon formula that a mere one-hundredth of one percent return justifies the investment.

In contrast, the third-party funding for Coppola of $30,815 and her own campaign gathering of $25,000 translated into a more normal $15 for every one of the 3,520 votes she got – and obviously she thought this reasonable expenditure on supportive literature and contacts would carry greater weight. Comparing how the campaigns operate could be interpreted as sour grapes, but it certainly pinpoints the reality of why relying on outside money and issues not central to the community can indeed work, particularly in local contests.

There are wheels within wheels of this funding game that clarify why the GOP paid so enormous a price to secure a temporary seat.  The campaign is likely to be repeated in bipartisan funding fashion in November of 2014, less than a year away. The Democrats wanted to run on issues and what’s best for the community, but now they may decide that it’s all about how much money is employed no matter the source or the motives.

Incumbency gives every candidate an edge, but a year also gives voters time to decide on issues not blandishments, which has to worry Rodriguez supporters when they look at how shallow her reach proved – a pretty pitiful 4,546 votes.

Some progressive wags openly suggest she is a mere stalking horse for a politician barred by law from running. That may be too insulting since by reflective mirror Jessie Rodriguez has national voucher funding status from her role with Hispanics for School Choice, headed by her brother-in-law, Zeus Rodriguez, and her marriage to right-wing blogger Aaron Rodriguez, who wields strong GOP contacts.  

But there is a banned name haunting her campaign ---
Scott Jensen
Scott Jensen, the once powerful GOP Assembly leader forced out of office for misconduct and then convicted and sentence reversed on jurisdictional issues involving felony campaign fraud.  In 2010 he finally reached a deal to avoid felony sentencing by paying a fine and agreeing never to run for any public office in the future.

Immediately Jensen became a behind the scenes funding source, aided by the secretive nature of third-source money. He is closely allied with Jobs First (which parrots Walker’s take on business stats) and the American Federation for Children that poured such enormous money into the Rodriguez election.

You can dismiss as left-wing bile these open suggestions that Jensen has now bought a political office he can run as a puppet master in his old assembly home turf. But you can’t escape the reality of “follow the money” and wonder why so much was invested by his groups in this election.

And here’s another game to ponder with.  The Waukesha DA who made the deal to keep Jensen out of prison is Brad Schimel, who is now the lone Republican announced to run for Wisconsin attorney general now that J.B. Van Hollen says he is abandoning the seat.  It will be interesting to read between the lines of the secretive money that backs Schimel in this bid.  Any bets?

Monday, November 18, 2013

What’s beyond the pale on Sarah Palin?

By Dominique Paul Noth

The erudite and sarcastic British born commentator Martin Bashir, host of a popular weekday afternoon show on cable network MSNBC, opened his November 18 program with a lengthy and clearly seriously contrite apology to Sarah Palin for remarks he made in his end of week telecast November 15.
Martin Bashir on MSNBC

Which immediately raised a question for viewers – can cable news really insult Sarah Palin?

What could he possibly have said about a fading political figure who gets too much air-time anyway for her mangled rhetorical meanderings and has a penchant for thrusting herself into the media spotlight?  She simply reminds us all she is too easy a target and cable news thrives on easy targets.

So what happened? Did he insult her looks?  Her children? Her gender? Did he make some jest about transvaginal probes in her life or some similar Bill Maher moment, since that cable humorist loves to harp on her mannerisms and personal failings? All that would obviously be out of bounds for a TV news show and warrant such an opening minute groveling, as long as “60 Minutes” devoted to apologizing for welcoming a liar into its Benghazi report.

So naturally thousands of curious viewers who missed the first show rushed into the video archives to find what horrors Bashir had hit Palin with.  The results speak volumes about the speed to apology of MSNBC journalism standards more than about Palin herself.

 Because Bashir was clearly outraged – and deserved to be -- that Palin in a speech said the Affordable Care Act was a new form of slavery, slurring her offhand denial that anyone who took her comments as supporting racism would clearly be out of bounds.

What infuriated Bashir was simply comparing an effort to help people with health coverage to shackling people into servitude, that being beholden to any effort at government service or debt was equivalent to slavery.  The choice of comparison itself suggested Palin didn’t know anything about the true horrors of losing your freedom to the power trips of another – and how slave owners ultimately behave.   Of course, the plight of blacks remains the most prominent example in US memory but slavery continues to flourish around the world.

So Bashir called her a “dunce” and a “world class idiot” – and I doubt that was what he was apologizing for.  Truth is always a fair defense, and he was simply describing, after all.

But then Bashir went back to 18th century documents describing in scatological details the sort of humiliations slaves were subjected to by their owners – routine whippings, skin rubbings and being forced to eat excrement.  He ended his commentary with the statement he clearly was apologizing for  and that must have driven producers in the control room nuts when he inserted it on his own – that if anyone in modern times deserved to be subjected to this sort of defecation treatment, it was the governor who quit Alaska in midterm.  That was out of bounds.

So he was right to apologize for being so carried away on his rhetorical flight.  It was a moment that made the public long for similar brakes in all public discourse.  Bashir in his inflammatory zeal has now allowed Palin supporters to pretend she ever made any sense in the first place.  For that, he owes all viewers an apology.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Ted Cruz, the best buddy Obama never wanted

By Dominique Paul Noth

It clearly annoyed Barack Obama – a totally wasted three weeks of October that cost some $24 billion in lost commerce while spreading international doubts about keeping the US the gold standard of fiscal responsibility given those children in Congress so close to the destruct button.

Ted Cruz, inadvertent Obama fan
It was a useless insulting replay for a president who won re-election in 2012 against superior ad money and nasty words about Obamacare. Yet that same small but well funded sliver of the Republicans, the so-called Tea Party that never accepted the people’s will, was again forcing Obama to validate his resolve.

If there was a perverse silver lining, it came from contrast, inadvertence and sheer stupidity.  Obama’s big buddy in fresh appreciation of his policies is that blustery frosh GOP senator from Texas, Ted Cruz, who was posing as his most ferocious opponent.

It really wasn’t Obama who exposed the weakness of the GOP brand. That was Cruz. His stridency to defund Obamacare at all costs reinforced its worth throughout America, forcing the GOP to rethink and succumb. Even the Koch brothers, the Heritage Foundation and other groups backed away from his frontal assault on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) though they simultaneously moved theattack to state by state and court interference.  (The slowness and complexity of web portals for the ACA are a mix of government haste and that continued interference by mainly Republican governors and statehouses).

More importantly for future elections, Cruz’s actions destroyed a central tenet of GOP ideology – that big government especially big federal government is a bad thing. Rather than sensibly address trims, his blunderbuss approach reminded citizens of all persuasions of the inherent value and commitment behind government services.  Except for how folks feel about the intelligence of Congress, they sure appreciate the dedication of federal workers.

All the nation got from this ridiculous exercise that limped to a conclusion Oct. 17 was a belated temporary return to normalcy.  The budget negotiations the Democrats had sought to start for seven months are now rushing toward Dec. 13 conclusion. The full government is reopened through January 15. The nation’s debt is protected through February 7. But it came because Obama stood firm after the GOP bought into Cruz’s false promise that the president would cave.

Obama won much more than a return to normalcy -- a 7% jump in poll popularity. Thanks to Cruz’s misbehavior, GOP hopes were wiped away for gaining in the Senate – not with the Cruz carnival gumming up the works. Even more startling, the Democrats based on national polls can now talk seriously about winning back the House, something that a few months ago seemed totally out of reach.

Cruz had help in all this – a party so open to being bullied on the inside that it thought Obama was cut from the same unstrung cloth.  The difference in styles and success is what the voters will remember – the unflappable steady president and the publicity-hungry pontificator who smacks the public with a verbal barrage akin to a two-by-four.   He’s the darling of some rich funders who threaten opponents with a primary challenge. He hypnotized the House GOP to follow his lead, even cowing the more responsible GOP lawmakers – certainly for weeks.

His “take no prisoners” attack on AHC -- screaming that the whole thing didn’t work -- prevented the GOP from addressing what wasn’t working well, such as the websites swooning from enormous public interest.  Apparently the government more than the public feared that the anti-Obama ads would prevent early visitors.  So the White House rushed to engage private contractors operating under low-bid regulations to ready a system far more complex than a smart phone app or an Oracle database.  There were clearly design issues from rush and failure to beta-test.  

Yet the GOP was so married to the Cruz approach that they failed to exploit the problems, giving a second chance to make a good first impression.  Which it is now well on its way to doing.

It was almost as if Cruz had been hired by the Democrats. He smacked the public hard enough to wake them up to the value of affordable health insurance for the 15% of Americans left in the cold.  Reaction to the shutdown he caused -- and still voted not to end -- will resonate on Main Street into future elections. It tore the fabric of the community – permeating not just the 17% of the workforce employed by the federal government but millions more who depend on them as customers, know them as neighbors or rely on their response to problems. 

Citizens who had once railed about taxes now realized how much they value disease experts, firefighters, storm forecasters, park rangers, food monitors and countless others abandoned to make a point the right-wing extremists can no longer explain or justify. The public anger is now concentrated on dillydallying Republicans, laughing off the FOX News excuses that this was a “slimdown” not a shutdown, just a temporary quick shave.  After 16 days of shutdown, this “shave” grew whiskers and a beard.

The piecemeal legislative rescues offered by the House GOP were equally ridiculous – a government by headlines, trying to reopen services after press revelations that halting cancer tests would kill children. The House GOP engaged in Wack-A-Mole, with another monster popping out of the holes wherever the hammer hit.

For instance, the Center for Disease Control did more than cancer trials and was still hamstrung in flu prevention or epidemic outbreaks.  The skeleton EPA was ill-prepared for another oil spill, and it happened in North Dakota.   FEMA was saved by Mother Nature, not the GOP, when a hurricane turned into a tropical storm. Restoring death benefits for military killed in action only revealed that other military and veteran support was piling up – including food for families and teachers for infants.  Salmonella outbreaks couldn’t be addressed, food inspected, workplaces or airplanes examined -- and on and on.

No wonder the Republicans are drowning at a new bottom of the national poll pool –70% disfavorable, the worst judgment in modern history.  It was unbelievable that more mature Republicans went along.

Cruz’s methods have an amusing side, of course. If his academic and intellectual credentials (Harvard and all that) led so many lemmings to follow him off the cliff, he has set the image of higher education back a century.

 He singlehandedly broke the unwritten Reagan Commandment (“thou shalt speak no ill of a fellow Republican”). Not by just what he said about others. From private grousing about Cruz, the GOP has erupted into open attacks. His supporters in Texas, including the state’s largest newspaper, the Houston Chronicle, now question their own endorsements of him.

In the 1950s, knowing better but fearing to speak out against McCarthy’s funding clout and right-wing icon status, a Republican president and his party waited far too long to step on a disruptive bug whose tactics were ruining their reputation. The party is back there again, with  another bug they’re loathe to step on, this time eating them out of House and home.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Journalism false equivalency in clear Solidarity Singers victory

Scott Walker’s unbalanced advantage is Wisconsin mainstream media. The reluctance to take on his political prominence has proven the main reward for his tactics.

The governor controls the state FAX machine to warp the depth of state economic distress, assured that the establishment media will either be silent or slow to react.  In June 2012 he had an enormous funding advantage to fight off a recall– and still uses those contacts to woo favors out of state.  Media is more impressed with this drawing power than the nature of his audience.

He strong-armed state Republicans this year to push through a state budget pretending they hadn’t changed it radically. Little reporting on that.  His “take no prisoners” image despite constant reversals of positions – usually in late-hour news dumps – propels him in the GOP presidential sweepstakes and further deflects state voters from the realities.

The media reluctance to use mounting solid facts to reveal such games crystallized October 8 when his administration flat reversed its Department of Administration arrest and detain policy on peaceful singing protesters in the people’s house, known as the state Capitol – and the media generally reported this as some sort of even-handed settlement.

Good reporting would have led off with the truth – a total capitulation by Walker under the threat of court defeat on fundamental free speech and freedom of assembly issues. That should have been the national news headline.

His loss was preordained not just by basic democratic rules of the road but by the power of
Internet video images – police acting as if they were facing dangerous anarchists as they handcuffed and carted away elderly singers, ministers, even journalists along with hard-working parents, grandparents and even some children. All was captured and subject to thousands of national YouTube views – even as his opposition to legal dissent led to more protesters and cost taxpayers far more than the $88,000 in attorney fees the administration agreed to pay for unwarranted arrests.

Walker was further roundly rebuffed by the steady dismissal of dozens of citations issued by Capitol police – operating under his administration orders -- including that ridiculous felony battery complaint against Damon Terrell, an African American frequent observer with a camera whose roughtakedown went viral on the net.  

But the Wisconsin State Journal let the governor
down easy – “State, ACLU Reach Accord on Access Policy for Capitol.”

A similarly soft headline in Wisconsin’s largest newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (“Administration drops permit requirement”), introduced an amazingly gentle lead paragraph:

To settle a free speech lawsuit, Gov. Scott Walker's administration agreed Tuesday to pay more than $88,000 in attorneys fees and drop its hard-and-fast requirement that larger groups protesting in the Capitol receive a permit.

The story behind the story – Walker didn’t give anything back, except paying for legal error.  The settlement was a vindication of what the Solidarity Singers and other groups had enjoyed under free speech and right to assembly provisions anyway. The Singers always gave notice they would perform and gave way to scheduled gatherings.

As noted by the winning plaintiff in the case – Michael Kissick, an assistant professor of health at UW-Madison and an occasional Solidarity Singer -- “I’m happy because the group has effectively been giving the state notice all along, and has always deferred to events with permits.”

While publicity releases are always suspect, few can argue the PR statement of facts from Larry Dupuis, legal director of the ACLU of Wisconsin:   “This is a victory because giving notice is significantly different from forcing people to ask the government for permission to exercise free speech.”

But if you skimmed media headlines and stories, the sense of satisfaction and the basic evidence that Walker had capitulated were near invisible. What Dupuis called a “profound” victory for the government agreeing to longstanding “informal notice” was treated as some sort of validation of Walker’s behavior, as opposed to a profound slapdown.

The governor got into this mess because of political overreach and naked fear. Stunned by the depth of the massive protests in February and March of 20111 against his elimination of collective bargaining for public workers, he was ill-prepared for the thousands of largely peaceful but immensely angry citizens that filled the Capitol. And while the citizens generally behaved well, Walker’s political acolytes in the legislature and administration were consumed with worry and even hysteria.

A new book  explores the back and forth among law enforcement agencies in those months, hamstrung by confused orders from on top resulting in constant interference and contradiction on compromise and control.  By the fall, Walker’s team was facing enormous public pressure and both genuine costs of their own excesses while inflating the costs of the actual protests themselves.

Out of this came a bizarre determination to handcuff any future protests regardless, fed by the assured complacency of a political hack, the GOP attorney general who has now decided not to run again, J.B. Van Hollen.  That has resulted for recent months in the sort of bully tactics associated with 1930s strikebreakers -- only this time Walker changed the police into an obedient submissive  to make the cops look like the bullies, not the policies he imposed.

The ACLU suit is a court imposed protection from those tactics. Actually, for some devout civil rights advocates, the protection doesn’t go far enough.  Even “informal notice” smacks them as an imposition on rights of assembly --   although the ACLU argues that it has always been done to maintain smooth operation of a government building.

But no one should ever lose sight it was not a few folk singers that caused this long-running horror show.  It was Walker’s overstep of basic US law.  Reporting it that way might offend some advertisers and some subscribers still enamored of Walker, but a false balance misreads the essence of reporting.

It’s understandable that office-seekers maneuvering for better paying jobs in the Walker administration or alliance in local politics would side with him whatever their growing discontent.

It’s perplexing that the watchdog media, so capable of scrubbing bureaucratic data and even sometimes jumping too quickly on personal misbehavior before full evidence is in, are proving so generously passive about a powerful governor.  The first case is politics as usual.  Heaven help us if the second case is journalism as usual.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Inside the Stupidity of the Shutdown

Posted October 1, 2013

The United States has entered multiple twilight zones with the shutdown of the federal government, basically refusal by the House  to pass a  routine continuing service agreement. That, to name only a few of the consequences,  closes national parks, shuts most of NASA and disease control services, halts several Head Start and day care programs and forces payless vacations on 800,000 workers while asking many more to work without regular paychecks, not to mention the impact on small businesses relying on these customers.

No big deal, say those living in a vacuum – largely radically conservative districts so controlled by gerrymandering that their residents won’t speak up against the extremists they send to Congress.  They believe this doesn’t hurt more than a paper cut.  Shutdowns are rare, but when they happened in the past,  they say, the affected workers were made whole and the re-start costs were sucked up by taxpayers.  But federal workers I talk to aren’t so sure -- this time they are dealing with ideologues who may say they shouldn’t be paid for work they didn’t do.  And meanwhile, how do they feed their kids?

In fact, most extremists want this shutdown to be a mere prelude to a bigger economic disaster later in October --  refusing to raise the debt ceiling.  There is a lot of public misunderstanding about what “raising the debt ceiling” means, since it  doesn’t add a penny to the debt. It’s a usually routine mechanism to allow the government to pay the bills Congress has already rung up.  Without it the nation could quickly plunge back into a recession or into lower credit ratings since it becomes an international deadbeat.

The media isn’t helping here. In the need to draw eyeballs and sell newspapers, it is treating this situation as gridlock between the political parties, as if the blame is fairly equal. But deeper  pundits on both the left and right actually know it is all being caused by a small controlling segment of the GOP known (perhaps too much in shorthand) as the Tea Party wing – and daily more detested by centrist Republicans.

 But these were the elected members from the far right who blamed President Obama in 2010  for the economic meltdown caused years before he entered office but hitting them right as he took office. So this has become a well funded but totally phony argument that the way to stop bad government is to shut all government down.  That’s something like holding your breath in the hope that someone will take you to the hospital once you turn blue. Or refusing to pay your monthly credit card bills – boy, that will bring Wall Street to its knees!

This time the excuse for the shutdown, which simply hurts ordinary Americans, was it would defund Obamacare, which it can’t. In fact the launch of the state by state Exchanges started the same day as the shutdown Oct. 1, protected by  separate funding. The feared glitches stemmed from how many people tried to sign up the first day of a six-month enrollment period, a signal of how hungry the uninsured 15% of the nation are to find a plan.

So it was all bogus. In fact, the flabbergaster in chief, Ted Cruz, knew it. His 21 hour Senate talkathon was never a filibuster because it had no legal or practical chance of stopping anything.  It was also totally a joke on his supporters and they fell for it when he compared Obamacare to addiction to sugar, in this case the sugar being better health coverage – huh?
He warped the meaning of the world’s most famous children’s author, Dr. Suess (actually Theodor Geisel,  a famous liberal thinker),  by reading “Green Eggs and Ham,” which is actually about the value of trying unfamiliar food and finding it tasty. Isn’t that the real danger of Obamacare? He’s afraid it will work!

The Cruz control approach raised money for his future national campaigns but deeply offended the conservative  business community.  Remember, Obama even back in 2008 was attacked by the left for not going far enough into government control of health care, insisting that private health insurers should gain the 30 million uninsured Americans. Obama rejected single payer or the government paying physicians and hospitals directly, as has worked  in other nations, because he wanted to protect the existing US private system.  In other words, despite the attacks from Hillary Clinton and others, he preferred being more of a capitalist than a socialist.

Now the supposedly fiscally concerned  Tea Party wants to rob the business community of these new customers.  At least Obama understood how insurance works, especially social insurance.  The larger the pool the cheaper the cost.  And if you can include the more healthy as well as the less healthy that’s how you bring costs down.  Delaying the individual mandate as the Tea Party wanted simply assured that costs would rise for health providers and for the governments involved since the less healthy would flock in and the healthier young who already consider themselves  invincible would have an excuse to stay out.

Comes another  twilight zone.  When its first attacks on the Affordable Health Care failed in Congress, the House GOP switched strategies and now wants the  public to think it was only about desiring conference negotiations on the entire US budget (so much for Cruz and multiple caucus votes).

But the GOP had refused that conference idea 18 times in 6 months! Last spring the House passed a budget and the Senate did, too, and it was the GOP that refused to hold conferences to reconcile the differences, even though the Democrats, biting their lips, accepted the lower budget amount represented by the still hated sequester.

And now they are painting Obama as the one  unwilling to negotiate and compromise!

We have now entered so many twilight zones that a string theory physicist couldn’t  work it out.
Because isn’t this the president talking openly if cautiously to Iran (after three decades when we didn’t), and to Russia and to Syria, all to thwart the international threat of weapons of mass destruction?  It’s too early to know what will work and what won’t, but already Obama’s threat of military action has brought agreement from Syria  to turn over all its chemical weapons to the United Nations.

What the Tea Party House is actually revealing is that they are more stubborn about talking to Obama than  three totalitarian regimes!  That raises  a horrifying reality. This sliver of  elected representatives of our democracy, sent to D.C. to make government work better, are less open  to talk and more eager to extort Obama than nations notorious for human rights violations.

It’s a comment on these representatives but mainly on the voters who put them in office.