Sunday, January 29, 2006

Intrepid Liberal Journal's Awards For January 2006

I used to love Fantasy Island while growing up. Indeed, I was even willing to tolerate an hour of the Love Boat just to kill time before watching Ricardo Montalban grant fantasies and dispense his unique wisdom. The formula worked so well. A patron disembarked from the airplane and Montalban would turn to his sidekick Hervé Villechaize and say, “Mr. Jones wants to experience absolute ecstasy.” Then Montalban’s face would darken as he warned, “the price may be his very soul.” It seems as if the entire Republican Party are passengers on Ricardo Montalban’s Fantasy Island airplane.

One can just see this group disembarking from the airplane five years ago. Montalban turns to Hervé Villechaize and says:
“President Bush wants to pretend he was elected with a mandate to govern like a radical. His party wants to pretend also. First they will pretend that the outgoing Clinton Administration’s warnings about Osma Bin Laden and Al Quaeda are less threatening than Saddam Hussein. They will also pretend that cutting taxes for the super rich will not erode the surplus his administration inherited. The Republican Party’s fantasy also includes believing that government has no relevance in people’s lives and can be exploited as a patronage mill for cronies without dire consequences. Finally, the Republican Party wants to pretend that democratic values can be imposed on the mid-east by force while their friends steal millions of dollars in Iraq.”
Those are just a few of the Republican Party’s misguided fantasies – I’ve only neglected several hundred of them. We in the “reality based community” have watched in horror as this feculent political machine constructed a Bizarro World based on evangelical doctrine, cronyism and corporatist Enron style fiscal mismanagement. To our collective anger this cabal of delusional cartoon characters are empowered by a supplicant media, cowardly opposition from the Democrats, and an apathetic public.

My answer to this alternative reality are monthly awards that recognize those courageous enough to stand for truth as well as expose public figures guilty of enabling the madness. Accordingly, this is the January 2006 Intrepid Liberal Journal’s awards for the Intrepid Person of the Month, Republocrat of the Month, and the Brezhnev Republican of the Month. Hopefully, by announcing these awards every month a small contribution can be made to restoring the balance between conservative fantasy and reality as well as raising public awareness. As Dick Cheney put it during the 2000 Republican National Convention, it’s time for a “stiff dose of the truth.”

Intrepid Person of the Month – This award is for an individual that goes against the grain to do what is right. Ideally, I would prefer to acknowledge a regular person performing a valuable service in their community and in turn encourage similar deeds among others. One example might be someone who fights their school board in a red state to advocate for keeping religion out of our public schools. However, I am compelled instead to name James Risen of the New York Times for his reporting on the Bush Administration’s national surveillance program. It’s because of his reporting that we now have a necessary debate about civil liberties and security during a time of war. Mr. Risen actually obtained sufficient information prior to the 2004 election but his employers do not share his professionalism or respect for the public’s “right to know.” Consequently, this story was first reported last month as a prelude to the release of Mr. Risen’s book, “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and The Bush Administration.”

To this point we’ve learned that the Bush Administration has blatantly violated the FISA protocol and refused to obtain court issued warrants as required by law. The Administration even refused to obtain these warrants retroactively. I happen to believe that one can make a reasonable argument that the FISA protocol is outdated for current circumstances. A single computer may contain thousands of names. When totaled with hundreds of computers, even obtaining retroactive warrants may not be practical or advisable. Yet, the Bush Administration has refused to go to Congress and ask for a new legal framework. When reviewing this Administration’s serial habit of concealing information such as their incompetence during Hurricane Katrina or their connection to Jack Abramoff, a reasonable person must be suspicious about what they are hiding with this program. Are they monitoring terrorists or eavesdropping on their political critics? Thanks to James Risen, this month we’ve started asking questions that should’ve been asked a long time ago but didn’t because most reporters don’t care about the public interest anymore. He is quite a contrast with his former New York Times colleague Judith Miller.

Mr. Risen is an old school reporter. He nurtured relationships with true patriots who were willing to risk everything in order to expose this Administration’s illegal conduct. Mr. Risen has expressed his willingness to go to jail in order to protect their confidentiality. The Bush Administration is far more interested in finding the source of leaks to this story then revealing the truth about who committed treason and exposed the identity of CIA Agent Valerie Plame. Mr. Risen will experience coercive pressure in the coming months from the Justice Department. This country is indebted to him for exposing the conduct of the Bush Administration that even some Republicans such as Arlen Specter are questioning. Journalists are not supposed to be stenographers for those in power but instead retain prudent skepticism and serve the truth. Sadly, Mr. Risen’s employers and colleagues are not nearly as principled or brave.

Republocrat of the Month – This award is designated for public figures that benefit from the “Democratic Party” label while undermining progressive values. Joe Lieberman is a classic example of a Republocrat. However, the Republocrat and Chief these days is Hillary Clinton. To paraphrase John Kerry, I was actually for Hillary Clinton before I was against her. During the ’92 campaign I found her refreshing. This was an accomplished career woman and devoted mother. She combined heart with nerves of steel and personified what I wanted my Democratic Party to represent: compassion and toughness. I thought she had far more principle and discipline than her husband and often wished she were President instead. When Ken Starr imposed a media circus on her and deliberately paraded Hillary Clinton before the news cameras in the mid nineties she demonstrated remarkable grace under humiliating pressure. When she told Matt Lauer on the Today Show in 1998 that there was a vast right wing conspiracy against her husband, I applauded because she was right. Finally, when Hillary Clinton ran for the Senate in New York in 2000 I underestimated her. I didn’t believe she could ever compete in conservative upstate New York or survive the intrusive tabloid culture of the New York media. She proved me wrong and as a New York resident I proudly voted for her.

I no longer recognize this woman who I admired so much. Her record since 2000 is troubling and reflects someone more prone to calculation than principle. From the Iraq War to her recent pandering on the flag burning issue. Flag burning! Who the hell does she think she’s kidding? If she’s willing to compromise on a principle such as free speech to market herself as a centrist than what other principle might she betray? What has Senator Clinton done these past five years to champion the down trodden and advocate for working people? She didn’t even vote when the insidious bankruptcy legislation passed last spring. Can you imagine what might have taken place had an icon such as Hillary Clinton attempted to galvanize her party and the public against the Republicans about so called bankruptcy reform? I believe she could have shamed her party into a unified position and offered a compelling contrast with the Republicans who were waging class warfare from the top. Obviously, she prefers campaign contributions from the fat cat bankers just as much as Republicans and that took precedence over standing up for the constituency that loyally supported her: small businesses, minorities, and the working poor.

When she uttered her “plantation” remark earlier this month my gut reaction was, “where the hell have you been?” I think she was spooked by Al Gore who delivered a speech of substance critiquing the Bush Administration’s lack of respect for the law. Since 2002, Al Gore has found his voice while Hillary has become mealy mouthed and overly calibrated. I was not offended by her plantation remark but found it gratuitous – especially compared to Gore’s remarks the same day. There is an old cliché: power without principle is barren and principle without power is futile. Hillary has become utterly bereft of principle, which makes her less likely to win in 2008 and obtain power. A Democrat must combine compassion, toughness, and authenticity to have any chance. A triangulating Republocrat as the Democratic nominee in 2008 guarantees that the Republican’s reign of indecency will continue.

Brezhnev Republican of the Month – In my January 8th posting entitled “Brezhnev Republicans” I compared today’s Republican Party with Soviet Communists during the Leonid Brezhnev Era. Brezhnev personified waste, corruption, cronyism, lies, incompetence, tyranny and indecency. Hence this award goes to the Republican who epitomizes those qualities the best. It is my hope that such an award will wake up decent minded Republicans who continue to empower indecency by their silence. There is nothing more insulting to a Republican than being compared to a Communist. May the naming of this award every month act like cold water splashed in their face. For January the winner is House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

Soviet historians will recall that Brezhnev was a tyrant with a laissez faire disposition towards the Communists Party’s nomenklatura. Following Stalin’s reign of terror and Kruschev’s turbulent reforms the party wanted a General Secretary who would let the apparatchik’s enjoy the fruits of patronage and perks of power. Brezhnev left them alone while the rest of society had to fear big brother. The worker’s party under Brezhnev was an entity that promoted the elite at the expense of the commoner. Brezhnev’s cronies dined on caviar while the workers labored with no reward or incentive to produce. Brezhnev was also somebody they could control. Toward the end of his reign, Brezhnev was really a figurehead while KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov pulled the strings.

Similarly, House Republicans chafed under the leadership of firebrand Newt Gingrich. At one point in 1997, Tom DeLay and Dick Armey among others attempted a coup that Gingrich foiled. Finally, the mid-term election results of 1998 provided the pre-text to force Gingrich out. When Robert Livingston opted to resign the Republican apparatchiks chose a Brezhnev type figurehead they could control. Hastert is the amiable wrestling coach who let Tom DeLay run the show, looked the other way when Jack Abramoff and other lobbyists drafted legislation, publicly rebuked fellow Republican John McCain for such sins as promoting campaign finance reform and challenging the Bush Administration about torture. The laissez faire doctrine about corruption was abandoned whenever the backbenchers wanted to express dissent about the new drug prescription bill or excessive pork. Although much of the scrutiny is on Tom Delay and Bob Ney one has to ask: how deeply was Hastert involved? Or was he simply not in charge? Rather like Leonid Brezhnev himself. Heck of a job Speaker Hastert. Well done.

The Intrepid Liberal Journal will announce winners at the end of each month for the three awards cited above. I am receptive to suggestions and can be lobbied each month (feel free to persuade me Jack Abramoff style!). In particular, I want to hear from people about who merits the Intrepid Person of the Month Award. If there is somebody you believe merits recognition or has a cause that deserves attention I want to hear about it. Over time I hope to encourage behavior that promotes progressive values, stiffen the spine of feckless Democrats, and wake up any Republicans with a conscious.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

The New Drug Prescription Law & The Mentally Ill

An article by Robert Pear in today’s New York Times reports that mentally ill patients who previously obtained medication on their Medicare plan no longer can from their pharmacies. As someone with mental illness in my family as well as friends who also have mental illness in their families, I am sensitive to this issue. Simply put, people with schizophrenia cannot function in society without their medication. It is as important to their existence as food, water, and air is to the rest of us.

I am surprised to learn from the article that the new law had any impact on the mentally ill. My impression was the new drug benefit law only impacted the elderly. The article reports however that,

“Mix-ups in the first weeks of the Medicare drug benefit have vexed many beneficiaries and pharmacists. Dr. Steven S. Sharfstein, president of the American Psychiatric Association, said the transition from Medicaid to Medicare had a particularly severe impact on low-income patients with serious, persistent mental illnesses.”

Consequently, some schizophrenic patients who were functioning in society are being re-hospitalized. Even worse, when treatment is disrupted in such a fashion, a schizophrenic’s entire disposition can change dramatically. They may become a danger to themselves as well as others.

The New York Times does note that 24 states are taking emergency action to pay for prescription drugs for those mentally ill patients who can’t under the new Medicare drug benefit. Not surprisingly, Jeb Bush’s Florida is not among those states. This to me is yet another example of flawed conservative ideology. Are we not all one country? Prior to this ridiculous new law, patients nationwide were obtaining the needed pharmaceuticals so they could participate in society. Now depending on what state they happen to reside, a schizophrenic may transform from a functioning member of society to a potential suicide victim or even a violent criminal. Isn’t compassionate conservatisim wonderful?

Even the cruel Bush Administration retains civic professionals in the Federal bureaucracy. As the New York Times reports, 250 federal employees were enlisted as caseworkers to help individual patients and the government has directed insurers to “provide a temporary supply – typically 30 days – of any prescription that a person was previously taking.” Furthermore, Medicare has transmitted data to insurers that are supposed to list all low-income people eligible for help with premiums and co-payments.

Nevertheless, the article also notes that pharmacists still cannot obtain the information required to submit claims to confirm eligibility. This translates into critical time lost for patients in need. As anyone who knows mentally ill people can attest, even a few hours without medication can have dire consequences. If this problem is not properly addressed forthwith, hospitals are likely to be overburdened, suicides will increase, and so will crime perpetrated by delusional people who don’t have access to their meds.

I can’t help but wonder what Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico is thinking. Senator Domenici is one of the few Republican politicians I have any warm feelings for. I disagree with his politics intensely. However, due to the mental illness of his daughter, the conservative Republican joined with the late Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota in an unlikely alliance to expand coverage for the mentally ill and remove the stigma about mental illness. Both Senators were apart ideologically but formed a bond from their own family experiences. For Senator Wellstone, his brother’s mental illness was a catalyst to action. It was widely reported that Senator Domenici was distraught over Wellstone’s tragic death. Since, Domenici was a supporter of President Bush’s new prescription drug law, one wonders if he fully appreciated the consequences for the mentally ill and society at large. Domenici is a powerful Senator and hopefully he can be persuaded to mobolize his colleagues to take corrective action.

In the name of compassionate conservatism, the insurance companies have been given a boondoggle that will needlessly enhance the misery of the mentally ill, their families, and overburden society. Heck of a job Mr. President. Well done.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Reformer vs. Reformer In the Empire State: Eliot Spitzer vs. Thomas Suozzi

These are interesting times for New York State Democrats and I am not referring to Hillary Clinton’s Presidential ambitions. Nassau County Executive Thomas R. Suozzi plans to challenge New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer in the Democratic primary for governor. Spitzer is easily the most famous state attorney general in the nation. It was Spitzer’s office that shamed Washington into cracking down on Wall Street for abusing the trust of misinformed investors. Indeed, Spitzer has emerged as the public face for punishing cheating financiers on behalf of the little guy and restoring integrity to the investor class. It is doubtful that Sarbanes-Oxley would’ve ever become law if not for Spitzer. Had John Kerry become President in 2004, Spitzer may have been tapped as his Attorney General. Spitzer comes across as a compassionate tough guy with a square jaw and he’s Jewish which gives him ethnic appeal.

It totality Spitzer appears to be an especially attractive candidate for New Yorkers. For those of you who don’t follow New York politics, let me put it this way: Albany makes Washington look like a beacon of rectitude in comparison. We’ve had Jack Abramoff style corruption forever and our state legislative body is as transparent as mud. Both parties are disgusting in New York. A budget passing on time in the Empire State is considered news in itself. Governor George Pataki promised to be a reformer but chose to govern as an exploiter of Albany’s corrupt culture instead. The two legislative leaders, Republican State Senator Joseph Bruno and Democrat Assemblyman, Sheldon Silver are no better. The phrase used to describe how New York is governed is, “three men in a room.” Nobody else has any input about how the state is governed. Meanwhile, Pataki has packed the MTA and other agencies with incompetent cronies, most legislators are part of the problem, and reformers are completely shut out.

In his first two terms Governor Pataki never had to concern himself with a serious challenger or coherent opposition from the Democrats. After Pataki deposed Mario Cuomo in 1994, the state Democrats were in total disarray and 9/11 only enhanced the governor’s prestige. Whenever he got in serious trouble Pataki would emphasize his moderate credentials on the environment (not a bad record for a Republican), abortion (pro-choice), gays (not a homophobe) and guns (not a red state wacko regarding firearms). He also proceeded to spend more of the state’s money without cutting the budget or rolling back his tax cuts for the wealthy. Consequently, New York Democrats never had a chance in spite of his fiscal mismanagement. Last year the Republicans actually joined with Democrats in the state legislature and imposed tax increases on the reluctant governor. As a result we now have a surplus that Pataki plans to squander on tax cuts for the wealthy to strengthen his conservative credentials among national Republicans.

After three terms Pataki fatigue has set in here and the governor calculated it made more sense to run for President than take on the popular Spitzer – leaving New York Republicans in total disarray. New York Democrats have watched in glee as former Massachusetts Governor William Weld indicated his interest to run for governor here, only to step into scandal regarding a Kentucky trade school he used to run. Republicans are now pinning their hopes on Thomas Golisano, an upstate billionaire who can finance his own campaign and free donor money for other New York State Republicans. But Golisano has ran for governor twice before as an independent and treated Pataki most unkindly. I used to smile at his 1998 commercials that referred to lying as “pulling a Pataki.” Pataki holds a grudge and may not give a Golisano candidacy his blessing. On top of all this was Jeanine Pirro’s embarrassing candidacy for the Senate against Hillary Clinton. The Democrats in comparison appeared to be a sea of tranquility.

Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi however is a very compelling candidate in his own right and shaking things up. The politically moderate Catholic surprised everyone to win in heavily Republican Nassau County on Long Island in 2001. Nassau County was former Republican Senator Al D’Amato’s base for running New York as an old fashioned party boss. The county was notorious for crony capitalism, backroom deals, and bribery galore. For years Nassau County was governed with the same Enron style fiscal policy that Republicans operate nationwide, leaving this bastion of prosperity on the verge of bankruptcy. Suozzi skillfully guided the troubled county past its problems with management reforms and a controversial twenty percent property tax hike. The voters of Nassau County rewarded Suozzi and elected him to a second term this past November.

As a New York Democrat I am delighted by the contest. It always bothers me when party leaders stifle competition. As much as I admire Spitzer’s record I don’t believe he’s entitled to a coronation as the Democrat’s nominee. At its best, politics is a competition for who has the best ideas and I’m curious to watch these two high caliber candidates push each other. So while I may well pick Spitzer over Suozzi, I’m gratified to have a choice between two attractive candidates. One thing in Suozzi’s favor is executive experience that Spitzer does not possess. Also, Suozzi is even more of an outsider than Spitzer who has been in Albany since 1998. Temperamentally, both men are known to have an edge and treat adversaries harshly. I suspect that Spitzer’s public face may prove more attractive than Suozzi’s. Although Spitzer is equally ambitious, Suozzi’s hunger comes across far more nakedly and that may be off putting. On the other hand we New Yorkers don’t mind a scrappy fighter.

The winner may turn out to be a future Presidential candidate. Both men harbor Presidential ambitions and New York has a history for propelling their governors to national prominence. That’s why Suozzi is willing to throw the dice and take his shot at the governor’s mansion now. If he gives Spitzer a free pass, the attorney general may be governor for two terms. Furthermore, unless Hillary Clinton goes all the way to the Presidency, neither she nor Senator Chuck Schumer will give him an opening. Both men are moderate Democrats but not “Republocrats” in the Joe Lieberman mode. Since their policy differences are few, a primary fight will likely be personal and nasty as they contrast each other. I suspect that Spitzer will come across as having more depth and stature. Each candidate has the potential to illustrate how Democrats can re-brand their party as compassionate, reform minded, and tough. Perhaps one of them will go to Washington and save the country as FDR did over seventy years ago.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Winning Formula: Compassion and Toughness

Elections sure do have brutal consequences. From the immoral war in Iraq to economic policies that 19th century robber barons would have loved, our country is reaping the whirlwind of the Democratic Party’s ineptitude. That reality was on display during hearings for Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito. The Democrats didn’t lay a glove on him while the media opted to focus on Senator Biden’s excessive verbiage and Ms. Alito’s tears instead.

As readers of the Intrepid Liberal Journal know I am tough on the Democrats. At one time the Democrats were renowned for their combination of compassion and toughness. They stood up to fascism under FDR and communism under Truman, Kennedy, and LBJ. Under all four Presidents, a safety net was established, a middle class nurtured, and the circle of opportunity expanded to include minorities. The Democrats were the party of the American Dream and nobody referred to them as the “mommy party.”

As a New York State resident I have to register with a party to participate in the primaries that nominate candidates for local, statewide, and national office. My state does not permit “crossover” voting in the primaries for independents. Since I believe in racial tolerance as well as acceptance of differing sexual orientations I can’t belong to the Republican Party. Indeed, I am offended by so called “moderate” Republicans who protest that they share my values of tolerance but empower fundamentalists, homophobes and bigots as long as they can benefit from economic policies favoring the wealthy. Simply put, knowing what the Republican Party stands for I cannot support them. I believe their leadership, platform, and policies to be indecent.

Yet I have no idea what my Democratic Party stands for other than their willingness to fight for a women’s right to choose, protect Social Security and not say mean things about gays. They say they’re for the little guy but as I wrote in my December 25th post entitled, “Merry Christmas From the Credit Card Industry,” their leader in the Senate Harry Reid supported the bankruptcy legislation, which passed in 2005. There is also little daylight between the front-runner for the Democratic Party’s nominee to be President – Hillary Clinton and George Bush on Iraq. Suppose Senators John McCain and Hillary Clinton turn out to be their respective party’s nominees in 2008? Both are on record for supporting more troops in Iraq.

On economic policy the Democrats failed to stand up to President Bush’s first round of insidious tax cuts for the super wealthy in 2001. I remember watching former Senator and Democratic leader Tom Daschle interviewed on the Today show during the ’02 mid-term election campaign. He desperately tried to pivot the discussion from national security to Bush’s economic policies favoring the rich. When Matt Lauer asked Daschle if his fellow Democrats who supported Bush’s policies also favored the wealthy over the middle class, Senator Daschle was flummoxed. In fairness to the man, what could he do? Blast the caucus he supposedly led?

Say what you want about the Republicans and I take a back seat to no one in despising them – they have successfully marketed a brand with appeal to America’s mainstream: traditional values, tough on America’s enemies, and defenders of the American tax payer. Markos Moulitsas Zúniga has written and spoken persuasively about the Republican’s success in “branding” their party while the Democrats haven’t. Yes the Republican’s brand is disingenious but so were 1940s cigarette ads that portrayed their product as glamorous and patriotic.

Much has been written and said by concerned liberals who are desperate for the Democrats to regain their voice. On blogs everywhere we debate and argue incessantly – which is healthy for the cause – but we all seem to agree on one important theme: stop being wimps. The masterminds behind President Clinton’s 1992 victory, James Carville and Paul Begala have postulated in their new book, Take It Back : Our Party, Our Country, Our Future
that left or right is not as important as standing firm. For example, it sickened me to watch our party initially hesitate during the Terry Shiavo controversy. Why did my party require a poll before deciding what to believe about the federal government encroaching on a family matter?

Even standing firm however is not enough. Democrats need to put forward tangible ideas to demonstrate that we value work and service over wealth as well as sharing the values of mainstream Americans. Below are six ideas I’d like to put forward. In future posts I’ll present more policy alternatives in foreign policy as well as domestic issues to shape a more appealing brand for the Democratic Party.

  • Expand Access and Value of 401Ks - The Democrats were right to stop President Bush’s “shock and awe” privatization scheme for Social Security. The Democrats need to follow that up and advocate a plan for young workers, unskilled laborers, and minimum wage earners to generate wealth, promote savings, and facilitate an expansion of the middle class.
I propose that the federal government underwrite profit sharing pension plans for small and medium sized businesses. To put a human face on this, I’m thinking of a wholesale ophthalmic lens company I telemarketed at for several years in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. Many of my colleagues were uneducated, unskilled and spent years working long hours for little pay. One former colleague is a real iron horse: lifting heavy boxes, picking hundreds of lens orders daily, and keeping the place clean. Sadly, he’s getting on in years, recently suffered a heart attack, has bad knees and can’t continue at this pace for much longer. But he can’t afford to quit either and isn’t suited for much else. It would be nice if his years of hard labor had some kind of payoff but my former employers never had a pension plan (and didn’t contribute one nickel for health insurance either while I was there). How many others like him are out there? How many unskilled workers with no union to stand up for them, limited ability to save because their paychecks are stretched to the max, and not much hope beyond a hard sweaty grind with limited reward?

Suppose we stopped subsidizing welfare for large corporations and giving multinational corporations tax breaks as they set up shop elsewhere? Why not give tax breaks to the small entrepreneurs and make it easier for them to take care of American workers? If they match contributions to their pension plans we should give them even additional breaks. That’s where real wealth can be generated: matching contributions from employers in profit sharing pension plans. Conservatives claim that tax breaks for the wealthy will trickle down to the rest of us. Truthfully the major beneficiaries of Republican tax cuts don’t invest it for the benefit of others but hoard it the way obese people hoard lard. Why not give the small entrepreneur a break instead if it benefits hard working employees such as my former colleagues in Sheepshead Bay Brooklyn? Politically such a plan will illustrate that Democrats value work over wealth.

If I were an aspiring Presidential candidate in 2008, I would get on the phone with Gene Sperling, formerly an economic whiz kid in the Clinton Administration and now with the
Center for American Progress and ask him to crunch numbers for me on just such a proposal.

  • Class Based Affirmative Action – This one is going to get me in trouble among my fellow liberals – especially on Martin Luther King Day. Nonetheless, I think we have to consider transitioning affirmative action from a race/gender-based system to one that accounts for class. I fully acknowledge that racism is alive and well in America. The only thing I know for sure about being black in America is that I don’t know what’s it like to be black in America. However, it’s hard to justify a system that rewards an upper middle class black applying for college at the expense of a rural poor white applicant. Furthermore, the percentage of women graduating college today is actually higher than men. Affirmative action does not address the real gender bias that exists in this country: unequal pay for equal work. Finally, we’ve had a multi-ethnic explosion in this country and affirmative action doesn’t address discrimination among a cross spectrum of ethnicities not eligible to benefit from quotas. The one common denominator among all however is class. Class is the one great divide in America today that encompasses all races. Hence, a program that accounts for class will still uplift many minorities but also remove the sting of resentment from affirmative action opponents as it gives a helping hand to poor working class whites. Justice is served and the Democrats will benefit more politically.
  • Level the Education Playing Field – In my home state of New York, Governor George Pataki has shamelessly resisted a court order to provide more resources for public schools in New York City. Indeed, New York is a prime example of wealthy neighborhoods benefiting from the finest textbooks, computers and facilities while libraries in New York City schools still have books entitled, “Some Day We’ll Go to the Moon.” Indeed, the blue state of New York has a segregated public school system: affluent and less affluent. Typically, minorities find themselves in the less affluent districts and are penalized from separate and unequal education. It should not require a court order to mandate that all districts receive proportionate funding for their needs. We need national standards under the law directing how states distribute their education funding. Governor Pataki and others like him should not be able to short change minority youth in urban neighborhoods because their parents don't vote Republican.
New York of course is not alone. Republicans prefer to “starve the beast” in poor neighborhoods everywhere in order to legitimize school voucher programs. Vouchers, understandably is supported by minorities who hope to put their children in better schools. Ultimately, vouchers will only result in the gelding of public schools and society’s ability to provide a credible education regardless of income. However, if we change affirmative action as I proposed above, Democrats will be better equipped to challenge suburban voters about a fairer distribution of resources for public schools in poorer urban and rural communities. This isn’t only a matter of fairness but national security as well. While Republicans prefer to undermine the teaching of evolution, the whole world is leaping past the United States in math, science, engineering and information technology.

  • Guns – In 2004, I phone banked regularly to help elect John Kerry over President Bush. I knew we were in trouble after speaking to a voter in the heartland who had lost a good union job but planned to vote for Bush because he feared that, “Kerry wants to take away my gun.” At the time, the ban on assault weapons was about to expire and Kerry publicly excoriated Bush for his poor leadership on the issue. That scared this gentleman. I challenged him and asked if anyone tried to take away his gun while Bill Clinton was in the White House. He conceded that no one tried to take away his gun under President Clinton. When I followed up and asked how he could vote for Bush when he lost the job and benefits he had under Clinton, the gentleman responded, “Well, I think Kerry is a pussy.” So, I challenged him further and asked, “Kerry served in Vietnam and Bush flew airplanes for the Texas National Guard. Who’s the pussy and who isn’t?” He responded, “I’ll vote for who I Goddamn want too!” and slammed the phone. I realized afterwards that this gentleman was culturally locked. The gun issue massively contributed to his blinders on other issues. If the Democrats ever hope to be a majority party again it is imperative that we neutralize the gun issue. Personally, I think guns are an abomination. I would never want one in my own home. For much of the country however, guns are as much a part of life as breathing. I would rather let these people have their guns and retain their support for progressive issues such as jobs, education, and health care. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times has written persuasively on this subject and concluded that Democrats should instead promote gun safety with technology such as trigger locks. That will save lives, garner the support of gun owners, and give the Democrats a fighting chance.
  • Modernize the GI Bill – Perhaps the most successful progressive legislation ever enacted was the GI Bill under FDR. Soldiers returning from World War Two were rewarded for their service with a helping hand from the federal government to pay for education and buy homes. Conservatives at that time protested that the law was a foolish waste of money the treasury could never support. Instead the national treasury was flooded with revenue thanks to the expanding middle class this bill helped create. With the benefits of the GI Bill, America’s “finest generation” became entrepreneurs and generated jobs from coast to coast. Today, Republicans criticize liberals for not supporting our troops while they can’t even supply them with body armor in the field and reduce their benefits at home. I propose that we reward every soldier risking his or her lives in Iraq and Afghanistan with a 21st Century GI Bill. Conservatives will no doubt complain about the cost. Too bad. Let them give up some of their precious tax cuts. This is a sacrifice we should all be willing to make.
  • Crack Down on Drugs – We have a jail industrial complex in this country that incarcerates recreational drug users for ridiculously long sentences while more violent criminals are released after shorter stays. Here in New York, Governor Pataki has failed to keep his promise about reforming the “Rockefeller Drug Laws” while our prisons are filled to the max. It’s not working. Instead of continuing with this worthless treadmill I propose the Democrats promote a policy of tough love. How about a nominee in 2008 such as former General Wesley Clark standing before the Democratic Convention and preaching to the youth of America that, “Recreational drug users have blood on their hands.” Affluent youth in suburbia are putting innocent lives in Columbia at risk every time they snort cocaine. The same with young people in urban communities. Adults too. America’s bad habits are financing the brutal trade of international narcotics and contributing to regular homicides in places such as Columbia. So why not make it a moral issue and illustrate that Democrats are not soft on permissive behavior?
I propose that instead of incarcerating recreational users, which accomplishes nothing, let’s put them to work. Let them complete a program of treatment and cleaning parks and public grounds in poorer neighborhoods. As part of the program they will have to be visible, wearing uniforms that lets everyone know why they’re picking up trash on highways. Upon completion of this program of labor and treatment, their record will be completely expunged.

My thinking is that the above proposals will help establish an appealing “brand” for the Democrats. To win the Democratic Party must identify themselves with compassion and toughness as it did a half century ago. That requires taking risks, challenging our orthodoxy, and not cowering underneath our beds whenever the Republican chicken hawks challenge our patriotism. Otherwise, Democrats will remain the minority party in spite of all the Republicans scandals. More justices in the mold of Samuel Alito will sit on the Supreme Court. Crony capitalism will continue unabated. More people will lose jobs and health benefits. And our proud country will go to hell and a hand basket.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Brezhnev Republicans

The metastasizing Jack Abramoff scandal exposes the Republican Party as a centralized cabal of apparatchiks and commissars. They are a monolithic greed factory oozing with corruption and contempt for public service. Once upon a time Republicans were guided by firm ideological convictions: reduce the size of government, strengthen national defense, and develop a culture of personal responsibility. Those convictions are now mere slogans designed to preserve the party’s brand label and maintain power. They have about as much meaning as the Communist Party’s rhetoric of being a “workers party” did under Leonid Brezhnev. Indeed the purpose of today’s Republican Party is the exploitation of power for privilege and enrichment by those who are sufficiently networked into the machine.

To achieve this perfect nexis of money and power Republicans exploit the symbols and rhetoric of patriotism and values. The hard working laborer in Arkansas truly believes he’s supporting a party that represents his values of hard work, God, and patriotism. In reality he and others like him are empowering an indecent enterprise that wages ruthless class warfare on behalf of mega corporations who profit at his expense. He’s told that supporting corporate power means jobs and growth. Instead his job is either downsized or he’s asked to work longer for less. Furthermore, the super rich who finance the “values” propaganda campaigns are frequently enjoying a hedonistic and decadent life style.

The resemblance between the Republican Party under George W. Bush and the USSR’s Communist Party during the Leonid Brezhnev era is instructive. Brezhnev followed the tumultuous eras of Joseph Stalin and Nikita Kruschev. Stalin made the Communist Party elite uncomfortable because he had a chronic habit of “liquidating” any perceived threats. Kruschev wasn’t in the habit of killing people on the Central Committee or Politburo but his “reforms” threatened the privileged status of the nomenklatura. Under Brezhnev the party elite was allowed to get fat, enjoy state sponsored corruption, and rape the Soviet Union’s treasury as they lived the good life in dachas. For these people the Brezhnev Era was a golden age.

They successfully exploited the rhetoric of nationalism to hold onto power and enhance their wealth while Moscow’s competence, international prestige, and economic well being of their citizenry deteriorated. The factory worker in Stavropol was supposed to believe he was a vital cog in an emerging society of proletariat supremacy. Work and talent were devalued at the expense of those privileged enough to be wired into the apparatchiks class. Dissidents who challenged this system were of course imprisoned as traitors while Soviet society lived in a police state at the mercy of big brother. Ultimately, the Soviet regime overreached with the invasion of Afghanistan in 1980 and under Gorbachev, the Chernobyl disaster exposed the rotting incompetence of the ruling class. The status quo wasn’t sustainable and Gorbachev launched glasnost and perestroika. The rest is history.

Similarly, Bush’s Republicans represent a culture of mediocrity rewarding wealth over work and loyalty over talent. The Grover Nordquist types never wanted government to work well because effective delivery of services might persuade the public that taxes had merit. Hurricane Katrina powerfully illustrates the legacy of Republican rule. “Starving the beast” resulted in a government lacking professionalism and institutional infrastructure to come through in the clutch from the embarrassing analog information systems at the FBI to disaster relief. In the past year school systems in Oregon were forced to reduce their school year because of insufficient funds due to tax cuts for the super rich. Prisons in Oklahoma had no choice but to release violent criminals because tax cuts for the super rich required subsidizing. Were jobs and benefits in either state sufficiently enhanced to justify these policies? Republican governors in Colorado and Alabama courageously stood up to the machine on behalf of their citizens, only to face a torrential counter attack when they dared to raise taxes for important services such as education. Then in the aftermath of the Katrina disgrace, numerous Republicans had the temerity to boast that the hurricane illustrated how incompetent government is when it is they who deliberately set out to replace dedicated civil servants with Republican commissars lacking professionalism or competence such as “Brownie.”

During the Brezhnev era all sorts of statistics were cited to demonstrate how successful the Soviet economy was. Five year plans published propaganda boasting of prosperity that most did not experience. Moscow subsidized state sponsored “enterprises” that allowed Communist elites to prosper while the rank and file work force received mere crumbs regardless of their talent or output. But Pravda and TASS continued to boast how their policies spread the wealth across the entire spectrum of society while Brezhnev’s cronies dined on caviar. Similarly, the Bush Republicans boast of a robust economy through their stenographers in the corporatist media. Two million jobs were created they say! But that doesn’t keep pace with the increasing number of people who enter the work force. Hyper inflation in health care continues to erode the purchasing power of everyone’s paycheck that is further outpaced by the cost of living. Meanwhile the Republican machine cuts student loans and Medicaid benefits for the poor to make tax cuts permanent for the super rich in the name of their “pro growth” policies benefiting a select few.

Finally, neither the Bush Republicans nor Brezhnev Communists ever had any respect for a civil society based upon laws, checks and balances, and accountability. We see our President shaking Senator John McCain’s hand when forced to retreat on legislation banning torture. Only to say days later that he can disregard the law as he sees fit. The explicit laws governing the FISA protocol are violated as domestic surveillance is under taken without required court warrants. Habeas Corpus is treated with contempt even as Republicans claim they want to nominate justices who “strictly interpret” the Constitution. Then they nominate a man in Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court who appears to have lied on previous job applications. All this emanating from the party that advocates personal responsibility. I had to laugh when Newt Gingrich lectured his party about ethics this past week. This coming from a man who was fined $300,000 by the House Ethics Committee nine years ago! A lecture from him is bit like the former head of the KGB and Communist Party General Secretary Yuri Andropov rising from the dead to lecture Vladimir Putin about civil liberties.

While Communism collapsed under the weight of its' indecency and incompetence in the USSR, what has replaced it is a corrupt oligarchy. It is not the atrophying system we saw under Brezhnev but it benefits a select few at the expense of those without access or funds to “work the system.” Essentially, a mafia don in Vladimir Putin governs Russia today. Likewise, I have little hope for what comes after this gilded age under the Republicans. Even if John McCain turns out to be a Republican Gorbachev and become President, history shows that Gorbachev was a transitory figure between Communism under Brezhnev and the current oligarchy.

The Democrats may well benefit, as the public appears to be waking up from the anesthesia of Republican rule. The polls indicate the public generically prefers Democrats to the Republicans in the mid-term elections this November. And if enough Republicans go to jail it will mean more “open” seats to target further diminishing the advantages of incumbency and increasing the Democrats chances. Unfortunately the Democrat’s efforts to seize the reform mantle are lethargic and I have little optimism that they will be anything but a corporatist party themselves. A pro-choice party with nice rhetoric about the environment but a corporatist party nevertheless. Even so, I hope the Democrats prevail on the small chance that we progressives may influence them in the right direction on public policy. A few Democrats such as Senator Russ Feingold do “get it.” Democrats as a whole are incoherent but a change is worth a try after this era of Brezhnev Republicans.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

A Cruel Twist of Fate

As a secular and politically liberal Jewish American, I am in turmoil right now. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a major stroke tonight and underwent brain surgery to save his life. At the age of 77, it his unlikely he will be able to continue in his post and campaign for re-election.

Over the years my attitude toward Sharon combined grudging admiration with disgust. His military leadership in Beirut in 1982 was a black mark for Sharon personally and the State of Israel. Sharon’s defenders will naturally point out that Arafat’s PLO was driven out of Lebanon where they were shelling Israel from the North. That is certainly true. It is also true that Lebanon became a strategic albatross for Israel and eroded their moral authority. Sharon was the father of the settlement movement in the West Bank and Gaza. His ruthless pursuit of a “greater Israel” hampered the ability of successive Israeli governments, including his own, to agree on final borders with the Palestinians. His visit to the Temple Mount in 2000 was needlessly provocative and I thought calculated to undermine Prime Minister Ehud Barak. For most of the past five years Sharon's leadership was about deploying tactical force without presenting a positive alternative for the Palestinians.

And yet, hypocritically perhaps I also appreciated his toughness. Sharon like many European Jews was shaped by the Holocaust and wasn’t going to let anyone trod upon the Jewish state. That singular toughness provided Sharon with a special credibility to the Israel public. He used that political capital to pull settlers out of Gaza and four West Bank settlements last summer. No other figure in Israeli politics could have pulled that off. There was also wide expectation that another withdrawal in the West Bank would take place if he won re-election in March. In recent weeks he left Likud to form a new centrist party called Kadima. Under his leadership Kadima appeared poised to win a mandate allowing Sharon to negotiate final borders with the Palestinians. Since 2001 Sharon managed to become the one figure Israelis trusted to make peace. A warrior arguably guilty of war crimes in 1982 wanted to become a statesman and peacemaker. His new Kadima party boasted former Likudniks as well as former Nobel Peace Laureate Shimon Peres. Israeli polls indicated the new centrist party might have won 40 seats and combined with Labor to move Israeli politics away from the right wing fanatics.

Sadly, this sudden turn of events will likely result in the election of Benjamin Netanyahu on March 28th. Netanyahu does not possess Sharon’s pragmatism or depth. Whereas both are hardliners, Sharon at least desires peace and understands that Israel cannot sustain an occupation and retain their identity as a Jewish democracy. He also accepts the inevitability of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu is simply interested in power and appeals to a constituency not interested in pragmatism or compromises. Since nobody in Israel possesses the stature and credibility to challenge Netanyahu, his ascension to power guarantees more bloodshed and death on both sides. Sharon’s stroke is a cruel twist of fate because Israeli politics was poised for a transformation that gave reason for hope. Instead we will have Netanyahu and that is a victory for lingering despair.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Four Intrepid Democrats & One Feckless Party

On December 5th, four Congressmen held a press conference at the Center For American Progress, David Obey of Wisconsin, Barney Frank of Massachusetts, David Price of North Carolina and Tom Allen of Maine to propose an ambitious 14-point plan to clean up the House of Representatives. The proposal received favorable coverage in the media – most notably from the dean of Washington insiders, David Broder in the Washington Post on December 8th. A Daily Kos blogger named "thisniss" even wrote on December 6th,

“just wanted to say today that I love my representative, David Price (NC 4th, the dark blue island in a mostly red state).”
Indeed, on paper their plan seems just the right tonic in the aftermath of Congressman Randall “Duke” Cunningham’s admission of taking a bribe and the metastasizing Jack Abramoff scandal. It confronts the influence peddling of lobbyists by disallowing any reimbursed travel by a member of the House or its staff unless that person could certify in writing that no lobbyists were invited on the trip, no lobbyists attended the meetings, and whoever sponsored the gathering does not lobby or pay for lobbying. Another worthwhile provision is that former members who utilize their special privileges of visiting the floor of the House while it is in session must guarantee that the floor isn’t debating a subject they have a financial stake in and that the alumni will not advocate for or against any matter during the visit. Perhaps most importantly the four Congressmen addressed the importance of fiscal responsibility in their proposal. Their reform plan would put an end to "Earmarks," the spending targeted toward individual projects in members' districts, which are used to punish dissenters or reward reluctant supporters, thereby enforcing party discipline on bigger bills. They would also require that reconciliation bills -- the end-of-the-line spending measures -- must be codified to reduce the budget deficit, not increase it, unless approved by a two-thirds vote of the House.

Other points are clearly designed to change the culture of the House such as “ending the two day work week,” promoting more openness in floor debates, and banning the sort of arm twisting shenanigans that took place when the prescription drug plan was passed by extending the debate on the floor for several hours. Not surprisingly their proposal is not being well received by the Republican leadership. I am perplexed however by the reluctance of the Democratic Party to embrace the plan. This is just the sort of blue print that should be endorsed by the entire Democratic House caucus and championed by the leadership. While there have been some nice quotes from individual members, the silence of the leadership is deafening. In reflecting on the corruption in Washington this past year, noted political commentator Mark Shields recently said on the PBS News Hour that,

“But in the midst of this sea of sleaze not to become the reform party, Tom Allen of Maine, Barney Frank of Massachusetts, Dave Obey of Wisconsin, and Dave Price of North Carolina, introduced a reform package, a very straightforward reform package, no more room, board and tuition from Jack Abramoff or any other lobbyists, no lobbying by former members on the floor during votes or anything of the sort - I mean, just kind of straightforward things. And the fact that the party has not embraced it and made it its own and become the reform party tells you something that there is something missing there in the Democrats.”
Issues of state are often grand and complex. When it comes to matters of war and peace, health care, and economic policy, honorable people can disagree. Tom Allen, Barney Frank, David Obey, and David Price represent very different districts and each man has different approaches on issues ranging from Iraq to gay rights. However, there should not be any disagreement about matters of honesty, integrity, and good clean government. When corruption, influence peddling, and cash bribes for votes are permitted the public interest is not being represented in the debate.

The Democrats contentedly sit on the sidelines while the Republican Party squirms under the intense gaze of a public fed up with corruption. Certainly, the Republicans deserve to squirm. In fact, once the dust fully settles from the Abramoff scandal many Republican politicians may deservedly find themselves behind bars. However, it is imperative that the Democrats present themselves as part of the solution. Four honorable and intrepid public servants in their party have done just that. Why isn’t House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi using this straight from the hip proposal from her own caucus as a rallying point to contrast her party with the Republicans? For that matter, how come Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid doesn’t put forward his own plan for lobbying reform in the Senate and make news by attaching it as an amendment to every bill put forward by the Republicans? Once again the Democrats have an opportunity to contrast themselves with the feculent and corrupt Republican Party. Sadly, the Democrats have by their leadership's passivity and silence, shown that they’re a part of the problem.

SIDEBAR: Readers of the Intrepid Liberal Journal may recall that I have previously referred to Democrats such as Joe Lieberman as a “Republocrat” while the four Congressmen in today’s post for example are “Intrepid.” A Republocrat is someone who benefits from the Democratic Party label but undermines progressive values. Someone who is Intrepid such as Russ Feingold goes against the grain to promote progressive values. Now that we’re starting 2006, at the end of every month the Intrepid Liberal Journal will name the Intrepid Person of the Month as well as the Republocrat of the Month. I am receptive to suggestions and can be influenced by lobbying (feel free to bribe me Jack Abramoff style!). It is my hope, especially for the Intrepid Person of the Month, to receive suggestions about people not generally known to the public. Perhaps it’s a woman serving on a local school board in a red state fighting for the teaching of evolution. If any readers know of Intrepid people in their communities deserving of recognition, I want to know about it. Also, if readers believe there is a particular Democrat who deserves to be exposed for undermining progressive values I also want to know about it. So please make these suggestions by posting comments and directing me to information that I can verify. Together we can buck up brave Intrepid souls standing up for what’s right as well letting Republocrats know, that we’re watching them.