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Fleshing out a year-old initiative, the Obama administration wants Congress to enact or expand tax breaks for small businesses and remove barriers to startups, seizing on some existing bipartisan proposals that could win support even in the polarized climate of an election year.
White House officials say President Barack Obama will call on Congress Tuesday to pass legislation that, among other measures, would eliminate tax rates on capital gains for investments in small businesses and extend for a year the ability of all businesses to immediately deduct all of the costs of equipment and software purchases.
The legislative package, which will be part of Obama’s 2013 budget proposal later this month, also would include a new 10 percent tax credit for small business that add jobs or increase wages in 2012. In addition, the legislation would make it easier for new startup companies to raise money and to go public. It also would expand a government small business investment program from $3 billion to $4 billion.
Highly profitable while conservative with lending, and not publicly traded, the United Services Automobile Association is a model for the financial services industry.
It didn’t take a penny in federal bailout money. It grew throughout the financial crisis. It has consistently garnered top customer service rankings. And Fortune magazine just named it one of the 20 best companies to work for in America. Meet America’s good bank: USAA.
USAA is a San Antonio, Texas-based bank, insurance, and financial services company with 22,000 employees, serving 8 million current and former members of the military and their families. The company’s roots go back to 1922, when 25 army officers agreed to insure one another’s cars when no traditional companies would. Since then, USAA, or the United Services Automobile Association, has steadily grown.
By its very definition, USAA serves the middle class. It does business only with current and former members of the military and their families. Studies have shown that the U.S.’s all-volunteer military is dominated by members of the middle class, not the elite.
While other financial and insurance companies flirted with collapse, USAA’s net worth grew from $14.6 billion in 2008 to $19.3 billion in 2011. And it has continued lending money while other banks have tightened their loan operations despite billions in government funding to encourage liquidity. It has a free checking account, has been at the forefront of electronic banking, and reimburses up to $15 in other banks’ ATM fees. Its credit rates are 43 percent lower than the national average.
The firm’s structure is one of its most interesting attributes. Unlike nearly every other Fortune 500 company, USAA is not a corporation. It is an inter-insurance exchange made up of the people who have taken out policies with the firm. As a group, they are insured by each other and simultaneously own the company’s assets. Instead of paying stockholders, USAA distributes its profits to its members. In 2010, it distributed $1.3 billion.
“USAA is not publicly traded,” Nicole Alley, a company spokesperson, said in an email. “And we take a conservative approach to managing our members’ money.”
The firm is not perfect. A long list of consumer complaints can be found here. Standard& Poor’s lowered their rating of USAA from AAA to AA+ last August but still rates the firm above its peers. And my colleague Felix Salmon correctly criticized USAA’s initial reaction to the Volcker rule, which could force the company to change its structure. It’s likely, though, that a simple restructuring of its own could avoid that.
The reason I’m focusing on USAA is because it represents a different idea about the purpose of companies. It’s also run by former military members, who the last time I checked weren’t considered European style socialists.
[…] Romney should think twice before setting his sights on the former speaker’s lobbying-related past. That’s because the ex-governor has benefited handsomely from the influence-peddling of Bain Capital, the private equity firm he cofounded in 1983. Though he’s been gone from Bain for over a decade, Romney continues to rake in millions from accounts with the firm—and in 2007, he took Bain’s side in a key lobbying battle with Washington—one that saved him millions of dollars.
2007, as it turns out, was something of a watershed for private equity lobbying: In that year, lobbying expenditures for the industry practically tripled. The spike was the result of an industry-wide effort to preserve a number of tax giveaways for the finance industry and its CEOs—including the carried interest rule, a tax loophole that allows Romney and other private equity mavens to reduce their taxes by millions of dollars. Carried interest refers to the commission that private equity and hedge fund executives receive for managing investors’ money. Although commissions may seem like ordinary income to the rest of us, the carried interest loophole allows some money managers to claim this income as long-term capital gains, which are taxed at a rate much lower (15 percent) than the top tax rate for normal income (35 percent).
After Democrats won control of both the House and the Senate in the 2006 midterm elections, they advanced several pieces of legislation that threatened to end this lucrative quirk of the tax code and other tax policies that favor the rich. Mitt Romney, who made just over $20 million in investment income in 2010, wasn’t having any of it. During an August 2007 appearance on Kudlow & Company, Romney was asked what he thought of the effort to close the loophole. He wasn’t happy. “I want people to be able to save their money and invest in America’s economy tax-free,” Romney said. “I want to lower taxes. I want to lower marginal rates across the board. I want to lower taxes for corporations,” he told Kudlow.
Bain was doing its part to make Romney’s vision a reality. The firm spent $300,000 between August of 2007 and April of 2008 lobbying the House and Senate on bills that threatened the carried interest loophole. Along with other private equity titans like Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and Apollo Management, Bain and its ilk paid lobbying shops, public relations firms, and tradegroups like Ogilvy and the Private Equity Growth Capital Council an estimated $15 million between January 2009 and April 2010 to convince lawmakers to keep the loophole alive. The force of those combined lobbying efforts kept the carried interest loophole wedged open, denying the federal government some $10 billion in revenues in the process. “Everyone who has looked at this boondoggle [of carried interest] thinks it’s an egregious giveaway,” Jacob Hacker, the co-author (with Paul Pierson) of Winner-Take-All Politics, says. “It still lives because of the lobbying of the industry, and in particular the PEGCC.”
From 1998 to 2006, private equity and investment firms spent $3 million a year lobbying Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Bain got into the game in 2007, registering with prominent Washington lobbying firms Public Strategies, Inc. and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. To date, Bain has paid some $3 million to these firms to make sure corporate taxes stay low and CEOs remain fat and happy.
As the New York Times reported several weeks ago, Bain was a member of the Private Equity Growth Capital Council up until last year, when it abruptly ended its $1-million-a-year membership with the powerful trade group. Its reasons for doing so remain unclear. (PEGCC did not respond to a request for comment.)
Investment fund managers and former CEOs like Mitt Romney suggest that taxing their carried interest as income would crimp investments, and, ultimately, kill jobs. But as Howard Gleckman, a tax policy expert at the Urban Institute, has found, there is little evidence to support that claim. “Losing a couple percentage points off your returns isn’t going to change things very much,” Gleckman says. “Taxing carried interest as if it were wages…wouldn’t really affect these deals very much.”
Now that a small sample of Romney’s tax returns is out in the open, voters may be asking more questions about how policies like the carried interest rule work. Josh Kosman, author of The Buyout of America: How Private Equity Is Destroying Jobs and Killing the AmericanEconomy, says that’s terrifying for the private equity world. “The private equity industry exists because of tax gimmicks,” Kosman argues. “They want to convince people they create value because if anyone started looking at it, the tax rates don’t make any sense, and they cost the government a lot of money.”
As Hacker explains, today’s favorable tax treatment towards capital gains dates back to the late 1970s, when the lobbying might of business groups like the US Chamber of Commerce successfully sliced the tax on capital gains in half. The Tax Reform Act of 1986 brought the rate back into line with the rate on ordinary income, but business lobbies spent the next decade knocking it back down. “For an industry that’s held up as a paragon of individual entrepreneurship, private equity is strikingly dependent on favorable tax policies,” Hacker said.
All of this, of course, could pose a huge a problem for Romney—so much so that his campaign recently suggested that he might be open to reconsidering the carried interest loophole if he were to be elected president. Although Bain did not start lobbying until some eight years after Romney left, his just-released tax records indicate that he still collects significant investment income from the firm. Bain’s gain, then, has clearly been Romney’s as well—and the candidate has publicly endorsed the same policies the company has backed.
So when Bain’s lobbyists have tried to sway the political system in Washington, Romney has gained. Maybe he ought to be careful when denigrating the influence peddlers in the nation’s capital.
From northern Michigan’s iron mines to Pennsylvania’s natural-gas fields, the industrial heartland of America is humming with jobs again as a region once left for dead recovers faster than the rest of the U.S.
The turnaround may shape this year’s race for the White House as President Barack Obama seeks to reverse Republican gains in the Midwest. The title of his State of the Union address, “An America Built to Last,” evoked a theme of manufacturing’s revival meant to resonate on the campaign trail.
The economies of Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania — all states Obama won in 2008 – have improved faster than that of the U.S. since the recession’s depth in April 2009, according to the Philadelphia Federal Reserve. Michigan is expected to lead all 50 states during the next six months, the Fed data show.
“We’re going back to a region we abandoned a long time ago to get energy again from rocks that were already drilled a thousand times,” said Clay Williams, chief financial officer for Houston-based National Oilwell Varco Inc. (NOV), which started in Oil City, Pennsylvania, in 1862. “We’re going back to our roots.”
Economic recovery in so-called Rust Belt states may bolster re-election chances for Obama, who pushed the U.S.-backed bailout ofGeneral Motors Co. (GM) and Chrysler Group LLC, both based in Michigan. He visited the state in a three-day campaign swing following his speech, and was greeted by guest editorials in Detroit newspapers from Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus and Michigan GOP Chairman Robert Schostak criticizing his record on the economy.
Penokee Hills Comeback
Yet from Detroit and Pittsburgh to Peoria, Illinois, and the town of Mellen in Wisconsin’s Penokee Hills, employers plan to add jobs and facilities. Automakers are ramping up production as demand returns, energy companies are exploiting oil and natural-gas sources, commodity prices are supporting a return to long-closed iron and copper mines, and agriculture companies are finding new export markets.
National Oilwell Varco, the largest U.S. maker of oilfield equipment, is hiring workers in Ohio and Pennsylvania and opening operations that distribute tools and service equipment to companies extracting oil from shale deposits, Williams said in an interview. The company has beaten theStandard & Poor’s 500 Index, about 135 percent to 43 percent, since July 1, 2009.
Improvement in unemployment, which dropped 19 percent in Ohio and 29 percent in Michigan from April 2009 through the end of last year, is a key driver for the Midwest recovery, said Jason Novak, senior economic analyst for the Philadelphia Fed.
Michigan, Ohio and Indiana all ranked among the top eight performers for improvement of economic health in the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States from the third quarter of 2009 through the third quarter of last year, the most recent period available.
Automakers are increasing production after U.S. light- vehicle sales rose at least 10 percent for two straight years for the first time since 1984. This month, GM announced it had regained the title as the top-selling global automaker, which it lost to Toyota as it slid into bankruptcy.
The Obama campaign is banking on the U.S. auto industry’s comeback to damp the appeal of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Michigan, where his father was a popular governor, as well as to reverse Ohio’s swing to Republicans in the 2010 mid-term elections.
Ohio added 72,400 jobs last year. That included 18,300 manufacturing positions after losing 419,400 such jobs from 1999 to 2009, federal data show.
Vallourec SA announced in February 2010 that it would build a rolling mill in Youngstown next to its V&M Star facility to produce seamless tubes for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The plant is to be completed this quarter and employ 350 people, the company has said.
U.S. Steel invested $100 million in its Lorain Tubular Operations to serve oil and natural-gas customers, creating about 150 temporary construction jobs and 100 full-time positions, spokeswoman Courtney A. Boone said in an e-mail.
Ohio’s unemployment was 8.1 percent in December, down from 9.5 percent a year earlier and the lowest since December 2008, according to the Ohio Bureau of Labor Market Information.
A study commissioned by Ohio’s oil and gas industry projects that by 2015 drilling could help fuel $12 billion in spending while creating and supporting more than 200,000 Ohio- based jobs.
[...] The estimates of the nation’s economic performance last year, released Friday, highlight a striking trend: Exports have never been more important. Foreign buyers purchased more than $2 trillion in goods and services, the first time exports have topped that threshold. And those exports accounted for almost 14 percent of gross domestic product, the largest share since at least 1929. We usually talk about exports alongside its opposite number, imports, and since the United States buys much more than it sells – our ‘trade deficit’ — the general impression is that foreign trade is a drag on the economy. But that tends to obscure the importance of exports, which have accounted for about 10 percent of G.D.P. over the last two decades and, since the recession, considerably more. The growth has come from all areas, but the real strength has come from what might be called the old economy: petroleum, metals, chemicals and farm goods.
[...] U.S. consumers think the economy is doing a bit better in January, according to data released Friday. The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan consumer sentiment index for the end of January rose to 75 from a preliminary reading of 74 for the month and 69.9 at the end of December, according to sources who have seen the report. The latest reading was better than the 74.5 expected by economists surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires…Better job growth in recent months has been boosting consumer spirits, but that has not translated to a burst of spending. Friday’s report on U.S. gross domestic product showed real consumer spending rising at an annual rate of 2%, which was slower than many economists had projected.
There is plenty of blame to go around for the U.S. housing bubble, but not much of it belongs to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The two giant housing-finance institutions made many mistakes over the decades, some of them real whoppers, but causing house prices to soar and then crater during the past decade weren’t among them.
The biggest culprits in the housing fiasco came from the private sector, and more specifically from a mortgage industry that was out of control. These included lenders who originated home loans, investment bankers who packaged them into securities, rating agencies that misjudged these securities, and global investors who bought them without much, if any, study.
In other words, America’s mortgage securitization machine was fundamentally broken. It created millions of mortgage loans that, even under reasonable economic assumptions, stood little chance of being repaid — and were not. As a result, hundreds of billions of dollars were lost as defaults and write-downs brought the financial system, and the wider economy, to the brink, requiring a massive government bailout.
Also to blame, of course, were regulators, who gave the private mortgage market little, if any, oversight. The market’s watchdogs were lulled to sleep by a misplaced view that self-interested private financial institutions would regulate themselves. This flawed thinking was most pervasive at the nation’s most important financial regulatory agency, the Federal Reserve.
Getting history right for this dark economic period is critical if we are to design a better mortgage finance system for the future. If Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are responsible for the debacle, then perhaps government’s role in a future mortgage finance system should be minimal. But if private lenders deserve most of the blame, the case grows for giving government an important role in backstopping and overseeing the system.
“If it grows like a weed, it probably is a weed.” This age-old banking adage aptly applies to the private mortgage lending business during the housing bubble. Between 2004 and 2007, private lenders originated three quarters of all subprime and alt-A mortgage loans. These were loans to financially fragile homeowners with credit scores under 660, well below the U.S. average, which is closer to 700. But only a fourth of such loans were originated by government agencies, including Fannie, Freddie and the Federal Housing Administration.
The dollar amount of subprime and alt-A loans made during this period by the private sector was jaw-dropping, reaching nearly $600 billion at the height of the lending frenzy in 2006. For context, this is about equal to the total amount Americans currently owe on bank credit cards. By contrast, government lenders made just over $100 billion in subprime and alt-A loans in 2006. Even in 2007, when the housing market was beginning its free fall, private lenders still handed out more than $300 billion via these very shaky mortgage loans.
All this can be seen in the share of total residential mortgage debt insured or owned by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. At the start of 2002, before the housing boom got going, the two agencies’ market share accounted for almost 54 percent of all mortgage debt. By summer 2006, the bubble’s apex, their share had fallen to only 40 percent. It is difficult to see how the agencies could have been responsible for inflating the housing bubble at a time when they were losing a full 14 percentage points of market share. Indeed, the opposite was true, as their position in the housing market rapidly diminished.
[ ...] President Obama offered a plan Friday to reduce the costs of higher education by increasing the amount of federal grant money available for low-interest loans and tying it directly to colleges’ ability to reduce tuition. In an impassioned speech before 4,000 students at the University of Michigan, Obama delivered an election-year pitch to the type of youthful audience that buoyed his 2008 campaign, saying his administration was putting colleges ‘on notice’ that they must rein in soaring prices…Obama’s proposal would boost federal investment in the Perkins loan program from $1 billion to $8 billion and revamp the formula for distributing the money. Under the plan, colleges would be rewarded based on their success in offering relatively lower tuition prices, providing value and serving low-income students, the White House said.”
The effort is long overdue, writes Kevin Carney: “At a speech Friday morning at the University of Michigan, Obama elaborated even further. He proposed a ‘Race to the Top’ modeled after his successful efforts to spur state reform of K-12 schools. States would be rewarded for restructuring their college financing systems and continuing to support higher learning. A new ‘College Scorecard’ would rate colleges on price, graduation, debt and employment, helping students and parents decide where to enroll. Work-study jobs would double, and student loan interest rates would be kept low. Most importantly, billions of dollars in federal aid would become contingent on colleges keeping prices reasonable and low. Colleges that successfully enroll and graduate low-income students, educate people well, and help students find jobs and repay debt would get more federal aid for student loans and other programs. Colleges that fail would not.
Just how much natural gas is trapped underground in the United States? The difficulty and uncertainty in predicting natural gas resources was underscored last week when the Energy Information Administration released a report containing sharply lower estimates. The agency estimated that there are 482 trillion cubic feet of shale gas in the United States, down from the 2011 estimate of 827 trillion cubic feet — a drop of more than 40 percent. The report also said the Marcellus region, a rock formation under parts of New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, contained 141 trillion cubic feet of gas. That represents a 66 percent drop from the 410 trillion cubic feet estimate offered in the agency’s last report.
[…] This weekend, Ryan said that House Republicans are “not backing off any of our ideas, any of our solutions” in their controversial budget and that this year’s budget will “absolutely” include the same plans. Last year, nearly every House Republican voted for the Republican budget that would end Medicare, almost doubling health care costs for seniors according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), while protecting tax breaks for billionaires and Big Oil.
“Here they go again – House Republicans protecting the ultra wealthy at the expense of Medicare and higher health care costs for seniors,” said Jesse Ferguson of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Republican Budget Chairman Paul Ryan made crystal clear they won’t back away from this ideological crusade to dismantle Medicare that seniors have paid into for a lifetime and depended on for generations. House Republicans will once again show their true priority is the ultra wealthy and will leave seniors to wither on the vine.”
Paul Ryan is not Backing Down from His Plan to End Medicare. On January 29, 2012, House Republican Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan appeared on Fox News Sunday. On the program, Ryan said that that he and his fellow House Republicans would not back away from a plan that the Wall Street Journal claimed would “essentially end Medicare.” Regarding the plan, Ryan said on Fox News Sunday: “We’re not backing off any of our ideas, any of our solutions.” [Fox News Sunday via YouTube, 1/29/12; Wall Street Journal, 4/4/11]
Paul Ryan Will “Absolutely” Include Medicare Ending Proposal in Budget. “House Republicans voted overwhelmingly last year for the ‘Ryan budget,’ which would give Medicare beneficiaries a fixed amount of money to buy coverage from competing private health plans. […] But in an interview, Mr. Ryan said that Republicans would try to push a similar budget plan through the House this spring. Asked if it would include similar changes in Medicare, Mr. Ryan said, ‘Yes, absolutely.’” [NY Times, 1/27/12]
Paul Ryan Will Again Push Effort to End Medicare. “House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin says Republicans have no plans to shy away from controversial efforts to reform entitlements when the House GOP drafts its budget this year, including transforming Medicare into a premium-support system.” [ABC News, 1/20/12]
CBO: Elderly People Would Pay More for Health Care Under the Republican Plan. According to the CBO, “most elderly people would pay more for their health care than they would pay under the current Medicare system.” [CBO, 4/5/11]
Republican Budget Would Almost Double Health Care Costs For Seniors. “The Republican congressman’s proposal to privatize Medicare would mean a dramatic hike in U.S. healthcare costs for the elderly, an independent analysis finds. Seniors would pay almost double — more than $12,510 a year.” [Los Angeles Times, 4/7/11]
AARP: Budget Undermines Vital Programs for Older Americans. “Among its provisions, the proposal would drive up costs for people in Medicare, take away needed coverage for long-term care from millions of older and disabled Americans and reduce critical help for seniors facing the threat of hunger.” [AARP, 4/7/11]
To be sure, Americans remain sharply divided over the legislation, with slightly more than one-third (36 percent) of U.S. adults saying they want the law repealed and 21 percent saying they want it to remain as is. Twenty-five percent would like to see only certain elements of the law modified.
However, support for certain components of the law seems to be slowly increasing with time. For instance, 71 percent of those polled now back the law’s provision that prevents insurance companies from denying coverage to those already sick. At the end of 2010, a Harris Interactive/HealthDay poll indicated that 64 percent supported this provision.
The poll released today shows some other provisions of the health reform law gaining acceptance. They include:
Allowing children to stay on their parents’ insurance plans until they turn 26 — 57 percent in Jan. 2012 versus 55 percent in Nov. 2010.
Creating insurance exchanges where people can shop for insurance — 59 percent versus 51 percent.
Providing tax credits to small businesses to help pay for their employees’ insurance — 70 percent versus 60 percent.
Requiring all employers with 50 or more employees to offer insurance to their employees or pay a penalty — 53 percent versus 48 percent.
Requiring research to measure the effectiveness of different treatments — 53 percent versus 44 percent.
Creating a new Independent Payment Advisory Board to limit the growth of Medicare spending — 38 percent versus 32 percent.
But the most controversial aspect of the law — the so-called individual mandate that requires all adults to have health insurance or face a fine — remains widely unpopular, with only 19 percent of those polled supporting it, regardless of political party affiliation.
“The public is still divided, mainly on partisan lines, as to whether to implement or repeal all, parts, or none of the health care reform bill,” said Harris Poll Chairman Humphrey Taylor.
Despite descriptions of him prevailing over Newt Gingrich in the Florida debates and entering Tuesday’s primary with a double digit lead in many pre-primary polls, coverage of Romney has gotten tougher, according to an ongoing analysis of the tone and volume of presidential candidate coverage conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.
One difference for Romney is that more of the coverage of him involves assessments of his candidacy or character than for other candidates.
By contrast, for instance, more of former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s coverage is simply descriptive. One reason might be that Gingrich seems to make himself more accessible, and thus gets more straight coverage of what he says and does. Whatever the reason, the plurality of coverage of Gingrich (44%) is descriptive, while 27% was positive and 29% was negative, despite the assessment in many press accounts that Romney got the better of him in debates and his poll numbers dropped.
The findings suggest the degree to which the coverage of the race is not merely a reflection of polls.
The two top candidates received virtually the same amount of coverage last week. Fully 65% of the campaign stories studied focused significantly on the former House Speaker compared with 63% on Romney. Well back at 6% and 4% respectively were Rick Santorum and Ron Paul.
These are some of the key findings of the January 30 edition of Campaign 2012 in the Media, which tracks the tone and volume of news coverage about the candidates. The analysis, which features interactives that allow users to explore the data themselves, also includes the tone and volume of discussion on Twitter and incorporates an analysis of other public data, such as new tools about search results, YouTube viewings and press mentions from Google News.
The analysis combines traditional research methods involving human coding with the power of algorithmic analysis using software developed by the company Crimson Hexagon. It includes an analysis of more than 11,000 news websites around the United States and the full public feed of tweets on Twitter. In PEJ’s hybrid method, human coders teach the computer to analyze the tone of coverage using PEJ’s methods and rules. Researchers then study the examples cited by the algorithmic results to add a qualitative understanding of the narrative.
The Muppets Laugh at Fox “News”
The public can listen to newly discovered audiotapes of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, 48 years after the tragedy.
The National Archives and Records Administration is providing public access to the recordings, which consist of conversations among individuals in Washington, Air Force One pilots and officials on board the flight from Dallas to Andrews Air Force Base following the assassination on Nov. 22, 1963.
The two-hour-and-22-minute recording, long thought to be lost or destroyed, was found “among other papers and memorabilia ofArmy Gen. Chester ‘Ted’ Clifton Jr., who served as senior military aide to President Kennedy,” according to a statement Monday from the Government Printing Office (GPO).
Clifton was in the Dallas motorcade when Kennedy was shot, and later on Air Force One, according to news reports.
The White House Communications Agency captured the conversations, and later provided the tapes to Clifton, according to the GPO.
“The recording includes references to new code names and incidents,” according to the statement. “Among them are a private conversation by head of the Secret Service Jerry Behn about the disposition of the president’s body; an expanded conversation about how to remove the body from the plane and where to take it; an urgent effort by an aide to Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay to reach Gen. Clifton; and attempts to locate various congressmen from Texas.”
The recording is available to the public on the GPO’s Federal Digital System (www.fdsys.gov), the statement added. This is the first time audio content has been made available on the government information website.
Just four days after ThinkProgress reported that the United States military academy at West Point was planning to host an Islamophobic general as its featured speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast, that general has now pulled out of the event. West Point just issued this news release:
LTG (Ret) William Boykin has decided to withdraw speaking at West Point’s National Prayer Breakfast on 8 February 2012. In fulfilling its commitment to the community, the United States Military Academy will feature another speaker for the event.
VoteVets, the coalition of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, is to be commended for raising this issue and putting pressure on West Point to do the right thing. VoteVets Chairman Jon Soltz told ThinkProgress this evening, “This is why VoteVets exists — the calls from veterans, activists, and civil rights leaders around the country made this decision possible. I’m glad that the cadets will not be forced to hear the words of an anti-Muslim general whose rhetoric does not align with the values of our military and also endangers our troops in combat.”
Boykin has a deep record of anti-Muslim rhetoric. For instance, he said there should be “no mosques in America“; Muslims worship an “idol“; “Islam is a totalitarian way of life, it’s not just a religion”; “it should not be protected under the First Amendment”; Muslims operate “under an obligation to destroy our Constitution.”
Hopefully, Boykin will learn from this incident that his rhetoric is both wrong and hurtful.
Republicans are pushing full speed ahead to authorize the Keystone XL pipeline via congressional action after President Obama rejected it on the grounds that the narrow time window he had was insufficient to evaluate the environmental consequences. The strategy is aimed at exploiting Democratic divisions and pushing Obama into a corner politically.
Most Senate Republicans — along with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (WV) — are now backing legislation to approve of the Canada-to-Texas pipeline. House Republicans intend to attach it to their upcoming infrastructure bill, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said Sunday.
Even if both chambers of Congress vote to approve the project, Obama can veto the legislation, and it’s unlikely he’ll get overridden. But that’s what Republicans want him to do: repeatedly take a position against the pipeline so they can bludgeon him with it politically.
Democrats argue that the debate largely ceased to be about the pipeline itself after Republicans demanded as part of last month’s payroll tax cut package that Obama make a decision on the project by late February. Even though Obama seemed to be leaning in its favor, he had said earlier that he needed more time to evaluate the environmental and health consequences. And so, his administration argued, the GOP essentially forced him to turn down the application from TransCanada.
Republicans seemed all too aware of this possibility. “It’s a question of whether we’d rather have the pipeline or the issue,” a GOP aide said in December. They chose the issue, bringing into question how much they care about the pipeline itself. Indeed, not forcing a decision would have neutralized the politics surrounding the matter.
But now Republicans have turned it into a weapon, and the politics are win-win for them. Their base overwhelmingly supports the pipeline and its capacity for some temporary job creation puts them on the right side of the most important issue on voters’ minds in this election year.
For Democrats, the issue is a headache because their constituencies are split: environmentalists oppose it, while labor and big business have forged an unlikely alliance in its favor. The GOP push may not yield anything substantive, but it forces Obama to keep taking sides within his base, and answer to Republican attacks that he’s blocking a job creation opportunity.
That’s why Republicans want to keep the Keystone issue atop the agenda for as long as possible.
The primary campaign nastiness between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich is exhausting Republican loyalists. What in Iowa was a feisty contest between the haughty Mr. Romney and the operatic Mr. Gingrich turned hollow in New Hampshire and harsh in South Carolina. By the close of the Florida scramble, with the Herman Cain Express back from the repair yard to hitch onto the Newt baggage car, what remains of the Republican dialogue does not appear likely to be of much worth for the fall campaign.
The solution to the puzzle may be to admit that the GOP has forfeited 2012 before the general election even starts. How did this happen so suddenly?
“That’s the great mystery of 2012,” a senior Republican journalist told me while watching the brouhaha in Florida. “We have the weakest incumbent president in 32 years, running on the weakest record in 32 years… and who’s taking the stage in South Carolina and Florida? It has to be the weakest field I can remember. Each of these candidates has in his character, in his history, in his idea set—never mind disqualifying—a guarantee for self-destruction. If Newt is the candidate, he’ll lose badly. If Mitt is the candidate, he’ll lose slightly less badly … So what you have is an almost complete guarantee that if these are the candidates, Barack Obama will be reelected.”
I asked another senior GOP professional with decades of experience measuring party intrigue; he pointed to the negative campaigning as the telltale cause. “Negative advertising, why does it exist? It exists because it’s been proven to work. So Gingrich went negative on Romney on the Bain attacks and brought Romney down in South Carolina. The Romney campaign decided they’ve got to fire back in kind, calling Gingrich an influence peddler and a guy with ethics problems. The result is to create a cumulative effect of slime and dirt and muck attached not only to the two candidates but also to the party itself, as a party that fundamentally lacks seriousness about what’s centrally on people’s minds, which is the state of the economy—especially among independent voters, who keep rising; apparently they’re up to 40 percent of the electorate. This is off-putting. You know, Republicans may say we’re having an internal struggle, Newt represents something we believe in and so forth … Still, they’re running the risk of damaging the Republican brand.”
The traditional rationalization about intraparty smears is that it’s too early to dismiss the GOP’s chances; that it’s healthy for the party to battle with mud-flinging; that all this will be forgiven in the heat of August when the party embraces the man who would be king. However, the recklessness of Gingrich’s assault on Romney as Long John Silver, and the ruthlessness of the party’s Romney chorusscreeching at Gingrich as the Undead, all this does reinforce doubts already in place with the independent voters, as well as creating a YouTube bonanza of clips for the Obama re-elect ops in Chicago.
“I think Romney will be the nominee,” a veteran Democratic campaign observer told me about the feud with Gingrich. “But he has unplumbed weaknesses. He’s such a terrible candidate. When’s he’s competent, he’s memorizing the talking points and delivering them with a mechanical energy. There’s no mind at work, no evidence that he understands how to do this. You don’t see a brain working, do you?” I agreed that Romney did seem unusually flabby on the stage. “That won’t matter in the end,” the Democratic observer judged. “Mormonism is a great problem. When he said the other night that his father was born in Mexico, do you know why? Because the Mormons had gone there to escape persecution for polygamy.”
I asked about Gingrich, whom stout stalwarts are rallying to as if he were Bonnie Prince Charlie in the ’45. I mentioned that in conversation with a savvy Florida Republican I had learned that evangelical pastors from the Panhandle were siding with Gingrich regardless of how Romney performed.
“That makes sense,” the Democratic observer returned. “There is the sinner who confesses his sin, and it’s perfect for them. Theycan’t support Romney. Because of the Mormonism. I find Gingrich a weird combination of the effective and highly ineffective. He’s lazy and undisciplined. He doesn’t know how to do this, either. He has character flaws. If you were at all disciplined, you’d put yourself through practice sessions. He hasn’t figured out even basic things. He went into the debates thinking that Romney’s strong points are electability and economic management, so I’m going to challenge these things. That’s it. In 1984, the first national piece about him, he talked to us about colonies on the moon. He hasn’t moved in 30 years.”
The logic of the Romney-Gingrich battle is what a pundit calls the Mutually Assured Destruction of each other’s reputation, and it will continue well into the spring. Romney is like the sheriff of Nottingham: all castle, no conviction; which makes Newt Gingrich the earthy Friar Tuck. The question is, where is the hero, Robin Hood?
“There comes a point in the party’s desperation and anxiety,” the senior Republican observer told me, “that it has just got to be weighing on some of these individuals who didn’t get in.” We were discussing the could-have-been GOP A team—New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, even telegenic puppies RepresentativePaul Ryan of Wisconsin and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. “I would not be shocked if one of them woke up and said, ‘I’ve got to do it.’ Still, you’ll arrive in June, with one or the other, most probably Romney, with a winning number of delegates, and that’s it. Unless they get off this negative cycle and start offering voters a positive view of what their party represents, they’ve run the risk of terminating this thing earlier than it needs to.
I asked a veteran Republican member of Congress what this year looked like from Capitol Hill following the President’s workman-like State Of The Union address. “A year from now, the president will make the same speech, and the House leaders will still think what they’re doing matters, and the Senate will still be where everything goes to die. No change except I’ll say, ‘Mitt who?’”
The Democratic senior was wearily ironic: “The Democrats will be greatly relieved. Getting Obama reelected is a great burden, and they can get over it. They can relax and go back to their own careers and start the next big thing, the Andrew Cuomo boom, you know, or whatever.”
Robert Kagan is a prominent neoconservative who advised John McCain in the 2008 race and is advising Mitt Romney in 2012. But after publishing a cover story in the New Republic arguing against “the myth of American decline,” he has found himself a new fan: President Obama.
Josh Rogin reports that Obama has been talking Kagan’s article up both in public and in private. In a recent, off-the-record meeting with news anchors, Obama spent more than 10 minutes “going over its arguments paragraph by paragraph, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor confirmed.” National Security Advisor Tom Donilon was dispatched to Charlie Rose to “discuss Kagan’s essay and Obama’s love of it.” So it’s not just the president who likes Kagan’s article. It’s the White House communications team who likes the idea of letting people know the president likes Kagan’s article.
Kagan’s essay isn’t really about “the myth of American decline.” It’s about the myth that America was ever omnipotent. “Every day, it seems, brings more evidence that the time has passed when the United States could lead the world and get others to do its bidding.” Kagan writes. But the reality is that “much of today’s impressions about declining American influence are based on a nostalgic fallacy: that there was once a time when the United States could shape the whole world to suit its desires, and could get other nations to do what it wanted them to do.”
Indeed, Kagan says, American preeminence looks much as it always has: we produce about a quarter of the world’s GDP, the same percentage that we’ve produced for the last four decades, and our military remains vastly larger. Nor has the cost of maintaining that preeminence increased: Both in terms of men and money, our military consumes fewer of our resources than it did throughout most of the 20th Century. That doesn’t empower us to control world events in minute detail. But it makes us very rich, very influential, and very dominant.
The real core of the question of American decline is, however, the continued productive capacity of the American economy. If America’s economy can no longer adapt and grow, our military commitments will quickly become unmanageable, our domestic politics will become volatile, and our position in the world will wane. And as Kagan notes, this is backed up in impressions of American power: In the 1990s, when our economy was booming, commentators spoke of our “unipolar moment” and America’s historically unmatched preeminence. Today, with our economy sagging, those same commentators wonder whether we are entering a permanent decline. So the question, really, is where our economy goes from here.
New economic data suggests there’s reason for optimism: the recession has not permanently derailed our economy. Gross domestic product began falling in the fourth quarter of 2007. And for most of the last four years, real GDP — that is, GDP once you account for inflation — has been lower than it was in late 2007. But according to the newest GDP figures, America turned the corner in the third quarter of 2011: our economy was larger in that quarter than it was before the recession. And, in the fourth quarter of 2011, it was even larger than that. Which is not to deny the terrible toll the recession took on the economy, or its continued aftereffects. But the country’s basic productive capacity has endured, and is even growing.
Further underscoring the case for optimism is the fact that America ismuch further along in the deleveraging process — which is, essentially, the recovery process from this sort of recession — than competitor countries. Frankly, it would be better for us if other countries were recovering more swiftly, as it would help our exports and reduce financial uncertainty. But insofar as the question is whether America’s economy is recovering comparatively faster than other advanced economies, and thus displaying its tendency to recover from global recessions in a way that makes us relatively stronger than our peers, the numbers are, for now, encouraging.
A meme has developed on the left that President Obama has only adopted a “populist” message in reaction to OWS. But take a look at a speech he gave (pdf) way back in 2007 to the Brookings Institution. Keep in mind, this was a full year before the economy crashed and more than 3 years before OWS.
The problem that we have is that social compact is starting to crumble, it’s starting to erode. In our new economy there is no shortage of new wealth, but wages are not keeping pace; workers are more vulnerable to job loss and more worried about retirement. Those Americans fortunate enough to heave health care are paying more for it. Health care premiums have risen nearly 90 percent inthe last six years. Americans are facing deeper personal debt from filling up the gas tank to paying for college education. Everything seems to cost more, and this is not just happening by chance. It’s not just something we can chalk up to temporary shocks; it’s happening in part because of the choices we aremaking and the way we are making those choices. It’s happening because we’ve gone too far from being a country where we’re all in this together to a country where everyone is on their own.
Today I’m going to focus on one aspect of our economic policy where we need to make different choices, because nowhere is the shift in our priorities more evident than in our tax policies. Instead of working to find ways to relieve the burden on working people and the middle class, we’ve developed creative ways to remove the burden from the well-off. Instead of having all of us pay our fair share, we’ve got over $1 trillion worth of loopholes in the corporate tax codes. This isn’t the invisible had of the market at work; it’s the successful work of special interests.
For decades we’ve seen successful strategies to ride anti-tax sentiment in this country towards tax cuts that favor wealth, not work. And for decades we’ve seen the gaps in wealth in this country go idle, while the cost to working people are greater. We’ve got a shift in our tax values that disproportionately benefits the wealthiest Americans, corporate carve-outs that serve no national purpose, tax breaks that allow companies to stash their profits overseas, a government that’s paralyzed when dealing with off-shore tax haven countries, an overload of tax code that’s too complicated for ordinary folks to understand but just complicated enough to work with someone who knows how to work the system.
When big business doesn’t like something in the tax code, they can hire a lobbyist to get it changed. But most working people can’t afford a high-priced lobbyist. Instead of honoring that core American value, opportunity for all, we’ve had a system in Washington where our laws and regulations have carved out opportunities for the few.
Now, the numbers don’t lie. At a time when income inequality is growing sharper, the Bush tax cuts gave the wealthiest one percent of Americans a tax cut that was twice as large as the middle class. At a time when Americans are working harder than ever, we are taxing income from work at nearly twice the levels that we’re taxing gains for investors. If you talk about this in polite society, sooner or later you’ll get accused of waging class warfare, and it’s distasteful to point out that some CEOs made more in 10 minutes than a worker makes in 10 months. Or, as my friend Warren Buffet put it to me, if there’s class warfare going on in America, then my class is winning.
Now, what Warren Buffet knows is what all Americans have to remember: to get through these uncertain times, we have to recognize that we all have a stake in one another’s success When folks are hurting out there on Main Street, it’s not good for Wall Street. When the changes in our economy are leaving too many people behind, the competitiveness of our country risks falling behind. When that dream of opportunity is denied to too many Americans, then ultimately that pain has a way of prickling us.
We welcome success stories here in America. We admire those who have climbed to the top of the ladder. We just need to be sure that the ladder doesn’t get taken away from the rest of us. We want a system based on fairness, not special favors. To steer a course through the chains that’s taking hold, we have to hold tight to that core principle that our economy must advance opportunity for all Americans.
I’d challenge anyone to find one hair’s difference between what he said back in 2007 and his recent speech at Osawatomie, KS or his State of the Union address.
[…] One simple answer is that Americans love a self-made man and tend to be suspicious of those born with money. But for a people of a nation founded in rebellion against rule by men with inherited wealth, Americans have happily supported many politicians — Rockefellers, Kennedys, Bushes — who grew up rich.
As Romney has discovered, some wealthy politicians win acceptance from people who are just scraping by, while others get tagged as hopelessly out of touch.
The most important tool wealthy politicians have relied on to win over the public is pure force of personality — and that often includes a gift for self-deprecating humor.
Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt both came from big money, yet the presidents’ larger-than-life affability and celebrity won them admiration across class lines. Kennedy came to elective politics with a dramatic backstory as a war hero that canceled out most suspicions that he might be a rich dandy.
Romney, however, despite several attempts to reshape his message, remains awkward in his discussions about money. When he handed $50 to an unemployed South Carolina woman who told him her hard-luck story, referred to his $370,000 in income from speaking fees as“not very much,” or challenged opponent Rick Perry to a $10,000 bet, Romney unintentionally enriched the narrative that Gingrich is peddling, in which Romney lives in a world “of Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island accounts and automatic $20 million a year income with no work.”
The popular image of Romney’s wealth is muddled because he both grew up rich and made his own fortune. One reason former pizza magnate Herman Cain rocketed to the top of the charts earlier in this primary season is that he evidently pulled himself up by his own bootstraps — the classic American success story. The same goes for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who started out as a parking-lot attendant and is now listed by Forbes as the nation’s 12th-richest person.
“If Romney is seen as contributing to economic growth, that kind of wealth is very much admired,” says Leslie McCall, a Northwestern University sociologist who is completing a study on American attitudes toward income inequality. “But if it’s obtained through means that aren’t sensitive to the middle class and the poor, that’s another story.”
Even if Romney successfully portrayed himself as a job creator, he may also be victim of a fact that is beyond his control: It turns out that timing is an important factor in determining whether wealthy candidates succeed. McCall’s research suggests that Americans’ attitudes toward the rich wax and wane, with resentment against the wealthy surging especially when the rich are doing well at a time when the average family is struggling.
[…] Aldrich says criticism of Romney’s $20 million in income from investments last year misses the mark: “What matters is not his income, but his wealth. Romney is the hereditary rich. That money is not going to leave his family when these people croak. It doesn’t get used to create jobs for others; it gets used to create advantages that are purchasable by inherited wealth. We’re not talking about yachts, but tutors, the best schools, the cultivation of civilized behavior. Income is what makes possible an equal-opportunity society. Wealth is what prevents it.”
With Congress set to get cracking on some key items on Obama’s agenda, this assessment of the state of the presidential race by Paul Begala is a very good way to start the week:
If his predecessor cursed Obama by handing him a depression and two wars, the Good Lord has blessed him with the weakest field of opponents in memory. I stand by my early assessment:when I look at the economy, I think Obama can’t win, but when I look at the Republicans, I think he can’t lose. The economy is starting to get better; the Republicans aren’t. The president has moved to the populist center, smoothly co-opting the legitimate grievances of the Occupy Wall Street movement and ensuring that he wouldn’t face a primary challenge from the left. “Barack” means blessing in Swahili. Perhaps “Obama” means luckier than a dog with two tongues.
The “populist center” is an apt way to describe the ground Obama is staking out, given what the polls tell us about the public’s support for tax hikes on the wealthy, its concern about inequality, and its apparent belief that the GOP prioritizes the wealthy’s interests than those of the middle class. But it’s even more interesting when you consider what’s next in Congress, and how that will play in the presidential race.
Today, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse will unveil a new proposal — first reported on this blog — to bring the tax rate of millionaires paying less than middle class taxpayers up to 30 percent. While we don’t know if the Dem leadership will act on this particular proposal, the “Buffett Rule” will get some sort of Senate vote. Republicans are all but certain to oppose it, perhaps unanimously.
Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans are grappling with how to respond to two other Dem proposals that dovetail with Obama’s agenda. Over the weekend, Mitch McConnell said he would not rule out tax hikes to fund the one-year extension of the payroll tax cut — even as Republicans are still threatening to tie the Keystone pipeline to the extension. And Republicans are still debating whether to put up a major fight against Obama’s recess appointments, including the appointment to head the new consumer protection bureau.
If Dems have their way, Congressional GOP foot-dragging in the face of all these proposals, or outright opposition to them, combined with the ever-rightward drift a long, drawn out GOP nomination process will entail, will further drag down the GOP brand and reinforce the hold Obama and Dems have on the “populist center.” The big challenge for Dems will be to prevent the eventual nominee from ultimately achieving separation from the unpopular Congressional GOP.
* Low-road attack of the day: RNC chair Reince Priebus, on CNN yesterday, described President Obama as “our own little Captain Schettino,” a reference to the captain who has allegedly fled in the wake of his cruise ship getting wrecked off the coast of Italy.
Hmmm. I seem to remember that Republican strategists recently made a big show of leaking word to the press that they would not adopt a strategy of attacking Obama personally. Guess that’s no longer operative.
The DNC’s one-word response to the Schettino barb: “Shameful.”
* Gingrich fights on in Florida: All indications are that Romney is heading for a comfortable win in the state, but Michael Warren reports from on the ground that energetic and sizable crowds keep turning out to see the former Speaker. With Herman Cain set to campaign for Gingrich today, his supporters are not quite ready to cede the state yet.
* Gingrich’s Florida chances dwindling: Nate Silver on the batch of weekend polls that show his chances for an upset in the state are fading away. Caveat: The two latest polls show Romney’s lead narrowing to five and seven points.
* Can Newt still derail Romney over long haul? Big picture: GOP strategists explain to Chris Cillizza why it’s still not too late for Gingrich to derail the “Romney-is-inevitable” storyline.
The two possibilities that still have the GOP establishment uneasy: Billionaire Sheldon Adelson continues writing Gingrich checks, while Gingrich successfully sells himself as the real conservative alternative to Romney heading into southern-heavy Super Tuesday.
* Gingrich hints at convention strategy: Relatedly, Gingrich sets the bar in a new place, predicting that Romney will not control a “majority” of the delegates at the end of the battle, the closest Gingrich has come yet to threatening a brokered convention.
Key dynamic to watch: The Romney camp’s increasingly brutal attacks on Gingrich could end up stiffening the latter’s resolve to continue this fight as long as possible, perhaps even through the convention, the cost to the GOP be damned.
* Gingrich could make Romney’s life miserable indeed: Rick Klein has an interesting look at the ways the delegate math could enable Gingrich to make good on his threat to take this all the way to the convention:
The proportional allotment of delegates in early-voting states, coupled with a scattershot primary schedule where Super Tuesday is only half as supersized as it was four years ago, means it’s extraordinarily difficult for a candidate to amass enough delegates to clinch the nomination until at least late April. That means the chief rivals to the frontrunner would have to go away quietly for the nomination to get wrapped up early. There are no signs of that happening.
* The case against Romney’s inevitability: Relatedly, Taegan Goddard flags some reporting on an internal Gingrich campaign memo that makes the case against Romney’s inevitability in terms of delegate numbers.
* Gingrich and Romney agree on one thing: As Adam Serwer notes, they both agree on nixing bilingual ballots, which would disenfranchise untold numbers of the Floridians who will head to the polls tomorrow.
* The latest on Schneiderman and the mortgage task force:Robert Kuttner has a useful and detailed look at all the key questions, at what’s next, and why the task force’s reactivation is significant.
* And the GOP can’t get its message straight on the economy:Over at his new digs, Steve Benen flags a key moment: Marco Rubio claiming that Obama made the economy “worse,” which would seem to be at odds with Romney’s new line that the economy is improvingdespite Obama’s policies.
Neal Gabler, Politico:
Republicans must love to cheer. At their presidential primary debates last year, the audiences boisterously cheered candidates who raised their hands in support of waterboarding; Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s boast about how many prisoners he had sent to the death chamber; Rep. Ron Paul’s declaration that an uninsured 30-year-old man who needs medical care should be left to die; and Herman Cain’s gripe, “If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself.”
Liberals chalked it up to a new, strange, coldhearted ultraconservatism that makes “Reservoir Dogs” look like “Mary Poppins.” But there is something much deeper and scarier here than demagogic campaign appeals to conservative rage — something even deeper than the new conservative machismo that treats compassion as a weakness.
Conservatives of the past, like conservatives of today, excoriated government efforts to assist the needy. But they were quick to add it was government they hated — not the needy themselves.
They might have grumbled about taxes and government giveaways and even federal incursions into what they considered state matters, like civil rights. But they didn’t take pride in being merciless or hateful. Indeed, even if they harbored those feelings, the nation’s overwhelming sense of Judeo-Christian moral righteousness forced them to at least talk about concern for the underprivileged. No one wanted to seem mean.
Not any more.
Over the past 40 years, as conservatives have complained, this nation has undergone a moral revolution. It’s just not the one they think. They bemoan greater tolerance for homosexuality; loosened sexual strictures; and overall sexualization of the culture, the coarsened language, provocative dress and a general lack of discipline. But gay rights aside, that is largely aesthetics, not morality.
America’s real moral revolution has been the abandonment of those old Judeo-Christian precepts to which both liberals and conservatives subscribed — tolerance, compassion and generosity on the one hand and hard work, honesty and fairness on the other.
Conservatives and liberals have different worldviews. But they were bound by these dual moralities — one of justice, the other of responsibility.
They were also bound by a powerful force that made these operational: shame.
There’s irony here in that liberals have viewed shame as a conservative ally. They associated it with Puritans and the puritanical who used shame, liberals said, to bludgeon people into moralistic behavior that denied their real passions and interests. Much of the 1960s counterculture was a movement to free us from shame — to allow us to embrace the freedom of who we really are and who we want to be. In effect, liberals undermined shame.
But whatever the psychological drawbacks of shame for an individual’s sense of self-worth, there are definitely social benefits for a people who have the capacity to be shamed. Just imagine how far shame might have gone at the infancy of Nazi Germany.
American history can be read as a series of episodes in which we reached what could be called a “tipping point” of shame — when our behavior became so egregious that we, as a people, decided to desist from our worst excesses, whether it was slavery or antipathy to immigrants.
Take civil rights. The majority of Americans, even outside the South, might originally have had little real enthusiasm for the civil rights movement. Most urged patience. It was only after the public saw the beatings during the Freedom Rides, the firehoses and police dogs at Selma and the church bombing in Birmingham that Americans were shamed into accepting the claims of African-Americans to equal justice under the law. Shame was the moralizing force.
Shame also defeated the hatred of Father Charles Coughlin, the famous “radio priest” who laid the Great Depression at the feet of Jewish international bankers, and Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who recklessly accused his critics of communist treachery. Both had reached that tipping point at which ordinary Americans felt these provocateurs had gone too far. Americans felt shamed.
There is a reason we have never previously had a hatemonger like Rush Limbaugh enjoy popularity for as long as he has. The reason was shame. You couldn’t find enough people, let alone a broadcaster, who wanted to be identified with that sort of viciousness. The initial enthusiasm for it eventually waned.
But that was then. Surely when a group can publicly cheer a man’s death for not having health insurance, the sense of shame is gone. It faded not only because liberals had subverted it by casting it as a conservative scheme to corset society, but because conservatives managed to delegitimize it. They attacked it as yet another elitist scheme, contrived to neuter strong conservatism.
Conservatives portray shame as a way of making people feel bad about the lesser angels of their nature. Which is exactly what shame should be.
Their bigger trick, though, has not been to delegitimize shame so much as to convert shamelessness into a valid political position. It can be attacked only at the peril of seeming to take sides in our political wars — which the mainstream media steadfastly refuse to do.
This has silenced society from expressing a sense of outrage at positions that seem outside any moral system. It has also prevented us from having a debate not just about policy, but about a national morality that cheers death or poverty.
When shame dies, so does our moral sense. You can already hear the applause at the grave.
Your parents came to Miami from Cuba in the 1950s. Your dad became a bartender, and your mom worked as a hotel maid, among other jobs. Was it always clear that you wouldn’t follow them into a service job?
The service industry is hard, honorable work, but early on my parents drove it into us that a job is what you do to make a living; a career is when you get paid to do something that you love. They had jobs so I could have a career.
Your official biography emphasized that your parents were political exiles from Castro’s regime. Last year it was reported that in fact they emigrated years before he took power. You said it was an innocent mistake. How did it happen?
All this stuff happened 15 years before I was born, so a lot of it is based on the oral history of the family that kind of recounts their view of their journey here.
Did anyone in your family ever actually say, “We had to escape Castro”?
Ultimately, look, that’s not the way it was discussed in our family or by many people in the exile community. It’s more about a loss of their home country, and the inability to go back to it or be part of it. That was a deep part of our upbringing, growing up in this community surrounded by people who had lost everything, who had been sent here as young children while their parents stayed behind.
After you became the first Cuban-American speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, in 2006, your mentor, Jeb Bush, presented you with a sword. What was that about?
Chang is a mythical conservative warrior. From time to time, if there’s a big issue going on, you’d see Jeb say, “I’m going to unleash Chang.” He gave me the sword of Chang.
From which mythology does this conservative warrior hail?
I think it’s a Jeb Bush creation.
In your 2010 Senate race, it came to light that you charged $100,000 on a Republican Party American Express card, almost $14,000 of which was for personal expenses. Since your big issue is financial responsibility, why didn’t you just use another card?
In hindsight, that’s exactly how I would have handled it. I think the problem was a lot of those expenditures were handled by travel agents, and sometimes the accounts got mixed up. The most important thing people need to understand is that the Republican Party never spent a penny on anything that wasn’t Republican Party-related.
Koch Industries, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are among your top career campaign contributors. What do you say to people who believe that they’re investing in you so that you’ll push to overhaul the tax code to their benefit?
People buy into my agenda. I don’t buy into anyone’s agenda. I tell people what I stand for, and the things I’ve stood for were the same at the very beginning, when none of those people were giving me money.
You are a football fanatic, and your wife, Jeanette, was once a Miami Dolphins cheerleader. Coincidence?
I don’t think she did it because I was a fanatic. Her sister was a cheerleader on the squad, and Jeanette decided to try out. She made it but only did it for a year, and we got married the next year. Cheerleaders don’t get paid a lot of money, but they do get two tickets a game. That was pretty good.
Last year, Bill O’Reilly declared that unless you turn it down, you will be the Republican vice-presidential nominee because you’re from Florida and you’re Hispanic. Does it bother you to be seen to be of value because of where you’re from and your ethnic background?
A lot of factors go into choosing a vice-presidential nominee. But by and large the most important qualification is that they’re qualified to be president, and I imagine that’s the process that Newt or Mitt or any of these other guys are going to go through to decide. So I’m flattered by it, and I think people mean it as a compliment.
Will you take it?
I’m not going to be the vice-presidential nominee. There are many reasons, but one of them is because I’m focused on my job in the United States Senate.
Would you bet me $10,000?
I don’t have $10,000 I can afford to lose right now.
The Raw Story:
In a surprising move over the weekend, thousands of Catholic parishioners were read letters that condemn the Obama administration and its recent decision to make birth control available to women through virtually all private health insurance plans.
The letters were written by Catholic Bishops in the U.S. and read aloud at hundreds of Catholic churches on Sunday. In one of the letters (PDF), written by a Catholic Bishop in Phoenix, Ariz., the church attacks the Obama administration for having “cast aside the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, denying to Catholics our Nation’s first and most fundamental freedom, that of religious liberty.”
But far from taking away their religious liberty or any of their “God given rights,” the Obama administration’s decision to make private insurers cover birth control will ensure that the church cannot deny these services to their employees if they choose to utilize them.
“We cannot — we will not — comply with this unjust law,” Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted wrote in just one of the numerous letters. “People of faith cannot be made second class citizens. We are already joined by our brothers and sisters of all faiths and many others of good will in this important effort to regain our religious freedom. Our parents and grandparents did not come to these shores to help build America’s cities and towns, its infrastructure and institutions, its enterprise and culture, only to have their posterity stripped of their God given rights.”
The church added that Catholics should pray to ask the virgin Mary to intercede for the nation, and that parishioners look up the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment, a Catholic anti-abortion group.
The only exception to the rule that would allow an employer to deny access to birth control is if the employer is a religious non-profit that hires exclusively within their faith. All other organizations, including non-profits run by religious groups that hire based upon non-discrimination policies, must enact the new rule by August 1, 2013.
While the decision was indeed a victory for pro-choice activists, the Obama administration in December shot down a proposed rule that would have made the morning-after pill available over the counter and without an age restriction, even though the pills are less toxic than the common painkiller Tylenol. Over the counter sales of Plan B had previously been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
[…] To flip control of the House back just one cycle after losing it, the House Democrats’ campaign operation is relying on a class of new recruits, just inducted into its “Red to Blue program” that targets Republican seats.
CNN obtained exclusive access to campaign chief Steve Israel’s briefing for the 18 handpicked candidates earlier this week in Washington.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee brought them to Washington to hear Israel present the latest polls and his assessment of the political landscape. Israel briefed the group on his “Drive to 25″ — the battle plan that banks on their success in defeating Republicans — in a conference room at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, just steps from the Capitol.
Israel, the top strategist for House Democrats, was blunt, telling the group, “We’re not interested in electing you to the minority — been there, done that. It sucks!”
The New York Democrat won’t say outright that Democrats will win, but he put the pressure on the 18 candidates.
“It’s going to be razor-close,” Israel told the group. “The people in this room are going to determine whether we’re on the north side of 25 or the south side of 25.”
There’s no guarantee on the amount of financial help the candidates will get from the national headquarters, but the amount of money they can raise on their own and their ability to organize supporters will help them show they’re ready to go the distance.
The DCCC’s “Red to Blue program” — created by its former chief Rahm Emmanuel in 2006, when Democrats took back control of the House for the first time in 12 years — identified three dozen Republican-held seats in swing areas that Democrats believe they can win in 2012. In half of these districts, the committee is backing a candidate. In the other half, it is awaiting results from primaries, but is already committed to helping the Democratic candidate, whoever it may be, with money and other organizational resources this fall.
CNN interviewed three of the 18 candidates who visited Washington: Jose Hernandez, an astronaut whose family worked on farms in central California; Val Demmings, the first female police chief in Orlando, Florida; and Jamie Wall, a businessman from Wisconsin.
Hernandez believes voters who backed tea party candidates in the last election are having second thoughts. He told CNN that they “are getting buyer’s remorse with respect to the change in 2010.”
Two polls released last week bear that out: An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that 47% of voters preferred a Democratic-controlled Congress, compared to 41% who supported a Republican-controlled one; and a National Journal poll indicated a wider margin — 48% said they supported a Democratic Congress and 37% said they wanted Republicans to keep control.
Most of the 18 “Red to Blue” candidates have roots in their communities, but only five have held elective office. GOP recruiters in 2010 also sought out prospective candidates who didn’t have a lot of political experience.
The three top-tier recruits CNN interviewed seemed to echo the outsider pitch used two years ago by the freshmen tea party-backed Republicans they aim to defeat: We’re not politicians who care about party ideology; elect us and we can break the partisan gridlock in Washington.
Democratic party officials argue these candidates emphasize “problem solving” and hope they will appeal to independent voters who abandoned Democrats in droves in 2010.
Trying to unseat California freshman Rep. Jeff Denham, Hernandez called himself a “citizen’s politician.” The former NASA employee joked that being a member of Congress “is not rocket science,” and pointed out “I’m an engineer. I’m trained to solve problems, unlike lawyers, which most of our Congress folks are; they’re trained to litigate, argue, and I’m trained to solve problems.”
Demmings, who will face Republican Daniel Webster in November, summed up what the candidates have in common.
“I think we demonstrate the ability to just get it done without political gain, without a political agenda,” she said.
Ignoring the fact their party runs half of the legislative branch, these Democratic hopefuls say they sympathize with voters who don’t like Congress.
“There’s a reason Congress is as popular as head lice right now,” Wall said.
But Wall, who is running against freshman Wisconsin Republican Rep. Reid Ribble, deliberately avoided party labels, and emphasized, “If there’s a good idea in the room I want to hear it whether it comes from a Republican, an independent, a Democrat. It’s that kind of spirit that I think we need more of in Washington.”
Wall says these candidates won’t make the same mistake that Democrats made when they ran the House in the past.
“If there is one thing that Democrats did wrong, it was they didn’t give the impression of focusing enough on the economy,” Wall said.
But as much as these candidates attempt to showcase their independence, Republicans have made it clear they will tie them at every turn to President Barack Obama and what they say is his weak spot — his handling of the economy.
“Ultimately a presidential election is going to revolve around, or be a referendum on the president’s economic policies, and that’s going to be a bad thing for House Democrats,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Paul Lindsay told CNN.
And the GOP intends to remind voters that Democrats ran the House not too long ago. “At the end of the day, Americans have a good memory of what Washington was like … when Democrats controlled the House and Senate, and the president in the White House,” Lindsay said.
Money and redistricting
One of the reasons House Democrats believe the House is in play this year: money. The DCCC out-raised its Republican counterpart in 2011 by $7 million, with the Democrats taking in $61.4 million to the GOP’s $54.1 million.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi noted on Thursday that her party’s cash advantage is part of the equation.
“We’ve out-raised and out-recruited and out-redistricted the Republicans,” she said.
But Dave Wasserman with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report said redistricting is likely to make the Democrats’ hopes for capturing the majority tougher, not easier. Court challenges and states legislatures are still working on the final maps in several states, so the outlines of many congressional districts won’t be complete until later this summer.
“Democrats need to win 35 to 45 Republican-held seats,” Wasserman told CNN.
Republicans believe redistricting will work in their favor. Earlier this week, House Speaker John Boehner told Politico that redistricting will solidify the GOP’s control of the House, which he predicted would last at least through 2020.
Boehner also said, “I think it will be nearly impossible” for Democrats to retake the House.
Pelosi, who said earlier this month she wants to win 35 House seats, tamped down those expectations on Thursday, saying, “I want more, of course, but 25 will do it — I’ll take it.”
Obama rallied House Democrats on Friday, and reminded them that their fate is tied to his in November.
“I believe in you guys. You guys have had my back through some very tough times. I’m going to have your back as well, and together we’re going to move this country forward,” he said to cheers.
Frank Rich: (Please see original for links.)
Back in the thick of the 2008 Republican presidential race, I asked a captain of American finance what he had made of Mitt Romney when they were young colleagues at Bain & Company. “Mitt was a nice guy, a smart businessman, and an excellent team player,” he responded without missing a beat. Then came the CEO’s one footnote, delivered with bemusement, not pique: “Still, whenever the rest of us would go out at the end of the day, we’d always find ourselves having the same conversation: None of us had any idea who this guy was.”
Here we are in 2012, and nothing has changed. What Romney’s former colleague observed of the young Mitt at close range decades ago could stand as the judgment of most Americans watching him at a cable-news remove now. That’s why his campaign has so often been on the ropes. That’s why, in a highly polarized nation, the belief that Romney is a phony may be among the very last convictions still bringing left, right, and center together. As a focus-group participant evocatively told pollster Peter Hart in November, Romney reminded him of the “dad who’s never home.” Nonetheless, this phantom has spent most of the campaign as the “presumed” front-runner for his party’s nomination. Amazingly, this conventional wisdom held up throughout 2011, even though 75 percent of Romney’s own party was searching so frantically for an alternative that Donald Trump enjoyed a nanosecond bump in the polls.
Now much of the 75 percent has identified the non-Mitt candidate who really does express where the GOP is today. Newt Gingrich is proud to stir a dollop of race into the vitriol he hurls at Barack Obama, “the food-stamp president.” He’s a human Vesuvius at spewing populist anger at all elites; attacks by the press or by Republican Establishment talking heads like Karl Rove and Joe Scarborough only make him stronger. And unlike any other GOP leader, he can boast that he actually realized the tea party’s goal of shutting the government down. The morning after Newt shut Mitt down in South Carolina, Rich Lowry, the editor of the pro-Mitt, anti-Newt National Review, channeled the horror of GOP grandees everywhere. “If Romney can’t right himself,” he wrote, then “every major elected Republican in the country will panic” and “every unlikely scenario to get another candidate in the race will be explored.” The names once again being floated—Mitch Daniels! Jeb Bush! Paul Ryan! Bobby Jindal!—have not been known to raise the pulse rate of anyone beyond the 25 percent of the GOPembodied by elite conservative pundits in Washington and New York.
What’s more likely is that the party’s panicked Establishment, and its Wall Street empire, will succeed in their push to crush Gingrich and prop up Romney in any way they can. They still see Mitt as the best available front man for the radical party the Republicans have become—the dutiful Eagle Scout who can hold down the fort as the right’s self-styled revolutionary rabble threaten to overwhelm today’s GOP elites the way the Goldwater insurgents once did Nelson Rockefeller and Romney’s father, George. Some of the same Beltway types who have reinforced Mitt’s presumed victory march since last summer believe he can be rebooted for the fall merely with some stern course correction.
As this narrative has it, Americans are at least comfortable with old, familiar Mitt—heaven knows he’s been running long enough. He may be a bore and a flip-flopper, but he doesn’t frighten the horses. His steady sobriety will win the day once the lunatic Newt has finished blowing himself up. As one prominent Romney surrogate, the Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz, has it, Romney is “the most vetted candidate out there.” Maybe—if you assume there will be no more questions about Bain, the Cayman Islands, the expunged internal records from Romney’s term as governor, or his pre-2010 tax returns. Or about the big dog that has yet to bark, and surely will by October: Romney’s long career as a donor to and lay official of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But you can also construct an alternative narrative—that the vetting has barely even begun, and that the “Mitt Romney” we’ve been sold since 2008 is a lazy media construct, a fictional creation, or maybe even a hoax.
For four years now, Republicans have been demonizing Barack Obama for his alleged “otherness”—trashing him as a less-than-real American pushing “anti-colonial,” socialist, and possibly Islamist ideas gleaned from a rogue’s gallery of subversive influences led by his Kenyan father, Saul Alinsky, and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. And yet Romney is in some ways more exotic and more removed from “real America” than Obama ever was, his gleaming white camouflage notwithstanding. Romney is white, all right, but he’s a white shadow. He can come across like an android who’s been computer-generated to be the perfect genial candidate. When forced to interact with actual people, he tries hard, but his small talk famously takes the form of guessing a voter’s age or nationality (usually incorrectly) or offering a greeting of “Congratulations!” for no particular reason. Richard Nixon was epically awkward too, but he could pass (in Tom Wicker’s phrase) as “one of us.” Unlike Nixon’s craggy face, or, for that matter, Gingrich’s, Romney’s does not look lived in. His eyes don’t show the mileage of a veteran fighter’s journey through triumphs and hard knocks—the profile that Americans prefer to immaculate perfection in a leader during tough times. Even at Mitt’s most human, he resembles George Hamilton without the self-deprecating humor or the perma-tan.
“A man who sometimes seems to be looking not into your eyes but past them.”
That missing human core, that inauthenticity and inability to connect, has been a daily complaint about Romney. To flesh out the brief, critics usually turn to his blatant political opportunism and rarefied upbringing—his history of ideological about-faces and his cakewalk as the prep-school-burnished, Harvard-educated son of a fabled auto executive. But the hollowness of Romney is not merely a function of his craven surrender to the rightward tilt of the modern GOP or the patrician blind spots he acquired at too many fancy schools and palatial country clubs. If that were the case, he’d pass for another Bush, and receive some of the love that Bush father and son earned from the party faithful in their salad days. Some think he can get there by learning better performance skills: As Chuck Todd of NBC News put it, he “has to learn how to connect, how to speak emotionally … more from the heart.” If Nixon could learn how to sell himself in 1968 under the tutelage of Roger Ailes, and Bush 41 could receive coaching from the legendary acting teacher Stella Adler in 1980, there might still be hope for Romney under the instruction of, say, Kelsey Grammer. But Romney is too odd, too much a mystery man. We don’t know his history the way we did Nixon’s and Bush’s. His otherness seems not a matter of style and pedigree but existential.
We don’t know who Romney is for the simple reason that he never reveals who he is. Even when he is not lying about his history—whether purporting to have been “a hunter pretty much all my life” (in 2007) or to being a denizen of “the real streets of America” (in 2012)—he is incredibly secretive about almost everything that makes him tick. He has been in hiding throughout his stints in both the private and public sectors. While his career-long refusal to release his tax returns was damaging in itself, it resonated even more so as a proxy for all the other secrets he has kept and still keeps.
Just as Republican caucus votes were being (re-)counted in Iowa, the first serious and thorough Romney biography was published, to deservedly favorable reviews. The authors, Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, are Boston Globe investigative reporters who have tracked him for years. Their book, The Real Romney, is manifestly fair and nonpartisan, giving him full credit for his drive and smarts as a pioneer in the entrepreneurial realm of private equity. But it’s a measure of how much voters view Romney as a nonentity that they have shown so little interest in reading it. Not even a rave in the Times the week before the South Carolina primary could catapult The Real Romney into the top 500 of the Amazon list, despite the serious possibility that its protagonist could be the next president of the United States.
The book has no bombshells, and the very lack of them is revealing. For all the encyclopedic detail its authors amassed, and all the sources they mined, their subject remains impenetrable. “A wall. A shell. A mask,” they write at the outset, listing the terms used by many who “have known or worked with Romney” and view him as “a man who sometimes seems to be looking not into your eyes but past them.” Former business and political colleagues are in agreement that he has scant interest in mingling with people in even casual social interactions (in a hallway, for instance) and displays “little desire to know who people are.” He so “rarely went out with the guys in any social venue” that one business associate dubbed him the Tin Man for “his inability to bond.” During his one term as governor of Massachusetts, Romney was inaccessible to legislators, with ropes and elevator settings often restricting access to his suite of offices. He was notorious, one lawmaker explained, for having “no idea what our names were—none.” A longtime Republican, after watching Romney’s vacuous, failed senatorial campaign against Teddy Kennedy in 1994, came to the early conclusion that Mitt’s “main cause appeared to be himself.” This was borne out in 2006, when Romney spent more than 200 days out of Massachusetts ginning up a presidential run rather than attending to his duties as the state’s chief executive.
Aside from his ability to build Bain Capital and pile up profits there, Romney has remarkably few visible accomplishments to show for his 64 years. He can’t prove that he actually generated any jobs as a venture capitalist (beyond those at Bain itself), which is why heconstantly revises the number of jobs he claims to have created (or, as he carefully hedges it, “helped create”). His sole achievement as governor was the Massachusetts prototype for the Obama health-care law—a feat he now alternately fudges or runs away from. The state’s record of job creation on his watch was the fourth worst of the 50 states.
How faith is key to the Romney mystery.
Known for being frugal to a fault, Romney does not seem to particularly relish spending his fortune. He likes data, and his piles of dollars seem to be mainly markers to keep score of his success. Though he now tries to wrap himself in Main Street brands like Staples and Domino’s Pizza that passed through Bain’s clutches, he was not intellectually or managerially engaged in the businesses that Bain bought and sold; he didn’t run any of them. He seems to have no cultural passions beyond his and his wife’s first-date movie, The Sound of Music. He is not a sportsman or conspicuous sports fan. His only real, nonnumerical passions seem to be his photogenic, intact family, which he wields like a weapon whenever an opponent with multiple marriages like John McCain or Gingrich looms into view—and, of course, his faith.
That faith is key to the Romney mystery. Had the 2002 Winter Olympics not been held in Salt Lake City, and not been a major civic project of Mormon leaders there, it’s unlikely Romney would have gotten involved. (Whether his involvement actually prompted a turnaround of that initially troubled enterprise, as he claims, is a subject of debate.) But Romney is even less forthcoming about his religion than he is about his tax returns. When the Evangelical view of Mormonism as a non-Christian cult threatened his 2008 run, Romney delivered what his campaign hyped as a JFK-inspired speech on “Faith in America.” This otherwise forgotten oration was memorable only for the number of times it named Romney’s own faith: once.
In the current campaign, Romney makes frequent reference to faith, God, and his fierce loyalty to “the same church.” But whether in debates, or in the acres of official material on his campaign website, or in a flyer pitched at religious voters in South Carolina, he never names what that faith or church is. In Romneyland, Mormonism is the religion that dare not speak its name. Which leaves him unable to talk about the very subject he seems to care about most, a lifelong source of spiritual, familial, and intellectual sustenance. We’re used to politicians who camouflage their real views about issues, or who practice fraud in their backroom financial and political deal-making, but this is something else. Romney’s very public persona feels like a hoax because it has been so elaborately contrived to keep his core identity under wraps.
His campaign is intent on enforcing the redaction of his religion, not least, one imagines, because a Gallup poll found that 22 percent in both parties say they would not vote for a Mormon for president. (Only 5 percent admit feeling that way about an African-American.)A senior adviser explained the strategy of deflecting any discussion of Romney’s Mormon life to Politico: “Someone takes a shot at the governor’s faith, we put a scarlet letter on them, RB, religious bigot.” Good luck with that. Like Romney’s evasions about his private finances, his conspicuous cone of silence about this major pillar of his biography also leaves you wondering what he is trying to hide. That his faith can be as secretive as he is—Ann Romney’s non-Mormon parents were not allowed to attend the religious ceremony consecrating her marriage to Mitt—only whets the curiosity among the 82 percent of Americans who tell pollsters they know little or nothing about Mormonism.
Weeks before his death, Christopher Hitchens, no more a fan of LDS than of any other denomination, wrote that “we are fully entitled” to ask Romney about the role of his religion in influencing his political formation. Of course we are. Romney is not merely a worshipper sitting in the pews but the scion of a family dynasty integral to the progress of an American-born faith that has played a large role in the public square. Since his youthful stint as a missionary, he has served LDS in a variety of significant posts. The answers to questions about Romney’s career as a lay church official may tell us more about who he is than his record at Bain, his sparse tenure as governor, or his tax returns.
The questions are not theological. Nor are they about polygamy, the scandalous credo that earlier Romneys practiced even after the church banned it in 1890. Rather, the questions are about the Mormon church’s political actions during Mitt Romney’s lifetime—and about what role Romney, as both a leader and major donor, might have played or is still playing in those actions. To ask these questions is not to be a religious bigot but to vet a candidate for the nation’s highest job. Given how often Romney himself cites his faith as a defining force in his life, voters have a right to know what role he played when his faith intersected with the secular lives of his fellow citizens.
Why Mitt Romney is a political hack’s idea of an electable conservative president.
As we learn in The Real Romney, Mitt Romney has performed many admirable acts of charity for members of his church in dire straits. But the flip side of this hands-on engagement is whether, in his various positions in the church, he countenanced or enforced its discriminatory treatment of blacks and women, practices it only started to end in earnest well after he had entered adulthood. It wasn’t until 1978, when he was in his thirties, that blacks were given full status in his church—an embarrassing fact that Romney tried to finesse in his last campaign by speaking emotionally on Meet the Press of seeing his father join Martin Luther King on a civil-rights march. (The Boston Phoenix would soon report that this was another lie about his past.) In the seventies, Romney’s church also applied its institutional muscle to battling the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment for women. And these days, no major faith puts more money where its mouth is in battling civil rights for gay Americans. Its actions led Stuart Matis, a faithful graduate of Brigham Young University who’d completed his missionary service, to commit suicide on the steps of a Mormon chapel in 2000 in anguished protest of his dehumanized status within his religion. Unchastened, the Mormon church enlisted its congregants to put over Proposition 8 in California in 2008. Mormons contributed more than $20 million to the effort and constituted an estimated 80 to 90 percent of the campaign’s original volunteers. Romney, who endorsed gay rights when running as a moderate against Kennedy in 1994, has swung so far in the other direction that he ridiculed gay couples when pandering to South Carolina Republicans a few years ago. (“Some are actually having children born to them!” he said with horror.) Did some of his yet undivulged Mormon philanthropy support the Prop 8 campaign?
Even if these questions yield benign answers, we know that Romney’s faith has contributed to his self-segregation from the actual “real streets of America.” His closest circle comes from within his faith, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, the fact remains that today the American Mormon population is still only 1 percent black. (Those recent television promo spots marketing LDS as a fount of diversity are a smoke screen.) Much as the isolating cocoon of Romney’s wealth can lead him to dismiss $347,327 in speaking fees as “not very much” (to take just one recent example of his cluelessness about how the other 99 percent lives), so the demographic isolation imposed by his religion takes its own political toll. When he’s forced to interact with the America beyond his hermetically sealed Mormon orbit, we get instant YouTube classics like his attempt to get down and rap with black voters on Martin Luther King Day four years ago by quoting “Who Let the Dogs Out?”
Given Romney’s maladroitness as a retail politician, the failure of even his own fans to convey any enthusiasm for him, and the 75 percent of his party that questions his conservatism, it’s hard to fathom how he kept being judged inevitable by so many observers just as he was losing two of the first three election-year contests. Even a normally hardheaded, data-driven analyst like the Times’ poll maven Nate Silver couldn’t resist being swept up by this narrative, going beyond the numbers to write in a January 16 post that the 90 percent odds given a Romney nomination by the betting market Intrade “may if anything be too conservative.” (Six days later, after South Carolina, Silver wrote, “Perhaps, then, there is profound resistance among Republican voters to nominating Mr. Romney after all.”) Much of the Romney inflation, naturally, has to do with his good fortune in having such a splintered and screwy scrum of opponents. Often we’re told that he “looks like a president” (that would be a pre-Obama president). We also hear constantly about his message discipline, his organization, and his money—attributes that matter more to political consultants and the pundits who pal around with them than to an angry electorate trying to dig out of a recession. To the political class, Romney is the most electable candidate because his mealy-mouthed blandness is what will lure that much-apotheosized yet indistinct band of moderates and independents to his side. But as Michael Kinsley long ago joked that Al Gore was an old person’s idea of a young person, so Mitt Romney is a political hack’s idea of an electable conservative president. Voters may have another view, and certainly did in South Carolina, where exit polls found that those who most valued a candidate’s electability rallied to Newt.
But if the power of Mitt’s money and the power of pack journalism helped contribute to his status as indestructible, the power of denial at the higher reaches of the GOP did even more so. The Republican Establishment has been adamant in insisting that economic populism and class warfare do not infect their own ranks, and that economic inequality is strictly a lefty and Democratic gripe. If that’s the case, then Romney’s strong identification with the one percent stigmatized by Occupy Wall Street would indeed present no problem. But a January Pew poll found that a majority of both Republicans and Independents now join Democrats in feeling that there are “strong conflicts” between the rich and poor in America; a recent NBC News–Wall Street Journal survey found that Republican voters were just as likely as Democrats to blame “Wall Street bankers” most of all for the country’s economic problems. It’s hardly a stretch that some of that blame might attach itself to Romney, especially after Gingrich turned a spotlight on his Bain résumé.
Republicans remain unimpressed with their party’s presidential field. According to a new Pew poll, dissatisfaction with the field has increased over the month of January.
52% of Republicans now rate the GOP field as fair or poor, up from 44% in early January.
In 2008, 68% of Republicans rated the Republican nominees as excellent or good. [Pew]
I never thought we would reach a point where a GOP frontrunner makes a John McCain candidacy smell like roses, but we’ve reached that point.
The un-safe and un-electable Mitt Romney has overwhelmingly higher negatives than any presidential candidate in recent history.
Barack Obama (1/12/08): 65/30
John McCain (1/12/08): 61/31
John Kerry (3/7/04): 54/26
G.W. Bush (2/27/00): 49/39
Al Gore (2/27/00): 50/40
Mitt Romney’s favorable/unfavorable rating? 31/49 according to the latest ABC/Washington Post poll. Half as favorable as either John McCain or President Obama was four years ago.
Why are Mitt Romney’s negatives so high? Because despite being the supposed inevitable nominee, most Republicans do not like him nor do Democrats of Independents.
Romney’s favorability among independents has dropped 35 percent since the beginning of the primary season. He is paying dearly for his hard-curve to the right to win the nomination.
This is not a case for complacency. On the contrary I advocate kicking him while he’s down.
One of the oddest arguments made by the plaintiffs now challenging the Affordable Care Act before the Supreme Court is a claim that, if just one small part of the law is declared unconstitutional, the whole law must fall with it. The overwhelming majority of judges who have heard ACA cases rejected the ridiculous claim that any part of the law is unconstitutional. And, of the handful of judges to strike part of the law down, only one — the guy who included an explicit shout-out to the Tea Party in his opinion — accepted the legally indefensible position that the whole law must fall.
In their attempt to see the entire Affordable Care Act fall, however, several of the plaintiffs challenging the law committed what should be a fatal blunder — they effectively admit that their entire constitutional challenge to the law is garbage.
The primary attack on the ACA targets its provision requiring most Americans to either carry health insurance or pay slightly more income taxes — the so-called “individual mandate.” This insurance coverage provision exists because without it, the law’s other provisions ensuring that people with preexisting conditions can obtain insurance cannot be implemented. If patients can wait until they get sick to buy insurance, they will drain all the money out of an insurance plan that they have not previously paid into, massively driving up costs for the rest of the plan’s consumers.
This problem doesn’t just make the insurance coverage requirement good policy, it also makes it constitutional. The Constitution doesn’t just give Congress sweeping authority to regulate the national economy, it also authorizes it “[t]o make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution” regulations of interstate commerce. As conservative Justice Antonin Scalia explains, this means that, “where Congress has the authority to enact a regulation of interstate commerce, it possesses every power needed to make that regulation effective.”
So, with this background in mind, consider the following passage from the private plaintiffs’ brief arguing that the entire law must fall if the insurance coverage rule goes down:
The mandate was intended to be a direct subsidy to insurance companies, as compensation for requiring them (in the guaranteed-issue provision) to insure against “risks” that have already come to pass and forbidding them (in the community-rating provision) from using actuarially sound insurance premiums.The mandate thus works to counteract the powerful inflationary impacts of these other provisions, which would otherwise make premiums in the individual insurance market prohibitively expensive, thereby frustrating Congress’ goal of affordable health insurance. And Congress further viewed the mandate as necessary to prevent “adverse selection” to “game” the new insurance rules, which proponents warned would spark a “death spiral” in insurance.
The guaranteed-issue and community-rating requirements thus cannot operate without the mandate in the manner intended by Congress. Rather, “their associated force—not one or the other but both combined—was deemed by Congress to be necessary to achieve the end sought.” To strike the mandate alone would impermissibly eliminate a central quid pro quo of the Act. If the mandate falls, the guaranteed-issue and community-rating regulations must therefore fall with it, as the Government itself has conceded.
So the plaintiffs admit that, without the insurance coverage requirement, premiums will become “prohibitively expensive” and that the ACA’s provisions protecting people with preexisting conditions or who otherwise are highly likely to need health care (what are known as “guaranteed-issue” and “community-rating” laws in the jargon of health policy) “cannot operate without the mandate in the manner intended by Congress.” This is a flat out admission that the Scalia Rule applies in this case. Guaranteed issue and community rating are regulations of interstate commerce, and thus Congress has “every power needed” to make them effective — including the power to enact the insurance coverage requirement.
I discuss this rather breathtaking admission at greater length in an amicus brief I filed Friday on behalf of several health provider organizations, which also includes some more details about why the plaintiffs’ attempt to take out the entire ACA has no basis in law. Ultimately, however, there is no need whatsoever for the justices to consider how much of the law stands or falls without the coverage requirement. The private plaintiffs already gave away the farm when they admitted that their entire legal challenge rests on a crumbling foundation.
One of the biggest requests that labor had made of Congressional Dems was this: Don’t sell out unions when the long-term Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization is renegotiated with House Republicans. Unions saw this as a top prioritiy for 2012.
Well, now the verdict is in: Over a dozen unions — including a number of AFL-CIO affiliates, like the Communications Workers of America and the International Association of Machinists; and possibly the SEIU — are preparing to unleash a new letter blasting Senate Dem leaders for reaching a bad deal with Republicans on this core priority, claiming it could compromise their ability to organize in the future. They will demand that Dems pull out of the deal and insist that Dems push the GOP harder for a “clean” reauthorization that doesn’t rewrite labor law.
One labor official told me that the deal has led to “significant union discontent” with the Senate Dem leadership, which may not bode well for Dem-labor relations heading into an election year.
To back up: Last fall, Obama and Senate Dem leaders won applause from labor for standing fast against the House GOP, which was trying to insert a union-busting provision into the FAA reauthorization. That provision would count it as a “No” vote when airline or railway workers failed to vote at all on whether to unionize. After Dems refused to budge, the House GOP backed down and agreed to a “clean” temporary extension.
This increased hopes among unions that Dems would again hold fast when the longer-term reauthorization was negotiated with Republicans.
A few weeks ago, Harry Reid announced a deal, authored by Senator Jay Rockefeller, that would nix the GOP’s desired union-busting provision; in exchange, the threshold required for triggering a union election would be raised from 35 percent worker interest in a union to 50 percent. Labor was mostly quiet on this deal, but now, after closely examining its implications, officials say they’ve concluded it could be disastrous.
Their objection is that the raised threshold will make it harder to organize amid mergers of unionized and non-unionized airlines, a key labor target. They also see opening the door to rewriting longstanding labor law as a terrible precedent. In a draft of the letter to Dem leaders that I’ve obtained, unions will say:
We remain strongly committed to passage of a clean FAA Reauthorization bill. An aviation safety and security bill is no place to impose unrelated and controversial labor provisions that will ultimately serve to harm both airline and railroad workers. The proposed Railway Labor Act changes would drastically rewrite a statute that was crafted by labor-management cooperation and has not been changed for over 75 years without the agreement of both employer and employee representatives. Airline and rail workers would suffer significant losses as contracts are jettisoned, collective bargaining rights are cut and legal hurdles will be placed in the way of gaining a voice at work…
Rewarding the House Republican Leadership’s desire to rewrite decades of long standing labor law in a flash by inserting an unrelated and controversial labor provision in a much needed aviation safety and security bill, without notice, hearing, or debate, sets an extremely dangerous precedent. We urge the Senate to delete the provisions of the bill that would amend the RLA and pass the clean FAA Reauthorization that all concerned recognize this country sorely needs and supports.
This could create a headache for Congressional Dem leaders at a moment when they’re trying to unite the party behind a populist, pro-labor message heading into this year’s elections. More when I learn it…
UPDATE: A Senate Democratic aide emails a response:
“ This bill is a compromise – by definition, not everyone got everything they wanted. That said, Democrats stood firm to protect American workers, and forced Republicans to back down on the workplace fairness provision that prompted this fight in the first place, leaving that provision intact and unchanged. At the end of the day, we think that creating 300,000 jobs is good for American workers and our economy overall, and that is likely why many major unions support the compromise.”
UPDATE II: An SEIU spokesman confirms that SEIU will also sign the letter, ratcheting this up another notch.
Al Jazeera English:
Much has been said about the Southernisation of the Republican Party, but little about the way Mitt Romney, if he secured the Grand Old Party’s presidential nomination, has a chance to wrest control from the party’s fringe and restore it to political moderation.
Sure, the GOP is justly viewed as the party of big business, and one of the richest men ever to run for the White House won’t change that. But of all the primary candidates, none is more likely to put the brakes on the troubling trend of Southernisation.
I say “troubling” not because I find it so. I’m an observer happy to see the slow unravelling of the Republican Party as it continues to make a fetish of unseating President Barack Obama. Those who find this troubling are establishment Republicans – for the same reasons. That’s why TV ads and the right-wing echo-chamber have been blasting away at Newt Gingrich since his surprise victory in South Carolina. Other than George W Bush, no other Republican has done more to move the party southward.
“Southernisation” is used most often to connote geography, but it’s more than that. It’s an ideology. You can see this when you compare the way the Party of No has obstructed everything the first African-American president of the United States has proposed with the way Southern slave states dominated national politics from Jefferson’s presidency to Lincoln’s.
If the slave states didn’t get federal laws that protected slavery, they’d threaten to blow up the union, which they did with the first shots of Civil War in South Carolina. It was kamikaze politics then and it’s kamikaze politics now.
Contemporary notions of right and left
Making things worse is Texas Congressman Ron Paul. That he’s running at all suggests an incredible realignment of the stars and planets so that voters who are to the extreme right of the Strom Thurmond and Ayn Rand have a fantastic shot at taking hold of the heart of the Republican Party. Paul’s positions don’t fit into contemporary notions of right and left, and that’s why liberals find him intriguing – he’s an anti-war, pro-marijuana Republican.
What liberals don’t see is that Paul’s platforms are rooted in pre-modernity. Isolationism is the best foreign policy to Paul, and federal power is always tyrannical power. Federal drug enforcement is bad, but so is enforcement of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. States are more or less endowed by their Creator to govern themselves in whatever way they please. If that doesn’t sound familiar, let me kindly remind you – such was the ideology of the Confederacy.
Southernisation as an ideology is also weakening the party’s chances with the US’ growing Hispanic population, especially Mexicans. Some have noted rightly that many Hispanics are naturally conservative – hard-working, family-oriented and driven by faith in God.
No such alliance can occur as long as the GOP tolerates guys such as Paul to whom xenophobia and bigotry are the twin pillars of the most reactionary immigration policy proposal since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In addition to walling off the US-Mexican border, Paul would end citizenship for children born in the US to illegal immigrants. Such a move would call into question the citizenship of pretty much everyone in the US, but we know whom he’s targeting – aliens and their “anchor babies”.
Liberals have long dismissed such fringe thinking as too fantastical to believe, but party Republicans may know something they don’t. Even Bob Dole, the quintessential establishment man, is taking shots at Gingrich, his former colleague. Barring a late entry into the race, they know Romney is their best bet.
On some social issues, Romney is more or less a moderate. As a former Wall Street executive, he’s naturally uneasy with Tea Party fanaticism. As Mormon, he’s naturally unsympathetic with the evangelical Christian right, which takes a dim view, to say the least, of Mormonism.
As a native Midwesterner and eventual Yankee governor of perhaps the bluest state in the union, his political orientation has never been Southernised. That may go a long way in returning the party its Northeastern patrician roots.
And a Romney nomination (though not a win) might be good for the country. Never in my lifetime has there been so much national discussion over the fundamental unfairness of the US tax system. Progressive Democrats have been saying it, the Occupy Movement has been saying, and billionaires have been saying it, but the GOP is united in its opposition to raising taxes on the one per cent.
Thanks to Gingrich’s attacks in South Carolina, Romney was forced to reveal that he pays 14 per cent in taxes. He’s worth as much as $250 million, but pays less than what most working families pay.
His returns also revealed investments in the Cayman Islands and Switzerland, raising another discussion just getting started – the conditional patriotism of the one per cent. Attention to Romney as a presidential contender will mean attention to these issues.
Florida is more diverse than any state that has thus far held Republican primaries, and its swing voters represent a pretty good cross-section of the country. If Romney pulls off a victory – and the polls suggest he may - the Party of Lincoln may be on its way out of 40 years in the Southern wilderness.
AND IN OTHER NEWS…
“Women for Santorum” (H/T Political Carnival)
For months, Newt Gingrich has floated the same challenge to President Obama that underdogs have hurled at their political rivals for more than a century: Let’s debate. And not just once or twice, but many times, with no moderators to intervene or inhibit us. Just two candidates, head to head — Lincoln-Douglas style.
As a Lincoln historian, I’ve studied the famous meetings between challenger Abraham Lincoln and incumbent Stephen A. Douglas that set the prairies on fire during the 1858 U.S. Senate race in Illinois. Gingrich has even called me to discuss them. As I’ve told Gingrich, the problem is that, as famous as the debates are, their reputation far outweighs their value. And they’re hardly an inspiring model for modern candidates seeking to showcase their oratorical skills.
These lengthy rhetorical bouts tested the endurance of the audiences and the candidates. Rather than inspiring memorable words, they proved for the most part an embarrassment. The encounters were brutally sarcastic, featuring highly personal attacks rather than elevated discourse. And while they were the first major political forums transcribed by stenographers, the debates were not even accurately published. The texts we know today were massaged by partisan editors eager to make their candidate sound less garbled. Newspapers of the era were openly connected to major parties — imagine Fox or MSNBC editing debate tapes before broadcast.
Still, no friendly editing could disguise the debaters’ shortcomings, including their open prejudice. Both men used the N-word — a term that, even then, shocked some. Douglas, who voiced horror at the sight of African American leader Frederick Douglass riding around town in a carriage driven by a white man, maintained that American democracy was created only “for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever.” While Lincoln insisted that the Declaration of Independence applied to all, he also descended into bigotry, acknowledging the “physical difference” between whites and blacks. In the fourth debate, he went further.
“I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races,” he declared in Charleston, Ill., to robust cheers, “nor ever have been in favor of making voters of the negroes, or jurors, or qualifying them to hold office, or having them to marry with white people.” It was not the future emancipator’s finest hour.
To understand Lincoln-Douglas, we must remember a time when politics focused the frenzy that is today captured by the Super Bowl and “American Idol.” With little to entertain them outside church and county fairs, Americans flocked by the thousands to political events. Spectators stood for hours, toted banners, hocked wares, fired cannons, downed hard drink and raucously interrupted speakers with hurrahs and harassment — there was no Brian Williams-like proscription against audience response.
It was not uncommon for fistfights to break out in the farthest reaches of these large crowds, where the unamplified voices of the debaters seldom reached. During one debate, a Republican smeared excrement on Douglas’s carriage. Such diversions helped audiences endure outdoor marathons at which the opening speaker held forth for an hour, the responder took 90 minutes, and the first debater topped off with a half-hour rejoinder — unthinkable in today’s sound-bite culture.
And the debates were born of shrewd politicking, not high morals. Frustrated by the better-financed Douglas, Lincoln began following the senator around, trying to attract the attention of his large crowds. In July 1858, Lincoln formally challenged Douglas to “divide time, and address the same audiences” as many as 100 times. Douglas felt trapped. If he declined, he might be accused of cowardice. If he accepted, he would cede a platform to a comparatively unknown upstart. In the end, Douglas chose to accommodate Lincoln and debate seven times.
If Gingrich becomes the Republican presidential nominee and demands more than the usual number of debates, Obama should think twice about accepting. Like Douglas, he has much to lose and little to gain. Debates can backfire. In the middle of the Cold War, President Gerald Ford inexplicably claimed that Eastern Europe was not under Soviet domination during a debate with Jimmy Carter in 1976; Al Gore’s sighs and eye-rolling during a debate with George W. Bush in 2000 came off as condescending.
No one can really say who won the Lincoln-Douglas debates — though Douglas prevailed in the election, he made his opponent a star. Widely reprinted in the national press, the debates proved such a phenomenon that Lincoln’s name became a household word. Two years later, he defeated Douglas for president without ever debating again.
QUOTE OF THE DAY:
There are only two kinds of freedom in the world; the freedom of the rich and powerful, and the freedom of the artist and the monk who renounces possessions. ~~Anais Nin