March 31, 2010

Drill, baby, drill? Yes we can!

Today, President Obama will announce that he will allow energy companies to drill for oil off the east coast of the US, in what looks like another attempt at moderation, and perhaps some outreach to Republicans.

The move is a bit of a surprise, given the assumption that in 2008, then-candidate Obama rejected allowing oil companies to start putting holes in the ocean floor near the US coastline, arguing that would not immediately solve American dependency on foreign oil.  In fact, his stance was a lot more nuanced, but the subtleties were lost in the din of the Republicans' energy rallying cry during the 2008 presidential campaign: "Drill, baby, drill!"

Obama's move no doubt will anger progressives and many in the Democratic base, many of whom are already seething at having to settle for half-loafs from a man who ran on an agenda of hope and sweeping change, according to a Yahoo! News report:

Obama's proposal -- geared towards reducing foreign oil dependence and profit from selling offshore leases -- could bring the White House much needed Republican support for landmark energy and climate change legislation it has in the works.

 Upon closer inspection, however, the president's gesture to big oil comes with some strings attached -- you have to go pretty deep into the LAT's report to see them --  and won't start for several more years after a whole lot of study.  Hopefully, in the meantime, the White House's initiative to jump-start the nation's green energy revolution will have started by then, so offshore drilling presumably wouldn't be a very huge deal.

Nonetheless, today's announcement provides a meta-moment: the "drill, baby, drill" chant was proffered a the 2008 RNC convention in St. Paul by one Michael Steele, the bling-slingin', 'hood-talkin' African American RNC chairman, who is now embroiled in a scandal that will damage his party and has the potential to wreck his chairmanship.

Then again, maybe not.

March 29, 2010

Return of Sarah Barracuda (as though she'd ever left)

This weekend was a banner one for the Tea Party Patriots.

After some really ugly PR during the climax of the health care debate, they have pivoted to turn their seemingly depthless anger at vulnerable Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. But the weekend also included a rally for one vulnerable Republican: Senator John McCain, the Republicans' 2008 presidential nominee.  McCain, the former GOP moderate straight-talker and one-time darling of the political media, currently faces a reelection challenge from a far-right, de facto Tea Party candidate.

That led to the latest re-emergence of Sarah Palin, the movement's superstar, a source of endless fascination for political reporters and pundits on the left and right.  This fascination persists, despite Palin's long record of self-contradictory, at times hypocritical statements during her short time on the national stage.  Some of those statements  -- think the infamous Katie Couric interview in 2008 -- would have cleanly stripped the veneer of credibility from a lesser (or perhaps less photogenic) politician.

Consider: Dan Quayle was a sitting US senator in 1988, when President George HW Bush tapped him to be his veep.  Quayle looked good on TV but was a disaster when he opened his mouth, and was widely derided as as an empty suit with a head to match.  He quickly became the butt of jokes on late-night TV shows and, after his boss lost to President Clinton in 1992, Quayle faded into obscurity -- despite nearly a decade in elected office and strong conservative bona fides.

These days, Quayle probably couldn't get arrested in this town, let alone do as well as Palin, who was the butt of a long-running Saturday Night Live skit; quit before completing a full term as Alaska governor; got into a public feud with her erstwhile son-in-law; yet still scored well-paying gigs on Fox News and a reality TV show.

Palin has somehow defied the laws of political gravity, despite a Quayle-like profile including a featherweight political resume, lack of intellectual heft and an inability to rescue McCain's floundering presidential campaign on charisma alone.  Her success is probably due to her sheer determination and force of personality as much as the political industrial complex's collective decision to take her seriously, despite dismal poll numbers that place her somewhere between Richard Nixon and George Bush.

It's been interesting to witness Palin's ascendancy from the mayor of a tiny Alaska town to the vice presidential nominee of a major political party, a lightly-educated yet unbelievably savvy politician who nearly was a heartbeat away from the presidency.

In her latest incarnation, she has become the personification of a political movement that, for some reason, continues to receive attention, despite its relatively small size, its lack of mainstream popularity and its lack of a coherent, resonant message beyond white, middle-aged rage

The Barracuda's weekend stumping led to kind of a meta-moment for the self-described Hockey Mom.  At the rally against Reid, she openly returned the enthusiastic embrace of the TP faithful even though mainstream conservatives see it as a political fringe movement.  But she then lent her considerable star power to boost McCain's standing among TP'ers -- even though McCain is the type of establishment Republican the TP seems to loathe.

While Palin seems to be doing quite well for herself after her failed run for the vice presidency, this article does a nice job explaining where the Tea Party might go from here -- and why it is probably destined to fail as a long-term political movement.

March 26, 2010

Roe vs. Wade vs. Stupak

The hard feelings left over from the health care debate are still simmering, but NPR has an interesting take on one potential lingering effect of the conflict: a political split among abortion opponents.

The focal point of the split: Representative Bart Stupak, the conservative, pro-life Democrat who threatened to trip up the health care reform bill during last weekend's wild sprint to the finish. He'd been a pariah within his party for doing so -- until he traded his yes vote for a promise from President Obama that no federal dollars would go to fund abortion. 

But his reversal of fortune among Dems, who gave him a hero's greeting on the House floor, coincides with anger among Republicans who'd seen him as a staunch ally willing to cross party lines to protect the unborn.  They now call Stupak a a turncoat , revealing a sharp and widening fissure along party lines. 

The long-term ramifications of the split are unclear, since opponents of a woman's right to choose seem bent on undoing Roe vs. Wade -- something that's unlikely to happen in the near future.  And legal scholars disagree on what exactly Obama's deal with Stupak means in the real world.  But at the very least the strong emotions on both sides will further harden the red-blue split in Congress, and could come up as an issue in this fall's mid-term elections.  

March 25, 2010

The more you know

If you want to look a little more closely at what the health care overhaul bill will do for you -- and, let's be honest, who doesn't? -- you could do worse than checking out Ezra Klein's series of explainer posts doing just that.  It's an easy-to-digest collection that will give you plenty of fodder for the next water-cooler conversation with your colleagues, or Facebook update battle with your friends.

March 24, 2010

Sore losers...?

After the Tea Party shenanigans this weekend, one might think the time has come for cooler heads to prevail, particularly since it's highly unlikely that Republicans in Congress -- or state attorneys general -- can effectively overturn, negate or repeal the bill President Obama signed into law before cheering Democrats Tuesday morning.

But the hotheads are still out there, willing and apparently eager to kick things up a notch. And they're using strong-arm tactics more commonly seen in third-world dictatorships or failed states than in the seat of the world's most developed, most stable democracies.

It's the latest disturbing sign of the red-blue polarization that has gripped the body politic and threatens to further undermine the already weakened American political discourse.

Consider: In just 15 months since the nation inaugurated its first African American president, we've had a House back-bencher from South Carolina loudly heckle the president during a live, televised joint speech to Congress; thousands of Tea Party protesters openly comparing his agenda to Soviet-style communism while carrying placards depicting him as a bone-through-the-nose witch doctor, in whiteface as The Joker and sporting an Adolph Hitler mustache; and baseless, surprisingly stubborn conspiracy theorists who continue to challenge his citizenship -- despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

To say nothing of the record number of threats of violence against a president swept into office with 52 percent of the popular vote, well above what former President Bush received when he claimed a "mandate" from the voters after his 2004 re-election.

In the last 72 hours alone -- after the House ratified the health care bill -- we've had a Republican deliver a verbal sucker-punch on a Democratic colleague, then shamelessly use it as a fundraising ploy (and gets results); we've had several Tea Partiers channel their inner Klansman and drop n-bombs on Representative John Lewis, a bona fide civil rights hero, as well as spit upon another black lawmaker and scream homophobic slurs at Representative Barney Frank, the first openly gay US congressman.

When Obama picked up his pen on Tuesday, reasonable people would have expected it formally signaled "game over" to the collective opposition, a cue to move on with the rest of their lives.  Not quite.

Salon connects the link between the right-wing anger and frustration to the current GOP manipulations of the health care debate, and explains why rigid opposition may not go away any time soon.

To paraphrase Dick Motta and Bluto Blutarski: nothing is over 'till the fat lady decides it is.

Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy landing.

March 23, 2010

Worth a thousand words, ... maybe two

I'm a "word guy," a writer by training and preference, but I do know a good visual when I see one -- and it's an added bonus when some words come along with it in the bargain.  So my daily offering includes a couple of things that caught my eye on the morning rounds.

 This story caught my eye, so to speak, and reminded me of what I used to do for the Globe's living section.  I like the fact that the LAT's take came from their features/culture section.  Shows they're paying attention, moreso than most of us.

Meanwhile, The Rachel Maddow Show puts the health care fight -- and the racially tinged, homophobic outbursts from last weekend's Tea Party protestors towards members of Congress -- into perspective. Bold and subtle, at the same time.

There's got to be a morning after

In the aftermath of yesterday's maelstrom on health care reform, there is the usual Washington punditry in the mainstream newspapers, breathlessly focusing on winners and losers, who's up and who's down, why this would have made or broken Obama, and the political ramifications and adjustments of power that will come in the wake of such a momentous decision.

And then there are day-after pieces and analysts who are actually worth reading.

As usual, the New York Times breaks it down neatly through easily digestible graphics and relevant comparisons, and their Prescriptions blog is an up-to-date, go-to source to stay on top of the debate.  MSNBC's Rachel Maddow had a great segment putting the weekend's verbal assaults against Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank, an openly gay congressman, and Georgia Representative John Lewis, a civil rights hero, into context, and the role of government in solving big problems (the segments are on the right side of the TRMS blog page) and Salon's Joe Canoson delves into where the united GOP opposition goes from here.

March 19, 2010

State's Rights, v.2.0

As the health care reform bill grinds to the finish, conservative activists and politicians are gearing up to play their final trump card.  And it's an oldie but a goodie: assertion of state's rights.  The Washington Post has been paying particular attention and done some nice reporting on what could be the the real end game.

But so has the White House.  Is it any accident that President Obama's final, final, final (maybe) health care reform rally will be held in the Old Dominion -- one of the last Southern bastions of a constitutional theory once used to defend slavery and, more recently, school desegregation.

March 17, 2010

One down, 215 to go

President Obama's full-court press on Congress to pass health care reform scored a big win today when Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich -- a dyed-in-the-wool liberal who voted against the bill because it wasn't progressive enough -- announced he'll vote yes on the latest proposal, even though it's less progressive than the one he voted against.

Score one for presidential persuasion: Obama had been putting the arm on Kucinich for days, ratcheting up the pressure in the last 48 hours and all but daring Kucinich to say he'd vote to kill perhaps the signature item on Obama's agenda.  This entry from the Post blog captures it pretty well:

Obama softly threatens Dennis Kucinich

President Obama just finished enthralling a crowd in Ohio in one of the last acts (one hopes) of his push to pass health-care reform. Rolling up his shirtsleeves, Obama began his speech with a little public arm-twisting, calling out a few of the local notables assembled; and way up at the top of his list was Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D), in whose district Obama was speaking.
Just in case it wasn’t clear why the congressman, who has criticized Obama from the left on issues such as Afghanistan, got such special mention, it was obvious seconds after Obama mentioned Kucinich’s name. Someone in the crowd screamed, “Vote yes!” The president responded with just a hint of guile, “Did you hear that, Dennis?” Kucinich, of course, is among the liberal House Democrats who might Ralph Nader-esquely vote against health-care reform because it’s not lefty enough for them.
“A couple other members of Congress are here,” Obama continued, making even plainer that Kucinich was being singled out. As the White House is privately putting the hard press on House members to vote for health reform, all of that attention from the president must be flattering -- and one of the softest threats you’ll hear about in politics. 

March 16, 2010

Channeling his inner LBJ

The anticipation over the upcoming health care reform showdown in Congress has come to resemble the week before the Super Bowl, with both sides gearing up for The Big Game with lots of predictions and chest-thumping, as reporters and pundits break down areas of strength and weaknesses for the Blue Devils (Dems) and the Red Storm (GOP). 

 "If you like watching Congress at all," said NPR reporter Andrea Seabrook, "this is the week to do it.  It's fascinating." 

All we need is animated graphics of Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell butting heads and exploding into a fireball, and Hank Williams shouting, "Are you ready for some LEGIS'LATIN'?!?" 

But I digress. 

What's been most fascinating for me has been watching the the inside game, as President Obama, Reid, Pelosi and others use arm twisting and influence peddling to make sure health care reform passes. TPM's package of stories lay it out particularly well.  

One particular target: Representative Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat, dyed-in-the-wool progressive and determined holdout whose vote could be crucial.  

The White House has pulled out all the stops, with an impressive slap-and-tickle approach that harkens back to President Lyndon Johnson and thelegendary muscle he applied to bend Congress to his will.  

March 15, 2010

Down to the wire

According to the Washington punditocracy, the health care reform proposals in the House and the Senate are rounding the clubhouse turn towards the finish line -- staggering, if not exactly thundering down the home stretch.  And it's been said it's even money whether or not it actually makes it to the wire, or breaks down like an ill-fated thoroughbred.

This week -- to torture the horse-racing analogy a bit longer -- President Obama goes to the whip, adding another high-profile rally in swing-state Ohio to a series of campaign-style events he's held in the last few weeks to whip up public support on health care, and simultaneously pressure wavering conservative Democrats.  But Obama's public flexing is also designed to send a message to Dems in trouble, promising some rich rewards for a "yes" vote in the House.

Meanwhile, TMP has a good comprehensive overview of the proposals on the table and what's at stake.

March 9, 2010

Oscar and Politics: "Washington for pretty people"

It's been said that Washington is Hollywood for ugly people; therefore, it follows that last weekend's Oscar night could prove the corrolary.  Witness the day-after buzz over Mo'Nique's direct, emotional acceptance speech after receiving the Best Supporting Actress award for her portrayal of an abusive, neglectful mother in the hit movie, "Precious." 

There was something about that whole setup that made me uncomfortable -- 'Nique won for an amazing performance in a remarkable movie, something that's not in dispute. I kept having trouble putting my finger on what bugged me, until I stumbled on Kate Harding's article in Salon.  That pretty much nails it.

Welcome to post-racial America, indeed.

March 3, 2010

Dangerous Bedfellows

I read this on Salon, and couldn't help thinking we've seen this combination before, circa 2003. Think Judith Miller, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the Valerie Plame affair and the "debate" over whether to invade Iraq.  Are we headed back to the future?

Ways, Means and Ends

TV and web sites have been all over the story of Rep. Charles Rangel, the influential chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, who handed over his gavel to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi while he prepares his defense to various ethics violations.  Indeed, Rangel could be seen as the very poster boy for political bad behavior: expensive Caribbean junkets paid for by corporations; a rent-controlled Manhattan apartment he sometimes used as campaign headquarters, a Dominican Republic vacation home he didn't report and generally sketchy behavior for a man leading a committee charged with writing tax law.

But while Rangel's crimes were obvious enough to get him caught, one wonders about other low-rent but equally distasteful, criminal scandals, and whether they should -- and why they haven't -- garnered more headlines. Ross Douthat of the New York Times tries to put it all in perspective.

Genocide? Ethnic Cleansing?? Really???

It's rare but not unusual for abortion foes to try and frame the fight over women's reproductive rights into an African American civil rights issue, but an alliance between conservative black Christians and pro-life advocacy groups have raised the stakes in recent weeks,  applying pressure to Congress and civil rights leaders.  That's coupled with a new documentary, Mafaa 21: Black Genocide in the 21st Century that claims the pro-choice movement deliberately targeted poor black women, with the goal of wiping the black population off the face of the earth before they make it out of the womb. Instead, it's prompted white conservative lawmakers to make ill-considered, apocolyptic remarks on the issue.

Slavery?  Genocide? If I were a conspiracy theorist on that level, I'd say the fast-food, liquor and tobacco industries have big head starts on that goal: African Americans suffer disproportionately from potentially fatal, yet preventable maladies like hypertension, heart disease, lung cancer and diabetes.  Mortality rates from obesity, cancer, heart attacks and strokes aren't as sexy, news-wise, as abortion, but the overall effect to an individual, family or community can be just as devastating.  

The facts on abortion aren't in dispute: black women represent only 19 percent of the American population, but make up nearly 40 percent of all abortion patients in the US, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the flip side of those dismal numbers are statistics showing African American teens are two to three times more likely than white teens to become pregnant -- with low-income teens especially susceptible.  Teenage mothers, in turn, are less likely to have access to quality prenatal care, much more likely to be broke and/or poor themselves and raising the their newborn children in poor circumstances, increasing the likelihood their offspring will add to another generation locked in a stubborn cycle of poverty.  Not to mention the disproportionately high number of out-of-wedlock births has been a chronic problem the black community has struggled to overcome.

The flip side of the debate came to mind recently while listening to my local NPR affiliate, which this week began an excellent three-part series on teen pregnancy.  WAMU's Kavitha Cordoza reports that after years of decline during the Clinton presidency, teen birth rates are on the rise again nationally.  While abortion is abhorrent to many, forcing young women to give birth when they aren't ready for it also has long-term consequences for them, and society in general.

The Christian right's attempt to use black America as a frame for their pro-life side of the abortion debate could have a ripple effect and influence the ongoing health care debate, creating a time bomb that could detonate just before the embattled bill crosses the finish line.  Adding a racial element to it is an attempt to push an emotional hot button for Democrats, and whipping up the Tea Party crowd and others on the far right.

Meanwhile, both the New York Times and the LA Times weigh in with some pretty good reporting.  The Times' link appears here, while its West Coast cousin's article can be found on this link.

March 1, 2010

the nuclear option

AMID the kubuki-theater politics that was the Bipartisan Health Care Summit, I thought the national media missed a significant but underplayed story: the decision by the Vermont state government to shut down Vermont Yankee, one of the oldest -- and perhaps most dangerous -- nuclear power plants in the nation. 

The Green Mountain State's decision to put the kibosh on the plant is significant; for years, critics point to the fact that the plant's been leaking radioactive, cancer-causing material into the ground, with football-sized holes reported in some of the pipes and a management company, Entergy, that's been called untrustworthy and unreliable.  The AP has a has a brief take on it here.

Why should we care?

Well, President Obama recently announced support for nuclear power, a glowing green olive branch to Republicans and a signal that he's willing to play ball to get the upcoming energy bill passed.  But there are very real doubts and a lot of skepticism about whether nuclear power is safe, and that could be trouble for the White House as it tries to get a bill past recalcitrant Republicans.
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