Sunday, January 31, 2010

The State of Our Union

For President Obama's first State of the Union address he was confident, competent, steady, smart, and relaxed. He acknowledged the charged partisan atmosphere, but still seemed to stand above it.

I admired the performance. I felt deflated afterwards.

Obama has to make a choice.

He can rally his side and lead his legislative majority to enact his agenda. This is the partisan path which will lead to likely legislative accomplishment but will come with even more acrimony.

Or Obama can continue to push for compromise and bipartisan solutions. This is the high road. Ultimately, breaking the culture of politics-as-bloodsport is the best bet for the future of this country. But Obama can't travel this road alone.

After the year we've had I, and many others, have urged Obama to take the partisan path, to stand up for his party, to stand against the entrenched and obstinate opposition-- to get it done.

In his State of the Union address the president took the bipartisan path.

During his speech the president did not promise to steamroll the opposition. He did not commit to passing health care reform, financial reform, and a new jobs program by any means necessary. He defended his record and endorsed his priorities. He called for new ideas, shared solutions, and a common purpose. Instead of a call to arms it was a call for disarmament. On Wednesday, in the face of a loud and heartfelt plea from the left, and vitriol and disdain from the right, Obama chose the center road.

Something interesting happened on Friday.

Obama was invited to the House Republican Retreat in Baltimore. He came to speak to the Republican members of the House of Representatives and spent some time answering their questions. The event was extraordinary. The Republicans were sincere and respectful even as they let fly with their questions, proposals, and complaints. The president held his ground and explained his positions. It was a real and substantive debate.

As a supporter of the president, it was refreshing to see him stand up to the opposition and confront them directly. And coming from the House Republicans I heard a clear sense of frustration. They do feel like their proposals are not getting a fair hearing. They did not sound content being the party of "no". They do want to offer solutions. Obama acknowledged their frustration. He seemed well-informed about their proposals. He seemed ready to hear more.

I don't know where we go from here. I don't know if this president can achieve legislative success or forge real bipartisanship. We might get both. Or neither. What is clear is that President Obama is committed to staying on the high road, despite the obvious off-ramp.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Shoot the Hostage

Alright, pop quiz. You're President of the United States. You've almost passed health care reform. You're past the House. You're past the Senate. You're almost there. You can taste it.

But you've got problems.

You've got two bills. They're about the same. They do what they need to do. But all you hear about are the flaws. Everybody is yelling and screaming. You need everyone to agree on everything or you're screwed. And Joe Lieberman might just screw you for the sake of screwing you.

You've a special election in Massachusetts coming up. And you've got your big State of the Union speech coming right at you. Like a bus.

Got that hotshot? What do you do?

Throw the special election. Take the Senate out of the equation. Have the candidate insult the Red Sox. They won't be able to drag her across the finish line. You can pass health care with a majority in the House. Clear shot.

It gets better.

After you throw the election, you watch everyone panic. Act like big reform is impossible now. What happens then? All the lefties that have been blasting you coming running to the rescue.

That Senate bill starts to look pretty darn good when the alternative is complete failure. Sullivan, Klein, Krugman, DailyKos, the single-payers, the public opters, the Medicare expanders, the bloggers, and the papers. Everyone is singing the same tune. The Senate bill will cover the uninsured. The Senate bill will cut costs. The Senate bill will sort out the insurance companies. The Senate bill is what we need. Everyone is on your side and singing the praises of your health care plan.

Just in time for your big speech...

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Massachusetts Politics Get Even More Stupid

"I have two reactions to the election in Massachusetts. One, I am disappointed. Two, I feel strongly that the Democratic majority in congress must respect the process and make no effort to bypass the electoral results. If Martha Coakley had won, I believe we could have worked out a reasonable compromise between the House and Senate health care bills. But since Scott Brown has won and the Republicans now have 41 votes in the senate, that approach is no longer appropriate. I am hopeful that some Republican senators will be willing to discuss a revised version of health care reform. Because I do not think that the country would be well served by the health care status quo. But our respect for democratic procedures must rule out any effort to pass a health care bill as if the Massachusetts election had not happened. Going forward, I hope there will be a serious effort to change the senate rule which means that 59 are not enough to pass major legislation, but those are the rules by which the health care bill was considered, and it would be wrong to change them in the middle of this process,"
- Barney Frank.

Wow. Barney, I love you, man. But this is batshit insane.

The Senate passed a health care reform bill with 60 votes. The rules are stupid. The rules are paralyzing this country. But we played by the rules. The Senate passed health care reform. This already happened.

The House can, and should, vote for the Senate bill and send it to the President to sign into law.

You should do this because:
  • It would be really good for the country.
  • We need to fix our dysfunctional health care system.
  • It would be the greatest legislative accomplishment in my lifetime.
  • We've been fighting for this for decades.
  • A large majority of American voters sent you to Washington to do this.
  • Democrats will get annihilated in the next election if they fail. Again.
Do you and your colleagues think you can improve on the bill in some way? Would you like to, say... change some of the tax formulas or add a solid Public Option? You should pass a new bill and send it to the Senate for consideration. If members of the Senate support these changes, the Senate can -- still playing by the rules -- pass that bill through the reconciliation process. This, according to the rules, requires "only" 51 votes. This is also known as a majority.

That's the game. Those are the rules. You're winning. We're winning. Unless we decide to lose.

Oh, and read this...

Monday, January 18, 2010

Memo to Massachusetts

To all my good friends in Massachusetts:

You may have found the last year to be, politically, somewhat disappointing. You were probably happy to see Bush leave office. Now we have President Obama and very substantial Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate. And yet it seems like not much has changed. However lofty the goals of the Obama administration, however high our hopes for hope and change, the results have been... what... uninspiring?

Part of the problem is that governing, and trying to solve big problems, involves lots of compromise, horse-trading, and some raw politics. Necessary, but uninspiring stuff. But there's more at work here.

In the aftermath of the Bush era, the GOP had employed a very deliberate, simple, and systematic strategy.

In the media, and especially on right-wing radio and TV, the GOP has relentlessly hammered Obama and the Democrats without much regard for the actual truth of their allegations or the actual source of our woes. They are much more interested in demonizing Democrats than solving our problems. They are very good at it.

Meanwhile, in the United States Senate it is easy to for the minority to keep the majority from getting anything done. By refusing the play ball, not allowing votes to proceed, and vilifying everything that comes before them, the Senate GOP has quite successfully gummed up the works. In order to do anything at all, each and every Democratic Senator and both independent Senators (one of whom is Joe Lieberman) must agree to it. Forging this kind of consensus has been ugly business.

It's something of a historical fluke that it's even possible for one party to be able to scrape together 60 senate votes on its own. Margins like that don't happen often.

If the voters of Massachusetts, if you, elect Scott Brown it will be impossible for the US Senate to do anything at all without Republican votes. The Republicans, including Scott Brown, have promised that they will not get those votes.

This will be the ultimate vindication of the GOP strategy of paralysis, paranoia, foot-dragging and vilification.

I'm not very familiar with the politics or history of Martha Coakley. My sense is she is something of a machine-candidate mediocrity. You probably deserve better.

Will Scott Brown be better?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

On the Care and Feeding for Your Tree of Liberty

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.
-Thomas Jefferson

The above bit of colorful phrasing first came to my attention on the day the President came to town. President Obama was in Portsmouth for a town hall meeting on health care reform. A gentleman by the name of William Kostric won himself some notoriety by showing up among the crowds of protesters and supporters carrying a sign that read "It Is Time To Water The Tree Of Liberty!" He was also openly carrying a loaded handgun. The incident occurred roughly a mile from my home and maybe 15 feet from my wife, who was there carrying a sign with rather different sentiments. Mr. Kostric caused quite a stir.

I assumed Mr. Kostric was indulging in a bit of performance art to highlight some imagined offenses against the first and second amendments to our constitution. To the best of my knowledge he faced no legal consequences. Whatever tyrannical measures have been implemented by the Obama administration, apparently bringing a loaded weapon to a public event attended by the President of the United States and making a not-very-subtle threat against his life, is still permissible.

I assumed this was the last we would hear on the subject of the of the care and feeding of the Tree of Liberty for a while. But the words of Mr. Jefferson recently reappeared on a Politico post (a site where I am now a semi-regular forum poster).

Geo1342 writes:
Thomas Jefferson has said "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants". He recognized that the passion that would have to exist behind such an uprising, regardless of whether driven by intellect or ignorance, was necessary to keep the republic free -- for otherwise, lethargy in the public regarding matters of government would set in, and the Government would grow unchecked.

Today, while it is true people are making a lot of noise about the abhorrent and tyrannical behavior of our government, our representatives view it as just that -- noise. Few, if any, believe the public would rise up violently against them. And thus they are emboldened.

Is it too late? Has the Tree of Liberty already died, it's leaves just waiting for a breeze to carry them away?

This poster seems to be advocating the violent overthrow of our government. Its is generally unwise to impart too much importance to an anonymous internet post. And both sides have their lunatic fringe. But these kinds of sentiments are not hard to find. In the last year, at the local and national level, the extremists and Republican core became increasingly intertwined. An undercurrent of implied violence and revolution is now a common feature of political discussions. What does it all mean?

Perhaps the talk of violent revolution isn't meant to be taken literally. Maybe even those who speak of rising up in the face of "abhorrent and tyrannical behavior" would be disgusted and repulsed by the treasonous idea of actual violence against our elected officials. I don't think the founding fathers advocated for the murder of King George III. And we can assume that Thomas Jefferson did not mean for his bloody arboreal advice to be literally applied to democratically elected presidents of the United States, like say... Thomas Jefferson.

The authors of these sentiments are playing rhetorical dress-up, pretending to be patriots. The attempts to link their grievances to those of the founding fathers is pure artifice. They know nothing of actual tyranny, actual revolution, or actual violence. By claiming equivalence they cheapen the actions those who have fought, and those who are still fighting, for democracy and against dictatorship. They dress up their argument in innuendo and metaphor for effect and talk vaguely of "abhorrent and tyrannical behavior" but decline to offer specifics. Were they do do so, any actual listing of "grievances" and "acts of tyranny" would be laid bare as petty, and partisan, and totally unworthy of the bombast that accompanies them.

Is the talk of revolution just noise? Even if the rhetoric of violence is just rhetoric we should still be appalled by it. Why should anyone who lives in this country, shared in its opportunities, been protected by its laws, and enjoyed its freedoms tolerate an argument advocating for its destruction? What's the difference between a Muslim extremist, or left-wing extremist, or a right wing extremist who calls for for the destruction of this country and the murder of its citizens? Is it Ok to clap along until someone actually pulls a trigger? Any person, any political party, any TV station, anyone who advocates violence against our elected officials should receive our scorn. The are not entitled to call themselves patriots. With threats of violence against it, they disrespect this country, its constitution, it history, and its citizens.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

NH and the Gay Yuletide

In their end of the year Conventional Wisdom watch Newsweek Magazine notes:

Gay marriage, coming to a state near you... but only if you live in New Hampshire.

I do live in New Hampshire! As the clock tripped over to 2010, gay marriage has come to a state very near and dear to me. Compared with our neighboring states, it has come with remarkably little screaming and fanfare.

In 2003 the Massachusetts Supreme Court issued their ruling that same-sex marriage was a constitutional requirement. A few years later, the Supreme Court in neighboring Vermont affirmed the right to Civil Unions. Both of these events were causes for celebration and signs of progress. Both events provoked an ugly backlash that highlighted the cultural divide and laid bare persistent ignorance and intolerance.

In 2007 New Hampshire passed its own Civil Union law. Last year we followed up, approving Same-Sex Marriage. These were not court mandates. In both cases they were laws passed and approved by the legislature and signed by the Governor.

From Massachusetts and Vermont we had already heard the apocalyptic predictions of destruction of marriage and imminent moral collapse. We had also seen that permitting same-sex couples to marry resulted in none of this. We saw the giddy, goofy couples smooching and celebrating recognition and rights the rest of us had taken for granted. There were voices of protest. But when the final votes were cast, same sex-marriage came to New Hampshire, via the ballot box, with a smile and a shrug. This morning the local paper carries the news of New Hampshire's first gay marriages. It's on page A7. After "MTA to hold 'exchange of information' meeting on York tolls".

It's a pleasure to see this state recognize civil rights for its gay and lesbian residents. I'm glad we can be one of the bright spots in the ongoing struggle for equality. It's unfortunate there aren't more new club members (Seriously. Maine. What happened?). New Hampshire hasn't always been at the vanguard. I remember, growing up, a game called Smear the Queer was a neighborhood favorite. We've come a long way.

But the march for equality continues. Federal law still does not acknowledge same sex marriages, civil unions, or any basic rights for gay couples. Our gay and lesbian soldiers are forced to live in secret even as they sacrifice to to defend our nation. Even in the Granite State there is more work to be done. New Hampshire's adoption laws have not yet been updated and lag behind. Legally married same-sex couples are not recognized as both being parents to their own children. These and other oversights and inequities need to be corrected before we can claim true equality.

The road may seem endless, but we can still stop and acknowledge how far we have come. I raise a toast to you, New Hampshire. Happy New Year.