Minnesota’s Democrats rally their forces for November battles

It was a celebration of the past glory days and it was a rally to keep the political power in the future, when Minnesota’s ruling party, the Democratic Farmer Labor Party (DFL), tonight gathered for the third annual Humphrey-Mondale dinner.

There must have been a thousand party loyalists in the Minneapolis Convention Center, and they all seemed to enjoy themselves, wildly rooting for Governor Mark Dayton and U.S. Senator Al Franken to be re-elected in November, enthusiastically greeting the state’s other DFL Senator, Amy Klobuchar, who is not up for re-election, and showering good will over former Vice President Walter Mondale, whose wife Joan recently passed away and who, himself, recently went through heart surgery.

And there, in the video clips on the big screens, was Hubert Humphrey, the legendary former Senator and Vice President, and the main architect of the merger of the Democratic Party with the Farmer Labor Party back in 1944, and Paul Wellstone, another DFL legend and US Senator, who died in an airplane crash just days before the election in 2002, a tragedy that paved the way for Republican Norm Coleman to become Senator.

Al Franken, in turn, beat Coleman six years ago, by only 312 votes and after an eternal recount, and he promised tonight that he will win in November — by a greater margin. The DFL:ers loved it.

And they loved the evening’s special guest speaker, US Senator Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts, just like Minnesota a solidly progressive and Democratic state. Her populist economic message about fighting back against the Republicans and the big money that are aiming to buy this country and fighting to give ordinary people an opportunity and a chance by creating a level playing field, brought people to their feet, time and again.

But among all the laughter and jubilation was also the serious message to the loyalists that an election victory in November will require hard work, lots of hard work, to get out the vote. I need you, said Al Franken.

 

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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!

Hey, Congressman, your vote does have consequences

Today, I drove my cousin and his wife down to the National Mall in Washington, DC.  It was a sad an empty sight, with barriers in front of the monuments and museums and barely a  tourist soul in sight. The government is shut down. Hundreds of thousands of federal employees are forced to stay home, without pay. Washington, DC is practically closed.

But in the middle of this, Texas Republican congressman Randy Neugebauer visiting the Mall had the audacity to verbally attack a Park Service ranger in front of the closed World War II Memorial, saying that the Park Service should be ashamed of itself.

Hello! In what world does congressman Neugebauer live? Hey, there are consequences for how you vote, Congressman, at least in a democracy. But Neugebauer does not seem to understand that. The reason the National Mall is deserted today is that you and the other Republicans in Congress are sore losers. You lost on Obamacare. You lost in the Supreme Court. And you lost in last year’s elections, which came pretty close to being a referendum on Obamacare.

Have you never heard of majority rule? The minority never rules. That’s what voting and democracy are all about, and that is what really makes this present political stalemate so scary, well, such a scandal.  If you want to go out and overturn Obamacare, congressman Neugebauer, go out and win an election. That’s how it works!

As Tom Friedman wrote in yesterday’s New York Times, “the future of how we govern ourselves is at stake…”you can’t just put a fiscal gun to the country’s head.”

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.

Obama on guns — and his State of the Union finally took off

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union last night was not, I am afraid, a speech to be long remembered.  It was good, but ordinary, although at the same time “extraordinarily ambitious,” as Ezra Klein writes on his Wonkblog:

“Imagine, for a moment, that President Obama managed to pass every policy he proposed tonight. Within a couple of years, every four-year-old would have access to preschool. The federal minimum wage would be at $9 — higher than it’s been, after adjusting for inflation, since 1981. There’d be a cap-and-trade program limiting our carbon emissions and a vast infrastructure investment to upgrade our roads and bridges. Taxes would be higher, guns would be harder to come by, and undocumented immigrants would have a path to citizenship. America would be a noticeably different country.”

That is unlikely to happen, as Los Angeles Times’ Doyle McManus writes, but if Obama meets his most significant and realistic goals – “immigration reform, even modest steps on gun control, an end to the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan, a free-trade agreement with Europe and, oh yes, implementation of Obamacare — and manages to keep the economy growing, even if slowly, that’s not a bad list. Plenty of two-term presidents have done worse.”

What Obama mentioned in his speech is clearly popular with the American public, according to Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky but “the Republicans just sat there like statues ignoring” them. They are such crybabies every day about what Obama allegedly does to try to make them look bad. They’re doing plenty well at that themselves.”

“Long gone,” writes The New Yorker’s John Cassidy on his blog Rational Irrationality “is the era when he (Obama) treated Republicans as reasonable men and women with whom he could do business. Nowadays, he is in permanent campaign mode. With the ongoing dispute over taxes and spending still far from decided, he is intent on rallying his supporters whilst depicting his opponents as crazed ideologues and craven defenders of the privileges enjoyed by the ultra-rich. “

Well, ok. Still, in my view Obama’s fifth State of the Union never really took off until the end and when the subject was guns and gun control. “They deserve a vote,” Obama repeated time and again:

“Gabby Giffords deserves a vote; the families of Newtown deserve a vote; the families of Aurora deserve a vote; the families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence – they deserve a simple vote.”

“Our actions will not prevent every senseless act of violence in this country.  Indeed, no laws, no initiatives, no administrative acts will perfectly solve all the challenges I’ve outlined tonight.  But we were never sent here to be perfect.”

And the President returned to his them from the Inauguration about inclusiveness, about “us” and “we.”

”The American people don’t expect government to solve every problem.  They don’t expect those of us in this chamber to agree on every issue.  But they do expect us to put the nation’s interests before party.  They do expect us to forge reasonable compromise where we can.  For they know that America moves forward only when we do so together; and that the responsibility of improving this union remains the task of us all.”

Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker thinks that Obama’s urgent message that “they deserve a vote” may come to serve “as the rallying cry for 2013,”  and so “if last night was any indication, the two years to come will be far more confrontational. “

So, no political peace is to be expected in Washington.  But Obama, a much different and more self-confident President than in his first term,  got to say his peace, and he made his troops happy.

It’s “we” and “together” in Obama’s inclusive America

President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address today was all about ”we,” and ”we, the people,” about ”equality” and ”together.”  It was a clear and straight forward statement by the re-elected president about his view of America, a liberal/progressive view in an inclusive America  — a country for everyone.

The speech was elegant, inspiring, and passionate, given by someone who looked forward to his second term in the White House with renewed strength and great self-confidence, and it was the highlight of a most festive day in Washington, DC, where the crowds were not as large as four years ago, when almost two million people jammed The National Mall in spite of very chilly weather. But they were just as enthusiastic, clearly cherishing the moment that America’s first black president had been re-elected and handed the nation’s trust for another four years.

The president talked about America’s “never-ending journey” and that so much is remains to be done.

”Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people…This is our generation’s ask – to make these words, these rights, these values – of Life and Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness – real for every American.

The speech was an unabashed re-affirmation of Obama’s basic liberal political philosophy, saying that  ”preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”

He was full of hope and faith in America, if the nation stuck together:

“America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention. My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it—so long as we seize it together.”

He talked about equal pay for women, equal treatment for gays, right to vote for everyone,  about the importance of social security, Medicare and Medicaid, the right of immigrants, and about gun control, without mentioning the word but referring to the ”quite lanes of Newtown” and keeping the nation’s children ”safe from harm.”

“We, the people,  still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit;  but we reject the belief that America must choose between the caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.”

Obama’s second inaugural address was free of political attacks and party politics. It contained no direct attacks on the Republicans, but, on the other hand, one could interpret the whole speech as Obama putting down his marker, that this is what he believes in, this is his America, and this is what he is going to fight for during his second term.

The details in his political program will come in his State of the Union address to Congress on February 12. That will also likely mark the continuation of Washington’s political battle. Will that fight be as merciless as before today’s inauguration? Probably, and maybe even more so… But, at least it is now totally clear where Barack Obama stands, and that feels liberating.