Supreme Court’s Ruling is a Game Changer

Today’s Supreme Court decision, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, is watershed and a game changer. Simply put, Roberts’ decision will change the face of healthcare in America because now not only is it constitutional, it forces the GOP to be in favor of actual reform (something they’ve only given lip-service to for years). 

The conventional wisdom inside the D.C. beltway today was that “Obamacare” (or ACA) would be struck down by a 5-4 decision and that the decision would be written by Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy. Very few in the smart crowd actually thought a) Roberts would side with the liberal Justices and b) that the nexus of agreement between that unlikely group would be Congress’ ability to levy a tax versus whether or not the individual mandate was constitutional under the Commerce Clause.

That’s a lot of D.C.-speak, which sounds remarkably similar to Charlie Brown’s teacher: “whonk whonk whonk whonk whonk.” What this reminds me of is the fallout from Brown vs. Board of Education, something a large number of Americans remember or have studied in civics class.

In Brown, the Court combined several high profile cases into one and issued a sweeping ruling. Like Brown, ACA was highly controversial leading up to oral argument before the Court and after the subsequent ruling. Social unrest throughout many parts of the country was prevalent, notably with Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, Alabama George Wallace, Virginia Senator Harry Byrd’s “Massive Resistance” and the “Southern Manifesto.” For the record, all of these men were Southern Democrats.

The political outrage was palpable then and it is today. I’ve written before that the day President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, he told his aides he had delivered “the South to the Republican party for a long time to come.” I’m not sure what happens at the ballot box this November or precisely how today’s ruling will affect the public’s perception. What I do know is the opinion issued today by Chief Justice Roberts matters. It matters because it validates Congress’ actions, which declared universal healthcare to be something we should strive towards. That we are the wealthiest and most powerful country in the history of the world but with over 22 million uninsured is embarrassing and the Roberts court today has said what Congress did is perhaps not popular but without a doubt legitimate.

Legitimacy matters to me and ultimately I believe to the American people.

Posted on by jimmy in Congress, Equal Rights, Presidential 1 Comment

Spending vs. Taxes: Can We Have a Real Debate?

In Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, Arthur Laffer and Stephen Moore put forth an interesting yet one-sided argument about federal spending under former President George W. Bush and the current White House occupant: “Obama’s Real Spending Record.” Their op-ed comes on the same day Bruce Bartlett penned a piece for the New York Times entitled: “The Fiscal Legacy of George W. Bush.” The Laffer/Moore supposition is that both Bush and Obama “resulted in an orgy of spending” and that “tea party Republicans who took office after the 2010 elections have completely altered” the spending landscape. Mr. Bartlett agrees with Messrs. Laffer and Moore that responsibility for ballooning deficit spending must clawback to the Bush 41 administration as well.

Laffer, Moore, and Bartlett are all Republicans. And while they all give blame to the last two administrations, their similarities dissolve when we turn to the issue of taxes instead of spending.

Time and time again in the Laffer/Moore op-ed, the authors insist that raising taxes now would imperil our already-weakened economy and send us into a deeper recession (despite having had 27 straight months of growth). They use as examples the Smoot-Hawley tariff bill and former President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s tax increases in 1936 as reasons the Great Depression lasted longer than it should have. Perhaps but I’d prefer to look at a more time-relevant economic model that may shed some light on how today’s economy functions instead of an economy of almost 100 years ago.

What Laffer and Moore leave out is that former Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton ALL raised taxes and put our economy on three separate tracks that merged into a single track of prosperity. Yes, Reagan signed into law several major tax reductions but he also signed into law tax increases eleven times! By many accounts, Bush Sr. lost his re-election bid in 1992 because he went back on his promise to never raise taxes yet that single act helped set the stage for Clinton’s economic prosperity!

It’s normal within the Beltway that surrounds Washington, DC to only get half the story. And that’s why it was so important for Bartlett’s piece to go to press the same day as the Laffer/Moore piece. So let’s compare Laffer/Moore to Mr. Bartlett, a conservative who worked for both Reagan and Bush Sr. One could call him a “reformed” supply-sider economist. As he states in his column, the 1990 and 1993 budget votes that increased taxes and put “Paygo” spending rules into effect are responsible for the proceeding years’ balanced federal budgets. Couple those tax increases with a slower rate of government growth (than the Bush Jr. years) and what did we get? Massive job creation, balanced federal budgets, and an electorate that liked that type of economic prosperity.

Fast forward to the period between 2001 and 2008 (Bush Jr. presidency) where we had the slowest job growth in this country in almost 50 years. This in light of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts? This in light of spending by a GOP-controlled House (until 2007), a GOP-controlled Senate (until 2007), and a GOP-controlled White House? IF tax cuts always create jobs, then I’m forced to ask this very simple question: WHERE THE HELL DID THOSE JOBS GO DURING THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION? When Bush left office, we were hemorrhaging over 700,000 jobs a month. I’m sorry but that is not an economic policy that works.

These are facts. They cannot be disputed. They CAN be left out of columns by conservatives but they won’t be left out of columns I write.

We cannot just cut our way back to economic prosperity. Likewise, we cannot just tax our way back to an economic surplus. It must be BOTH targeted tax increases and spending decreases to put us back in the driver’s seat of the world economy. I would argue forcefully that we should take the best parts of the Laffer/Moore/Bartlett models and use the smart parts to get us to a place where GDP grows, where consumers spend wisely, where federal and state governments grow smartly, and where we can see the light coming from an economic horizon again.

I’ve never forgotten that oft-forgotten quote from then-Speaker Newt Gingrich when he spoke of out of control government spending and specifically Medicare:

OK, what do you think the Health Care Financing Administration is? It’s a centralized command bureaucracy. It’s everything we’re telling Boris Yeltsin to get rid of. Now, we don’t get rid of it in round one because we don’t think that that’s politically smart, and we don’t think that’s the right way to go through a transition. But we believe it’s going to wither on the vine because we think people are voluntarily going to leave it—voluntarily.

Don’t be fooled. What the Arthur Laffer’s and Stephen Moore’s of the world want is to starve government, to watch the entire federal system wither on the vine. They’ve made their views on a radically smaller federal government well-known over the years, Mr. Moore more so when he was the founder and president of the conservative Club for Growth. Before that stint, Moore was the chief architect of the highly-regressive “flat tax” when he worked for then-Rep. Dick Armey (TX). Armey is now known for being the money man behind the tea party movement and was a Gingrich lieutenant after the 1994 GOP takeover of the House of Representatives.

Partisans on both the left and the right will decry this column and I’m not offended by that. But as a student of Washington, DC with a penchant for history, I am of the mindset that we take the good parts of the past, recreate them to fit today’s economy, all the while innovating and thinking outside the box.

After all, that’s how this neat little country was founded 236 years ago and maybe it’s not such a bad thing to remind ourselves of that more often than not.

Posted on by jimmy in House, Presidential, Senate 2 Comments

Thank You, Ms. Donna Summer

The death of Donna Summer isn’t political. I’d be remiss, though, if I didn’t write a brief post on the impact this woman had on my life. This five-time Grammy winner gave us great hits like Last Dance, MacArthur Park, Bad Girls, and She Works Hard for the Money. But what she gave me, with my stacks and stacks of “45’s,” was an ability to “escape.” Like many kids my age, the ability to dive into a world of rhythmic beats, glamour, fashion, and Disco was transformational. Summer sang about so many issues: sex, love, not being loved, women’s equality, and the like. To a 12 year old struggling with his sexual identity, this was heady stuff.

I can’t believe I’m admitting this here, but as a kid I’d sneak into my room shut the door,  and dance to her records in front of my mirror. The real world went away and I was in a place where I could think and feel the way I wanted without fear of being called a sissy or faggot. On more than one occasion, my mother would bang on my door and implore me to “turn that music down!” I assume I wasn’t the only kid with the desire to “escape” and by the widespread sympathy being reported in the media, I definitely wasn’t the only kid who Ms. Summer affected so deeply.

Even though growing up gay in 1970’s South Carolina was at times stifling, Donna Summer was there with me. Like millions of other gay (and straight) kids, I was moved in a very positive way by her message and her rhythm. I can’t say that about many other musical artists from that time period.

It’s not lost on me that a fierce black woman I never even met helped me get through some pretty tough spots as a child. I guess that’s why today, nearly 40 years later, her death is a loss for me. No doubt, “I Feel Love” for her and the legacy she leaves behind.

Posted on by jimmy in Equal Rights 2 Comments

Gay President? I Don’t Think So.

There seems to be much ado about President Barack Obama being the first “gay President. Newsweek and the New Yorker magazines devoted their latest covers to this cause du jour. I get it but I’m not comfortable with it. This kind of hyperbole was used when then-President Bill Clinton was declared America’s first “black” president.

I’m sorry, but Bill Clinton isn’t “black.”  And President Barack Obama isn’t “gay.”  And while both did and continue to do great things during and after their presidencies to advance equal rights, I take exception to this notion that just because someone advocates for something, they become it.

If we in the press are going to use this standard, then I’d suggest we reach back and declare the late-President Lyndon Johnson to be the first “black” president. After all, he exhibited leadership by sending civil rights legislation up to the Congress and then bullying it through as only he could have past racist southern Democrats and reluctant northern Republicans. Johnson even declared the same day he physically signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that by doing so, he would deliver “the South to the Republican party for a long time to come.”

Actually, let’s go back even further and declare President Abraham Lincoln the first “black” president. That neat little document known as the Emancipation Proclamation certainly entitles him to that honor right? But wait. He then followed that up by ushering through the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, declaring slavery to be illegal throughout the entire United States.

See, that’s leadership.

I voted for President Barack Obama. Chances are, I will again. He brought this country back from the brink of economic ruin and has been a calm and steady hand in the White House, something I greatly appreciate. His efforts so far in the arena of equal gay rights are, yes, unparalleled. Maybe I’m selfish, maybe I want more than just a declaration of support. Maybe I want the President to do more than just tell me he thinks I should be able to marry the man I love (who doesn’t exist but I keep the faith!). Maybe I want him to stand in Lincoln’s shoes or LBJ’s shoes and actually send legislation up to the Congress and dare them to be against me. I know he’s “with me” but frankly that’s just a step above the wink and nod the Republicans have been giving gay people for years.

Speaking of the Republicans, let me be clear: I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out my civil rights aren’t even remotely a part of their agenda, an agenda controlled by rightwing extremists. This isn’t the same Republican party that was led in the Senate by the likes of Everett Dirksen (IL) in the 1960’s. The Senate of 2012 is a shadow of what it was just 50 years ago. Back in the “good ole days,” Senators actually debated bills. Back then, they actually knew each other; their families knew each other. Filibusters were few and far between and when bills were filibustered, Senators actually stood up on the Floor and owned their dilatory tactics.  Hell, some of them even read cookbooks and used religion to deny blacks equal rights. Most of that was done by southern Democrats by the way. But more than a handful of Republicans stood out and used their positions of power to empower the downtrodden and those who were being discriminated against. Can you imagine the Senate Republican Leader today, taking to the Senate Floor in favor of my equal rights? That’s the shame of the current state of politics. That’s one reason why the public currently gives Congress a 13% approval rating. It’s actually pathetic.

I’m sure I’ll take a rash of hell for writing that Obama isn’t the first gay POTUS. Many on the left already think I don’t “defend” the President enough. And frankly many on the right think I defend him too often. Perhaps that’s a good thing, that I hold both sides of the political aisle to task for not doing enough. After all, it takes acts of courage for me to stand up and take notice. I want this President to succeed more than any Commander-in-Chief in my lifetime. Calling him the first gay president, however, isn’t to me up to snuff.

I’ll end by asking this question: what will we in the press do when America DOES elect its first openly gay President? Therein lies the rub. After all, we will have already given that title away to someone whom isn’t gay. And then will we have lessened the historic nature of it all?

Posted on by jimmy in Equal Rights, Presidential Comments Off on Gay President? I Don’t Think So.

Ruth Riechl and the Corruption of the Farm Bill

One of the reasons I love New York City (and there are many) is there’s always something to do. This little peninsula is rife with endless possibilities and she lets me engage or disengage at will. For a city of nearly nine million, New York’s uniqueness is her neighborhoods. They allow me to escape to magical places. I can walk away from the madness of rush hour traffic on Fifth Avenue straight into Central Park and the world just quietly slips away. If I’m jonesing for an energy booster,  I can dive right into Times Square. No Starbucks, you’re not needed, but thank you just the same.

Another NYC specialty is the Sunday New York Times and as usual, I head straight for the “Opinion” pages first. Tom Friedman’s opinion piece from yesterday, “Down With Everything,”  details the balance between two important economic engines: the private sector and the public sector. Friedman posits partisanship is “paralyz(ing) our whole system” of government. He ends his column on a familiar note: “Our deformed political system–with a Congress that’s become a forum for legalized bribery–is now truly holding us back.” I’ve been harking on and on about this on MSNBC for over a year now and I’m still baffled why the American people simply aren’t engaged in and outraged by the legalized system of political corruption that runs our government.

My weird, southern brain “got to thinking,” as my grandmother used to say, about our “bought” government and oddly I made a connection between this corruption and something I heard Ruth Reichl mention recently. Reichl, who was the Editor of the now-defunct Gourmet magazine, was introduced to me as summer beach reading on the Outer Banks of North Carolina almost a decade ago by my friend Mary Beth Albright . Reading Tender at the Bone that August made me fall in love with Reichl’s delivery of the written word not to mention her love of food. Very few writers have the ability to make me hang on every word, turning page after page, yet feeling so bittersweet when I get to the end. Simply put, I selfishly don’t want Reichl’s books to end!

A close friend gave me tickets to see Ms. Reichl and Mark Bittman of the Times give a “foodie” presentation at the 92nd Street Y, another one of those NYC venues where every night of the week presents an opportunity to learn something I didn’t know before. Both Reichl and Bittman entertained a packed auditorium with various nuggets of food wisdom but it was toward the end of that magical evening that Reichl made an interesting comment about the current “Farm Bill” winding its way through Congress that shook me much like her novels. She alluded to the plain but ignored reality that America’s large agribusiness conglomerates buy and sell their way into subsidy after subsidy, usually to the detriment of the American consumer. It goes without saying I’ve followed the Farm Bill for nearly 20 years but Ms. Reichl? 

After the Reichl/Bittman dialogue, I hopped on the Six train and headed back downtown. This may sound heretical, but there’s a peacefulness to the New York City subway, a place to gather your thoughts and do some very good people watching. So while I stood on the train trying to pull this all together I couldn’t quite wrap myself around how to write about what Ms. Reichl said. Reading Mr. Friedman’s piece in yesterday’s Times, that lightbulb in my head went off.

Most Americans don’t have a clue what’s in the Farm Bill. Did you know the “Food Stamps” program is authorized and funded in the Farm Bill to the tune of nearly $60 billion a year? This program, especially in harsh economic times, feeds nearly 46 million Americans. While this may enrage some taxpayers, I have to wonder then why we sit silently by as we directly subsidize the domestic sugar industry to the tune of $2.4 billion a year without nary a harsh word but decry Food Stamps as a “handout?” Crop insurance costs us $8 billion a year and benefits only a handfull of wealthy farming conglomerates. What a dichotomy: decry food subsidies for the less fortunate but praise a “safety net” for farmers who don’t even plant their fields? I mean, welfare is welfare right? Perhaps if those farmers actually planted their fields with something worth eating, fewer Americans would have to rely on imported food paid for by Food Stamps? I know it’s a stretch but I’m just trying to get my hands around why we subsidize large farming conglomerates for NOT planting while we have a record number of Americans starving and living below the poverty level. I haven’t even touched on the issue of “Pink Slime” and while I could keep going, I think you get the point. The half a trillion dollar (over five years) proposed Farm Bill funds other important and worthy programs including international food aid, farm conservation programs, and healthy forestry programs that will cut down on devastating forest fires.

But here’s the rub: every single one of those programs has a team of lobbyists who walk the halls of Congress to protect their prized piece of government largesse. They’re not the problem frankly. It’s the money, the legalized bribery of politicians to be in favor of this largesse, that’s corrupting our system of government. Both Friedman and Reichl are dead right. Political money is paralyzing everything from the Farm Bill to the Wall Street bailouts. What should be an easy, regional, bipartisan exercise in legislating, this year’s Farm Bill may fall victim to partisan sniping and stands a good chance of not passing before the November elections. Wall Street’s bailout legislation was needed and timely but find me an American that likes that piece of legislation that brought us back from the brink of economic destruction.

I spent many a wondrous night as a child at my grandmother’s farm in rural South Carolina. It’s there I learned when to plant flat pole beans, when to pick them, and how to cook them. In that quiet little hamlet, I listened to that evening symphony of dueling frogs and cicadas, lit brightly by fireflies and a galaxy of stars that would make those lights of Times Square bow down from embarrassment. I think back on waking up at 5:30am on a sweltering summer day in any given August, walking with my grandmother into her garden and thinking “this is what we will eat for supper tonight.” Today, a majority of what people eat is grown on farms bigger than some cities and we don’t have a clue how it got to our tables. Today, every meal a child eats in his or her school comes straight from a large can and has the nutritional value of paper. It’s no wonder they call tendons and ligaments Pink Slime but we let our kids eat it everyday? Really?
I don’t think it’s odd that I can walk into my small garden down in the mountains of Virginia and have as much peace of mind as sitting in the middle of Central Park. Both places give me great peace and solace. What’s sad for me (and for you) is that most folks just aren’t engaged, they just don’t care. Americans aren’t outraged. We need more voices like Ms. Reichl’s and Mrs. Albright’s. We need mothers and fathers to become outraged by what our children are eating. Hell, what we’re eating! And most importantly, we have to speak up because if we don’t, we only have ourselves to blame for the fact that some large company bought Pink Slime’s way into our homes.
Posted on by jimmy in Congress, Food Politics 7 Comments

What the Hell is Wrong with the Republican Party?

I love when someone criticizes a group of people or a segment of the population but then adds that caveat “Oh, and I have a lot of  (                    )  friends.” This brings me to something I’ve been debating in my head for a while: what the hell is wrong with the Republican party? And let me be clear, I have a lot of Republican friends!

Now that’s a sort of generically-boring statement because you can just take out “Republican” and insert any other group: black, gay, jewish, christian, democrats, whatever. Having been an english major in undergrad, I’m hot for adjectives. Adjectives, by their very nature, help us. They help us see something, smell it, taste it. They help us understand better. Being a son of the south, I come from a long line of habitual adjective junkies and frankly I wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Republican” as an adjective seems to be in transformation. Understanding what it means to be a Republican in today’s America has gotten tricky. In fact, I don’t know of a single Republican today who will tell me their party isn’t in crisis.

Back in November 2011, former Bush White House speechwriter David Frum wrote a very interesting piece in New York magazine that was one hell of an eye-opener. He’s of the opinion that his party is heading in the wrong direction, that his party is re-defining the meaning of real conservatism.

Frum is no “RINO” aka “republican in name only.” This is the guy who came up with the term “axis of evil.” He considers himself a “conservative Republican” and has written more than a few books about his political party, many to great acclaim and some to great scorn.

So what’s Frum’s problem with his own party? By his own admission, he helped “make the mess.” It seems fair to me for his fellow conservatives to ask him where and why he’s gone astray but I also think that’s a two-way street. If questions from within can’t be asked, questions from the outside are the only voices shouting in an echo chamber. Martin Luther’s affection for hammer, nail, parchment and the subsequent questioning of his own church began the Protestant Reformation. So questioning our very own isn’t radical. Instead it’s the questioning in real time that seems to be the problem.

From Frum’s perspective, what’s wrong with his party is “the drying up of the conservative creativity.” He posits that Republicans have to show a better way, an alternative way to that of President Barack Obama and frankly of his former boss President George W. Bush.

Being “against” instead of “for” the other side is largely an apt description for both political parties today. Whether this is a perception issue or reality issue doesn’t matter. What matters is what the public thinks. What matter is what they see and how they feel about the political parties. Gone are the days of getting our news from the late Walter Cronkite and, most importantly, trusting the news. The country has always had a healthy dose of political skepticism. Today’s 24-hour new cycle (of which I’m admittedly a part) in many ways is responsible for this chasm between what’s reality and what’s perceived to be reality. We are inundated with so much from so many places, it’s hard to cut through the bullshit of it all.

Frum devotes a major portion of his November reflection on the GOP to Fox News and talk radio. He states “The business model of the conservative media is built on two elements: provoking the audience into a ferver of indignation (to keep them watching) and fomenting mistrust of all other information sources (so that they never change the channel).” Mind you this is a thoughtful conservative accusing Fox News and the Rush Limbaugh’s of the world of brainwashing the masses. While Frum doesn’t accuse the Democrats of such brainwashing, I readily admit my side of the aisle engages here as well.

Frum, who advocated for his party to reach a deal with the Obama White House and the Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, was fired from the American Enterprise Institute and castigated by the far right for suggesting something heretical: compromise. I’m reminded of the 60 Minutes interview with the incoming Speaker of the House John Boehner (OH) who refused to even utter that dirtiest of dirty words “compromise” when asked by Leslie Stahl over and over again. In fact, he even went so far as to say “I reject the word.”

Speaker Boehner is a good man in my opinion. He’s “old school;” he gets the art of the deal. He worked hand-in-hand with the late liberal stalwart Senator Ted Kennedy (MA) to pass the No Child Left Behind legislation. Today, he’s the top Republican in the country but he’s being held hostage by the far right wing of his party. It’s no wonder he and his party refuse to simply “compromise?” And it’s no wonder David Frum is an outsider in his own political party.

I wonder what late Senator Barry Goldwater if he were alive would think of his political party today. By all accounts, Goldwater led a nascent conservative movement into the modern era and set up the mantle for the likes of Ronald Reagan and others to carry forward into a conservative’s virtual Glory Days. This was the Republican candidate for President who said “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Sounds to me like a current Tea Party movement soundbite doesn’t it?

In his latter years though, Goldwater castigated his party for their stance on issues ranging from equal rights for gays to the separation of church and state. In his final term in the Senate, he took to the Floor on September 15, 1981 to discuss the issues of religion, conservatism, and the Republican party (Congressional Record, 127.15, 1981, pp.20589f). I’m intrigued by something Senator Goldwater said:

I, too, believe that we Americans should return to our traditional values concerning morality, family closeness, self-reliance, and a day’s work for a day’s pay. These are the values our forebears clung to as they built this Nation into the citadel of freedom it is today. And I, too, have been pleased with the swing of the pendulum for in recent years to the conservative, moral end of the spectrum. But I object to certain groups on that pendulum and then claiming that they caused it t0 swing in the first place. And I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in “A,” “B,” “C,” and “D…” And I’m more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-given right to control my vote on every rollcall in the Senate. I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of conservatism.

In his later years, Goldwater famously took the substance of his Floor speech a step further and became a surprising advocate of equal rights for the LGBT community and even went so far as to say abortion shouldn’t be a political football. This leads me back to Mr. Frum.

To close his article, Frum notes “…a great political party is worth fighting for.” He’s right, literally. Goldwater felt the same way by continuing to speak out  after he left the Senate from retirement back in Arizona. Of late we’ve heard former Senator Alan Simpson (WY), who wasn’t considered a moderate in when he was the Republican Whip, on the overreach by the right-wing of the his party. Former Senator John Danforth (MO) has chimed in as well. 

But the juncture at which Frum and Goldwater’s paths cross is the point they begin walking together in search for something bigger. It’s this issue of allowing their party to be hijacked by extremists that unites the living and the dead. My friends on the American right can learn something from their counterparts across the “pond:” British conservatives. Tory Prime Minister David Cameron has been quoted favoring equal gay marriage rights.  The Prime Minister eloquently said “I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a Conservative.” This is groundbreaking. The idea of supporting stable marriages between two consenting adults versus being told as a group your assimilation isn’t wanted is stark.

One of the major reasons I switched from being a Republican to a Democrat in 1992 was the issue of equal rights for gays. Since then my politics have obviously evolved into a much larger vision about which political party aligns with me. I’ve spent nearly 20 years in Washington, DC with 15 of those years working directly in politics. My nearly seven years as a Senate staffer were filled with low pay, immense power, and an insatiable soaking-up of policy. After another seven plus years as a lobbyist for just about every industry under the sun, I got the other side of the DC equation: politics.  With education comes knowledge right? And much to the chagrin of my friends on the Left, the Democratic Party has lost its way in many ways too (that’s another column for another day).

I’ve said before and I continue to believe the best kind of government is the one that leaves us alone when we need to be left alone and lifts us up when we need a helping hand. Like the tall case clock that sits in my living room, that government pendulum swings back and forth between the leaving alone and the helping hand. Unlike my clock, sometimes the pendulum of government gets out of whack by over reaching or under reaching and that’s why we have elections.

This November, voters will walk into the polls, pull that curtain, and take a gut check. For some, they will go through the same gut check I went through 20 years ago when I reluctantly switched from the Republican to the Democratic party. If the polls are any indication for the fall, the Republican party could be in for a massive wakeup call. If you don’t believe me, just ask Republicans like Frum, Danforth, and Simpson. I bet you’d hear the ghostly echo of Goldwater from the Senate Chamber of yesteryear when the GOP was the most popular political party in America.

Posted on by jimmy in Congress, Equal Rights, Presidential, Senate 1 Comment

Trayvon Martin & Our Own Racism

Imagine today is March 23, 1962 and a black teenager is walking down the street with candy in his hand. He’s coming home from a segregated school to a segregated neighborhood. He can’t vote because he’s too young but it may not matter because depending on where he lives in America, he probably won’t have the right to vote anyway. Sadly it won’t matter. It won’t matter because this child is shot down in cold blood as he’s walking down the street in the “wrong neighborhood.” The local police investigate the “incident” and find it was “self defense.”  His murderer is still walking the streets of 1962 America. While this may be a fictional character and scenario, it’s not far off from the truth.

Fast forward to today, March 23, 2012. A black teenager named Trayvon Martin was murdered 27 days ago. He was strolling down the street with Skittles and was gunned down by George Zimmerman because he was “walking around staring at the houses.” Today, March 23, Zimmerman is walking the streets of 2012 America. And sadly Trayvon can’t. Trayvon will never vote. Trayvon will never graduate from high school much less attend college. Today, March 23, 2012, George Zimmerman can do  all of those things.

My fellow MSNBC Contributor Jonathan Capehart recently said  “I could have been Trayvon Martin” when walking through his childhood neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey. What’s more sobering is what he said afterward: “I still could be Trayvon Martin because of someone else’s suspicion.” Capehart’s statement forced me to look inward at my own suspicions, my own racism and frankly  it’s past time for each of us to examine our own stigmas.

I grew up in a sleepy southern town. I had no black neighbors. I had virtually no black friends other than a few high school acquaintances. I had a black nanny but virtually no interaction with her children. In my childhood of the late-1960’s to the mid-1980’s, blacks stayed in their neighborhoods and whites stayed in theirs. To me, this was as normal as the sun setting and the moon rising.

I’ll readily admit that as a child I would’ve looked twice had I seen a young black man walking down my street. I probably would’ve run inside and told the nearest adult. What my nanny would have thought. I’m describing learned behavior. I’m describing racism. And racism isn’t just a southern thing. I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind folks of the Boston busing riots of the late 1960’s. Bigotry crosses state and regional lines.

As the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama addressed the issue of race in a speech in Philadelphia.  He discussed white resentment and black anger in depth and by most accounts, his was a watershed speech. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 85% of Americans either watched the speech or read about it. That’s an amazing statistic, considering he was just one of 100 Senators and wasn’t yet President. It’s also important because this national issue of race is rarely broached by our elected officials.

We don’t have enough of this. If it’s good enough for our nation to have a “religious freedom” debate during this Presidential election season, then doesn’t it seem legitimate to debate the continued problem of race relations? This type of debate isn’t just for the voting age population or those tuned into the media. We owe it to our children to have this debate, to expose them to the ugly face of racial stereotypes. We owe it to our children to make them better than us.

I reckon back to my own childhood and am reminded further of what my friend Jonathan said in his interview with Reverend Al Sharpton. Capehart was taught by his mother not to run, not to put his hands in his pockets. What was I taught? I was taught to watch for anyone black who ran or put his hands in his pockets or looked “suspicious.” My father, who’s deceased, frequently used the “N” word and I’d be less than honest if I didn’t admit I did the same as a kid.

Over time, I learned right from wrong. Today, Jonathan Capehart is my good friend and his race is irrelevant to me. I’ve never asked him this but I assume my race doesn’t matter to him either. What could have been a vicious cycle was broken. Sadly in Florida 27 days ago, it reared its ugly head again in a very tragic way.

We all have a moral obligation to look inward in times like these and ask ourselves real, substantive questions about our religious, moral, and racial beliefs. Some have criticized President Obama for making a statement on the death of Trayvon Martin. To be fair, each of the candidates for the Presidency has made their thoughts known on this tragedy. Sadly, these speeches and statements came almost a month after Trayvon’s death and not by coincidence after the President spoke of this tragedy from the Rose Garden. It was almost as if everyone running for any office this fall was waiting for someone higher up to speak first. No profiles in courage here.

Shouldn’t we expect the men running for the Presidency to step up, to soothe a country angry and grieving over the relationship between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman? I do. I also expect parents across this country to have this conversation with their children at the dinner table in the coming weeks. I expect our religious leaders to preach on this subject as well.

If this conversation could be had by our political and religious leaders in a 1962 America don’t we deserve one in 2012?

Posted on by jimmy in Equal Rights, Presidential 3 Comments

Religious Freedom For All?

I have said on MSNBC, Twitter, and Facebook numerous times that we seem to be in a political environment where men have a surging desire to tell women what to do (or not to do) with their bodies. Many of my friends on the GOP side of the aisle  and frankly some on the left have pushed back, claiming this current debate to be about religious freedom only.

I have an inherent faith in people, including people of faith, whether they be Democrats, Republicans, or none-of-the-above. When someone tells me something, I start from a place where they’re telling me the truth unless I have a reason to believe otherwise. Perhaps this faith in “man” stems from my undergraduate days at The Citadel where we were bound by an honor code: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, or steal,  nor tolerate those who do.”

Over the course of my weekend reading and researching for this column, I ran across a piece by The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein concerning the number of legislative actions restricting a woman’s right to choose currently pending in those neat little laboratories called the 50 state legislatures. This led me to the Guttmacher Institute’s website, where I found a ton of information on the proliferation of “religious freedom”  legislation pending all across America, including in the United States Senate and House of Representatives.

You might imagine how surprised I was to learn that there are currently pending 430 bills in our state legislatures restricting abortion. According to the staff at Guttmacher, roughly 83 of these kinds of bills were signed into law in 2011. Now compare that number to November 2010, prior to the GOP taking over a majority of the state legislatures when only 23 bills were signed into law. This is troubling not because I have strong opinions about abortion but because I’m being lied to and that, my friends, really hacks me off.

If these debates in the states are supposed to be about religious freedom, exactly whose religious freedom are we protecting?

America is by and large a Judeo-Christian nation. We are made up of believers in a higher power and of non-believers as well. I happen to be a believer, an Episcopalian, and my religion is perhaps the most private aspect of my personal life. I, like many other Americans, am a member of a church that is in the mainstream of our culture on the issue of abortion and choice. And while we’re at it, I don’t know what pro-life is vs. pro-death but I think if I had my druthers I’d rather just be pro-woman. That’s another column for another day though.

The Episcopal Churchthe Methodist Church, and the Presbyterian Church all play this issue right down the middle, where most Americans actually find themselves. Combined, these churches account for over 13,000,000 communicants. Obviously there are millions more Protestants than these three churches but I single them out because these are mainstream faiths which have existed since the founding of our country. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, maintains a population of around 65,000,000. Without a doubt, there are more Catholics in the USA than any other religion.

This begs the following questions: A) Should the majority church determine religious legislation? B) Should the minority’s stance on abortion, contraception, gay marriage, interracial marriage or any other social issue be ignored under the guise of “religious freedom?” and C) Should any government big or small be involved with our bodies (remember Terry Schiavo)?

What about America’s Jewish population? I don’t seem to recall anyone in the 50 state legislatures standing up for the religious freedom of their Jewish constituents. According to halacha (Jewish law), as a general rule abortion should only be allowed if the life of the mother is in danger. Once the baby’s head has exited the womb and has taken its first breath, only then does the child have the same rights as the mother. Again, I must ask the question: which if any of these state legislatures are taking their Jewish constituents’ religious freedoms into account when they pass these laws?

If our governments (either state and federal) want to protect religious freedom, shouldn’t they be protecting that right and privilege for ALL Americans by staying out of our homes and our doctors’ offices? Many of us are familiar with the tyranny of the majority. My fellow South Carolinian, former Vice President and Senator John C. Calhoun, spoke repeatedly about what is known as the “concurrent majority” i.e. the states passing laws when they feel their rights have been infringed upon by the Federal government. I believe strongly in states’ rights but not at the expense of civil rights. Jim Crow laws and bans on interracial marriage stemmed from this theory and I’d love to hear someone defend those types of laws today.

I have developed what I like to call the “pajama test.” If you’re in a room where PJ’s are required or worn, the big hand of government should rarely be your guest. We have the right to be left alone in our homes and in our doctors’ offices. Justice, my friends, is blind. She wears the blindfold for a reason and I don’t think she wants to see our pajamas.

Legislation being passed across this country isn’t about religious freedom for everyone. It’s about religious freedom for some. Once again we as a nation find ourselves at the same crossroad of personal liberty and equal rights and once again, it’s an election year. And I really wish our politicians would stop lying to us about their intent and stop hiding behind a governmental pulpit. It just seems so, well, dishonorable.

Posted on by jimmy in Congress, Equal Rights, House, Presidential, Senate 3 Comments

What Happened Super Tuesday?

Before I dozed off around 12:30am, most Super Tuesday-related results were in except Ohio. I was shocked, shocked I say, how close that race was and this morning when I awoke around 5:30am, my gut proved correct: Mitt Romney eked out a victory in a state where a week ago, he was down in the polls anywhere from five to seven points. The Quinnipiac poll is usually a reliable barometer and it held Santorum as the Ohio leader for two weeks running. Yet, he lost it. He had the lead for over a month and what did he do? He just plain lost it.

As I said yesterday, Rick Santorum seems to have a depth and breadth problem. He’s literally a social issues pitbull who latches onto red meat and won’t let go. Santorum spent 12 years in the Senate, frequently taking to the Floor of the upper chamber with charts on partial-birth abortions and somehow finding time to decry gays as deviants. Ask any Senate staffer, Republican or Democratic, and they’ll tell you the same thing about the former Senator: Santorum was a one-trick pony and his presidential race has barely veered from that playbook. To his credit, he has been calling attention to “Obamacare,” describing it as the end of our liberty and declaring this as THE issue that made him run for President. So Santorum’s focus seems to parry back and forth between our health, our abortions, and my unrealized gay marriage.

This plays very well with the GOP base, specifically self-described evangelicals and christian conservatives. But in the end, does the average American who’s concerned about the cost of sending their kids to college? When an average American is standing at the gas pump, is he/she thinking about whether or not gay people can get married? When a 40-something mom is tooling through the grocery store stuffing Cheerios into her toddler’s mouth and telling her other two kids “No, you can’t have that cereal. It’s all sugar”, is she thinking about images of partial birth abortions? The answer to all of these is no. No they aren’t. Every single one of these “average Americans” is thinking about money, about how much that full cart of groceries is going to cost or whether or not to fill up the tank or just stop at $35. Don’t get me wrong. There is a wide swath of Americans who care about social issues. I’m from the South and believe me, they exist. And conservatives don’t just live in the South. While many states have progressive urban areas, they all have rural populations that consistently vote Republican.

The voters I tend to focus on are women. So let’s dive down into yesterday’s numbers and see what women did on Super Tuesday.

Romney won by three points with women. Only 21 percent of voters yesterday self-identified as “working women” and of those, Romney led by eight points over Santorum. Romney’s lead with unmarried women was a whopping 17 percent. That’s huge. But the most important number here is that three percent of all women. Without those votes, Santorum would’ve won Ohio. Which GOP candidate stayed away from social issues? Mitt Romney. And who made contraception and abortion and other social issues the lynchpin of his campaign in the Buckeye state? Rick Santorum. I’m thinking the fat lady sang yesterday and she wasn’t happy with Mr. Santorum.

While men in the GOP primaries outnumber women, the general election is a different matter. In 2008, almost 10 million more women voted than men. Pair that stat with the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showing an 18-point gap of women favoring President Obama over Governor Romney and the GOP has a woman problem. At some point, Romney is going to get dragged into the issue. He’s been very lucky in that Santorum has taken up all the space on this and specifically the Rush Limbaugh debacle. But frankly, Romney’s one-liner on Limbaugh isn’t going to suffice and we in the press should demand more from him.

What else did we learn last night? Evangelical voters flocked to Santorum. Over 70 percent of voters in Tennessee and Oklahoma identified yesterday as evangelicals and Santorum won both states. How did Romney do with this group in Ohio? Santorum beat him by a 16-point margin. That’s a drumming folks and it doesn’t bode well nationally in November for likely nominee Romney. I’m not suggesting President Obama is going to win evangelicals in November. I am suggesting if Romney is the nominee, that group will have to either vote for someone who doesn’t share their values or stay home. I’m betting they stay home at this point.

I have said over and over again that tea party movement folks just don’t like Romney. And true to form, Romney lost Ohio voters who strongly support or identify as tea party folks by nine points. This isn’t a huge number but combine that with evangelicals and his lack of support by “strongly conservative” voters, Romney has some serious flaws as a candidate.

So let’s look forward. Kansas, Alabama, and Mississippi are the next primary contests and I don’t think Governor Romney is going to carry any of these three very conservative states. Romney won this morning what he needed to win but can he limp into April with no wins and still be considered the frontrunner? Does he make a play for these three conservative states by tacking even more to the right? I’m willing to bet the White House hopes so and frankly I’d bet Santorum does too.

I don’t know of a single legitimate Republican who thinks this primary process has been healthy for the party or good for choosing the best candidate to beat Barack Obama in the fall. Super Tuesday’s results prove that and if we get to June with a divided Republican electorate, my friends on the political right will be running around like chickens with their heads cut off to fix the problem.

Posted on by jimmy in Presidential 1 Comment

Women Voters and Super Tuesday

It’s Super Tuesday, that day in politics when every bald man’s hair is on fire and political types are running around acting like Jesus is coming. While I suppose both of those things could happen, I prefer to Keep Calm and Carry On as our friend Joe Scarborough likes to say.

Republicans in 11 states will vote today and award 424 delegates to the four men trying to unseat President Barack Obama. The proverbial frontrunner, Mitt Romney, has the chance today to lock up most of those delegates thereby giving him what many consider an insurmountable lead. Rick Santorum, if he does well, could prove a spoiler for Romney but it seems he has once again let his mouth overload his ass. And, of course, former Speaker Newt Gingrich will most likely only carry the state of Georgia that he used to represent but hasn’t lived in for decades. Many of these states matter in November but today, all eyes are on THE state of Ohio (emphasis on the THE for you OSU fans). If Romney pulls it out in the Buckeye state, then Santorum has once again blown a lead in a bellweather state. If Santorum squeaks by with a narrow victory, he’ll just keep going until his next verbal gaffe. Regardless, both of these male candidates will need to think long and hard about how they’re going to appeal to a broader electorate than the one they’re currently courting.

Ohio’s unemployment rate is 7.7% and trending the right way. Ohio is actually a conservative state with several large pockets of progressivism in mostly urban areas. Don’t forget that President Obama barely won Ohio with 51.2% of the vote in 2008 and his numbers there have been up and down depending on the poll. No current credible poll shows the President winning Ohio by more than two to three percentage points right now and I’m willing to bet that his numbers are up because of the female vote being so turned off by this Rush Limbaugh contraception scandal that’s erupting across the country. That seminal event leads me back to the title of this column.

Many of my friends in the Democratic Party are proclaiming an easy win in November. According to them, the conventional wisdom is President Barack Obama is a “near certainty” to win reelection and the Senate will “likely” remain controlled by the Democrats come next January. Some are even going so far as to say they’ll re-take the House of Representatives. Clearly, the Republicans have blown what was their best chance to defeat that “socialist” “Muslim” “traitor” Obama right? Clearly, a healthy GOP primary season would allow a multitude of candidates to enter the race, present their ideas, debate them, and a clear winner would emerge to take on the weak Democrat right? Clearly the right wing of the Republican party and the center-right wing of the Republican party would just duke it out and the GOP electorate would nominate the best man to beat Obama right? I’m afraid it’s just not clear or sunny skies over on the political right these days.

And there’s the rub: there is no center-right or even moderate wing of the Republican party anymore. If you don’t believe me, ask Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine. If you don’t believe me, ask former First Lady Barbara Bush who just yesterday excoriated national Republicans that “compromise is not a dirty word.” Ask women across the country who are so turned off by Rush Limbaugh’s crudeness how they feel about what’s going on in the Republican party right now.

The latest poll from NBC/Wall Street Journal underscores my point. There is a ton of data to study from this latest poll but the most important data is the 18 pt swing by suburban women back to the Democrats. As I’ve said on MSNBC time and time again, elections hinge on “independent” women under the age of 50. In 2006, women gave the Democrats control of the House and Senate by wide margins. In 2008, women again made the difference and elected the first black man to be President of the United States. And in 2010, those same women slapped the Democrats across their political faces and took the House away from them. You’d think the GOP would recognize this trend. You’d think the GOP would wake up and realize when you bash mothers, daughters, wives, and women in general or get in their political bedrooms, you’re really losing your connection with them.

Much has been written about what Rush Limbaugh said and I frankly don’t need to even go there. I”m a big fan of watching political train wrecks and this one is a doozy. Women, however, are also watching. And today, they’re voting all across this nation. Or maybe not. That’s what I’ll be watching for in tonight’s primary results across the states: the female turnout. I want to see IF they vote in large numbers and if so, for whom they vote. More telling will be if the female vote is down.

Republicans best wake up and wake up quickly if they want to win in November. As in life, the key to winning an election is getting women to vote for you. So while the purported death of the Republican party has been greatly exaggerated by my Democratic friends, the GOP should wise up before my friends on the left are right. Pun intended.

Posted on by jimmy in Presidential 2 Comments