Few bright spots for the Democrats as America voted Republican

Well, that was really depressing.

Only in Minnesota, and a few other bright spots around the country, did the Democrats win, or even put up a good fight in yesterday’s Republican landslide. Even in Democratic strongholds, like Massachusetts and Maryland, the voters elected new Republican governors. Southern Democratic Senators trying to get reelected failed, like Mark Pryor in Arkansas and Kay Hagan in North Carolina. Only Mark Warner in Virginia held on, barely…

The next US Senate will have a comfortable Republican majority, and the least sympathetic of all American politicians, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, will be the new majority leader. He was the one — remember ? — who set as his primary goal at the start of the first Obama Administration to make sure that America’s first African American president would only serve one term. Well, Obama was reelected in 2012 and McConnell remained minority leader. Now, McConnell plus House Speaker John Boehner in charge of an even larger Republican majority in the House of Representatives, will have to work with President Obama if anything is to get done in the new Congress.

Don’t hold your breath! The Republican majorities in Congress contain more conservatives and more Tea party sympathizers, who now see even less reason to work with the President. If they turn cooperative, it will be a first after years of Republican obstruction, including a government shutdown, for which, apparently, and remarkably, the American voters have rewarded them while at the same time — and completely illogically — bitterly complaining about the gridlock in Washington.

They give Congress embarrassingly low approval ratings — even lower than the President — and then vote them back in power, stronger than before. Figure that one out!

Actually, and once again, the American voters have shown how negative they are towards the government, not only this government but government in general. They want a weak government and with yesterday’s outcome they have assured themselves of that.

I mentioned Minnesota in the beginning, where I have recently spent quite a bit of time, and although Minnesota’s voters reelected all the top Democratic candidates, Governor Mark Dayton, Senator Al Franken, the State Auditor, the Attorney General, as well as all five Democratic members of the US Congress, and elected a new Democratic Secretary of State, the voters turned their back on the Democratic Farmer Labor Party’s (DFL) candidates for the State House of Representatives. The Democrats’ majority of 73 to 61 for the last two years will switch to a solid Republican majority, 72 to 62,  in the next House, while the Democrats keep their majority in the Senate, which is not up for reelection until 2016.

So, also in Minnesota, the voters chose change, to end, as they put it, the “single-party DFL rule.” It’s the fourth time in ten years that the majority in the House has changed hands. And, just like in Washington, the ability to govern, to get results, to move the country forward, has been weakened. In that sense, the voters in Minnesota were no different than the voters in the rest of America.

The outcome does not bode well for America in the next two years.

In Minnesota, the Democrats hope to continue to lead

Just back from another visit to Minnesota in pursuit of its Scandinavian legacy. As the weather suddenly turned wintry after a glorious fall, the election campaign reached its crescendo, or lack of crescendo. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there is drama also in Minnesota but not the drama of other states, where depressing poll numbers tell the story of a Democratic party in serious trouble, so serious that most polls predict a Republican majority in the new US Senate and increased majority in the US House of Representatives.DFL bus campaign

In Minnesota, the Democratic party, here called the Democratic Farmer Labor Party (DFL), also has a tough go. But Governor Mark Dayton and Senator Al Franken are still solidly ahead in the polls and their re-election seems assured. But it’s far from guaranteed in these bizarre mid-term elections where a robust economy, lower unemployment and non-existing inflation seem not to matter, and where a Republican-led, do-nothing House of Representatives looks to increase its majority and set to do even more, of nothing…

The Saint Paul Pioneer-Press, representing the readers in one of America’s most liberal cities, exemplified the bizarre political climate when endorsed Dayton’s and Franken’s largely unknown and untested Republican opponents as well as equally untested young businessman Stewart Mills, who is trying to unseat DFL-veteran Rick Nolan in Minnesota’s northern 8th District.

Talk about a paper representing its readers….

Even Minneapolis’ paper, the Star Tribune, representing the readers in an almost equally liberal city, came out in support of Mills, in spite of, as the excellent website  MinnPost pointed out the other day, Mills and the paper differ on a series of issues, from gun control to Obamacare, taxes, and more.

Bizarre…

So, although ahead in the polls, the DFL takes little for granted. All the leading DFL candidates, plus Minnesota’s other Democratic Senator, Amy Klobuchar, and Saint Paul mayor Chris Coleman, gathered the other day in front of the Capitol for the last frenetic Get Out the Vote Statewide Bus Tour, which ends Monday night with the Minneapolis and Saint Paul Midnight Madness Event. And it’s not only about Dayton and Franken, it’s about re-electing Collin Peterson and Rick Nolan to the U.S. House of Representatives, re-electing the Attorney General and the State Auditor, and electing a new DFL:er as Secretary of State. But, most of all, it’s about retaining the Democratic majority of 73 – 61 in the State House, which, together with the DFL-led Senate and Governor Dayton, has led the state since 2012.

Their joint record is impressive, and they are running hard on it, but will it be enough in this election where do-nothing and even shutting down the government, instead of good work, seems to be rewarded? Indeed, the times are bizarre…

 

Geneva in 2013 like Munich in 1938 — come on!

Comparing the US/Iran nuclear agreement in Geneva with Munich in 1938!

“If you hear echoes of the 1930s in the capitulation at Geneva, it’s because the West is being led by the same sort of men, minus the umbrellas,” writes the Wall Street Journal editorial writer Bret Stephens.

What planet does he live on? Alas, his comments are another example of the low, and sad, level of the Republican comments after the US plus the European Union, Russia, and China came to an agreement over the weekend with the Iranians. In fact, as Dana Milbank writes today in the Washington Post, the GOP has opposed the Iran deal, “sight unseen.”  As always, I could add, when it comes to the President and the Republicans, and Andrew Sullivan on his blog The Dish writes that it very much looks like “sabotage.”

Sullivan is shocked that “some Americans take the side of a foreign country and not their own,” such as when John Bolton, former UN Ambassador under George W. Bush urged Israel in an article in The Weekly Standard to launch a war against Iran “in order to scupper his own country’s core negotiations with Iran.” This is attempted active sabotage through a foreign country,” writes Sullivan, who adds that this even pertains to members of the President’s own party and cites New York Senator Chuck Schumer, “vowing to destroy the foreign policy of a president of his own party.”

Sullivan despairs and how can one not despair? So it is important to point out what some wise commentators have to say about the Iran deal, like New York Times’ Roger Cohen:

“Let us be clear. This is the best deal that could be had. Nothing, not even sustained Israeli bombardment, can reverse the nuclear know-how Iran possesses. The objective must be to ring-fence the acquired capability so its use can only be peaceful.”

And Trita Parsi, author and president of the National Iranian American Council, writes on Reuters that the deal is about much more than Iran nuclear program.

“A successful nuclear deal can become the first step in a long and arduous – but necessary – journey to break the institutionalized enmity between the United States and Iran.”

That’s what’s really important.

Finally, simple majority democracy has come to the Senate

It’s been called the “nuclear option,” presumably because a decision to change the filibuster rules of the U.S. Senate would be so big, so historic and politically so consequential.

And today’s decision IS a huge deal, as Ezra Klein in his Wonkblog in the Washington Post explains. Most of all, the decision by the Democratic majority in the Senate is about democracy. Tired of the Republican minority’s obstructionist behavior through the filibuster, which has paralyzed the upper body of the U.S. Congress, the Democrats, with 52 votes to 48, said enough! Three Democrats, Carl Levin of Michigan, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mark Pryor of Arkansas voted with the Republicans, while the two Independents, Angus King of Maine and Bernard Sanders of Vermont, supported the Democrats.

Finally, simple majority will rule in the US Senate, just like it should in a democracy and just like it does in other democracies, whether the political power lies with a majority of twenty votes or one.  A majority is a majority.

The filibuster rule, that it takes 60 votes for decisions in the Senate, is not a written rule. It is not in the Constitution, and it was for decades seldom used. However, from 1967 to 2012, according to the Congressional Research Service cited by the Washington Post, majority leaders had to file motions to try to break a filibuster of a judicial nominee 67 times — and 31 of those, more than 46 percent — occurred in the five years with Obama in the White House and a Democratic majority, although not a 60-vote super majority, in the Senate.

The filibuster rule change means that the President’s federal judge nominees and executive-office appointments now can be confirmed by a simple majority rather than by the super majority that has been required for more than two centuries. However, there are two important exception: it will still take 60 votes to confirm a nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court and the filibuster can still be used on legislation.

Words of approval from the White House were heard after the vote.  Now, President Obama can get his three nominees approved to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, often called the second most powerful federal court in the country. From   the Republicans in the Senate only howls of protests were heard.

“It’s time to change. It’s time to change the Senate before this institution becomes obsolete,” said the Senate’s Democratic majority leader Harry Reid.

Yes, it was the right thing to do!

The Republicans: “The cowardice in the many”

“John Boehner holds the nation hostage because the Tea Party holds him hostage. The problem with modern Republicans is not fanaticism in the few but cowardice in the many, who let their fellows live in virtual secession from laws they disagree with.”

The words are from Garry Wills, emeritus professor of history at Northwestern University writing in The New York Review of Books under the title “Back Door Secession.”

Wills goes on to say what the people behind these efforts are doing resemble “the pre-Civil War virtual secessionism—the holding of a whole party hostage to its most extreme members”… and that “the presiding spirit of this neo-secessionism is a resistance to majority rule.”

Where are we? Where is America heading?

“It takes one’s breath away…”

Here is Norm Ornstein, eminent political scholar, on the Republican efforts in Congress to sabotage Obamacare — “it is simply unacceptable, even contemptible…and it takes one’s breath away.”

“But to do everything possible to undercut and destroy its implementation—which in this case means finding ways to deny coverage to many who lack any health insurance; to keep millions who might be able to get better and cheaper coverage in the dark about their new options; to create disruption for the health providers who are trying to implement the law, including insurers, hospitals, and physicians; to threaten the even greater disruption via a government shutdown or breach of the debt limit in order to blackmail the president into abandoning the law; and to hope to benefit politically from all the resulting turmoil—is simply unacceptable, even contemptible. One might expect this kind of behavior from a few grenade-throwing firebrands. That the effort is spearheaded by the Republican leaders of the House and Senate—even if Speaker John Boehner is motivated by fear of his caucus, and McConnell and Cornyn by fear of Kentucky and Texas Republican activists—takes one’s breath away.”

There are scandals, and then there are real scandals…

The Republicans are smelling blood. Finally, after four years of a scandal free Obama first term, they seem to say, we got him!

And they can’t help themselves, comparing Obama to Nixon, who resigned in disgrace over the Watergate scandal – now that was a real scandal! – and suggesting that Obama should be impeached…

The Washington Post main editorial today is pretty good, although comparing Obama to Nixon is not only “silly,” it is really stupid. I have for quite a while lamented the trend of the Post’s editorials becoming more and more neocon in its views on foreign policy, particularly on Syria and the Middle East, but here the paper is right on the money:

  • The Benghazi talking points scandal is “no scandal whatsoever,” but there was “no cover up” and “no conspiracy” to deceive the American people.
  • The broad search of telephone records among AP’s reporters went way too far, but there is no record that Obama knew anything about this.
  • The IRS targeting of Tea party groups is “horrifying and inexcusable,” but there is no evidence of White House knowledge or instigation of this practice.

Second term presidents often seem to get into trouble…must be something in the water in the White House. But this is not Watergate nor is it Iran-contra. They were real scandals.

Still, of course, this won’t go away.  The Republicans want to nail the president, but in their desperate eagerness, they are overreaching, “making a political circus” of the tragedy in Benghazi, as Philadelphia Inquirer’s Trudy Rubin recently wrote. The real scandal, she continued, is how the Republicans are “dishonoring” the memory of the four dead Americans in Benghazi.

It’s high time to close Guantanamo Bay

The terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay is still open, in spite of what president Obama has declared and in spite of the many demands to close it.

As recently as last week, President Obama said that he continues to believe that Guantanamo should be closed.

“I think it is critical for us to understand that Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe. It is expensive.  It is inefficient.  It hurts us in terms of our international standing.  It lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts.  It is a recruitment tool for extremists… And I’m going to reengage with Congress to try to make the case that this is not something that’s in the best interest of the American people.  And it’s not sustainable.”  

Karen Greenberg, head of the Center on National Security at Fordham University Law School, is an expert on the Guantanamo prison. In an interview with me for my book America — Land of Dreams she said that Obama might have succeeded in closing Guantanamo immediately after he won the election in 2008, but he didn’t act fast enough, and he failed. And because Guantanamo is still open, we still have a system of “indefinite detention” and that, for me, she said, is “unacceptable.”

An article by Greenberg in the Washington Post last Sunday, called “Five Myths about Guantanamo Bay,” lays out the situation at Guantanamo today for the remaining 166 prisoners, of whom 100 are hunger-striking. Four of them have been hospitalized and 23 are force-fed.  Read it!

It’s high time to close Guantanamo.

Outcome uncertain as battle over new gun laws continues

This weekend a group of art lovers and gun control activists gathered in the First Congregational United Church of Christ in the middle of Washington, DC for an exhibition called:

“The Newtown Project: ART TARGETS GUNS”.Art & Guns
The exhibition with 33 artists has been assembled by veteran journalist Charles Krause Reporting Fine Arts Gallery in memory of the murdered 26 students and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in December last year.
Outside the church, the Canadian artist Viktor Mitic’s school bus stood, full of bullet holes. The bus, called the “Incident,” was created by Mitic before the tragedy in Newtown in memory of gang violence in his hometown Toronto, but the bus has become a sad symbol of what has happened and could happen again in America’s schools.
Congress returns this week to Washington to continue negotiations on new gun laws that President Obama has demanded and for which he has energetically pleaded in speeches  around the country. And he seems to have support among the American public: 90 per cent support background on people who want to buy guns; 59 percent want ban on military-style automatic weapons (assault weapons) and a majority support other laws on guns and ammunition.
Yet… a victory in Congress is far from certain. The lobby group the National Rifle Association (NRA) has, at least so far, succeeded in preventing any new gun laws.
A depressing article in this weekend’s Washington Post described NRA’s hitherto successful lobbying, both in Congress in Washington and in the state legislatures. It is now clear that there will be no nationwide ban on assault weapons — the votes are just not there. But also other, less controversial proposals, have so far been stopped by NRA and its supporters, who all argue that such laws would violate Americans’ individual freedoms and right to bear arms according to the Second Amendment in the Constitution.
But, the struggle after Newtown has not been entirely without success for Obama and those who urge stricter gun laws. The success has mainly come in states where the Democrats are in control, like in New York State, where Governor Andrew Cuomo, but, especially, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have pushed hard for stricter gun control. Also here in Maryland, where I live, Governor Martin O’Malley has been successful pushing through a number of new gun laws.
Said O’Malley:
          “There is a sickness in this country and that sickness is gun violence.”…”These tragedies must end, and to end them we must change.”
And in Connecticut, new gun laws passed last week, but the final victory did not come easily,  according to the New York Times, in spite of Newtown and in spite of a Democratic governor and Democratic majorities in the state Senate and House of Representatives. NRA’s resistance was fierce.
But perhaps NRA’s biggest defeat, and its opponents’ biggest victory, came recently in Colorado, where one in three households own guns but where also tragedies such as in Aurora and Columbine have taken place. In the end, Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper pushed through several new laws.
          “If you can do it here (in Colorado), you can do it any place,” was one of the comments afterwards.

This is no way to run a government…

You often hear, “this is no way to run…,” a business, a theater, a team, a school, and, yes, a government.

In today’s political mess in Washington, DC, this saying is most certainly true – this is no way to run a government!

Because of the scandalous inability of the political parties in the nation’s capital, from the White House to Congress, we don’t have a budget, we can’t agree on the simple and, yes, completely sensible notion, that the country’s economic problems after the worst economic recession since the Great Depression in the 1930s, need to be solved and that they can only be solved through savings, new revenues, and, very importantly, new investments to create jobs in order to make a substantial dent in unemployment, which, hovering around 8 percent, is still much too high.

We need a plan. We need action from Washington. But we have neither, because the White House, the Democratic Senate and the Republican House of Representatives cannot agree on anything.  There are many separate plans and the result is deadlock when we all seem to agree that the country needs to push forward, urgently.  Instead, we are standing still, waiting…for what? Godot?  He’ll never come, we know that.

And in these times of deadlock, and waiting, something happened that was never supposed to happen: sequestration. A strange word, which in this case means automatic budget cuts. It came out of the big debt ceiling crisis last year, agreed to by the White House and Congress, and its goal was to force a real budget agreement by way of the so called Super Committee – remember that one? – because sequestration — the automatic budget cuts — were so harsh that neither side wanted them.

But here they are — 85 billion dollars’ worth of cuts only this year — in health, transportation, social services, defense – starting this week, across the board, with no priorities. Unbelievable.

It is, indeed, a sad verdict of the state of affairs in today’s Washington, DC, where the ideological battle is fiercer than ever and where the word “bipartisanship” has become a dirty word.   There is blame to go around, for everyone.  Obviously, President Obama, who entered the White House four years ago with bipartisanship as a main message, has now given up on this. His message is now one of a “balanced approach” to the country’s economic woes, meaning cuts, but also new revenues.  He won the election on that message and he has continued to take it to the American people, who, according to the polls, support him, but not by much.

Meanwhile, the Republicans, who had to agree back in January on the first tax hikes in over two decades, are saying no to any new revenues.  No more. All they want to do now is to cut, cut, cut – the only thing they agree on. But it is strongly felt and the party seems united behind this main message.  So, even though the automatic budget cuts include serious cuts for Pentagon, which is ordinarily anathema to the Republicans, they have decided to accept them, all in the name of spending cuts and savings.

Their goal is to balance the budget by 2023 – without any new taxes.  That’s not economically realistic, and, on top of that, it’s politically risky, because it will mean cuts in extremely popular programs like Medicare and Social Security. Will the Republicans be able take the political heat that such proposals will bring? That’s highly unclear.

Now, the good thing here is that this will never happen, because the Senate, controlled by the Democrats, will never agree to it, and, even if they did, Obama would veto it. But where will this lead us? To one crisis deadline after another as the frustration in the nation grows and as the economy continues to limp along, when it could do so much better.

As I said, this is no way to run a government…