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.