May 26, 2010

The enemy is who, again?

Former Maine Senator William Cohen, a moderate Republican, once said, "Government is the enemy -- until you need a friend.

Therefore, it shouldn't be surprising that Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is busily proving Cohen's theory.  Jindal, a 37-year-old governor and former rising Republican star, has been all over TV lately for complaining that the government he wants to downsize hasn't done enough to protect his state from the undersea oil volcano that's still spewing crude into the Gulf of Mexico.

Once mentioned as a presidential hopeful -- that is, until his incredibly wooden opposition response to President Obama's joint address to Congress last year sent his political stock crashing -- Jindal has become a real boy, if you will, in the days since British Petroleum's offshore drilling rig exploded, killing 11 and sending seemingly unstoppable waves of crude oil to his state's fragile shoreline.  

As the disaster drags on, Jindal has done yeoman's work before the cameras, criticizing the Obama Administration along with BP for a so-far lackluster response to a disaster that has no end in sight.  Though it's a crass, cynical prediction at this point, some are predicting that Jindal's new visibility and take-charge demeanor could resurrect Jindal's national ambitions, giving him the image of a fighter sticking up for the little guy and a defender of a fragile environment. 

Unless you look too closely at his recent past. 

Last year, from his Republican response to Obama's speech, came this gem: 

“… we need urgent action to keep energy prices down” including “increase[d] drilling for oil and gas here at home.”  He also believes that “Democratic leaders in Washington – they place their hope in federal government.  We [the Republicans] place our hope in you, the American people. …. We oppose the National Democratic view that says the way to strengthen our country is to increase dependence on government.”


Then there's this tasty slice of irony from an interview with Fox News in 2008: 

And FiveThirtyEight, a political web site, notes that during negotiations on the climate bill, Bobby J. penned a letter to the Department of the Interior practically begging for more oil wells off the Louisiana coast.

There's no doubt that government shares a big chunk of the blame here.  And the longer this crisis drags on, the higher the likelihood that the sludge will wash up on the steps of the White House.  Approval ratings for President Obama and his handling of this crisis are in the dumper, with the potential to sink to Bush-Katrina levels if BP doesn't plug the gusher soon.

Jindall, not to mention Palin, and other "drill baby drill" small-government Republicans, are again raising hypocrisy to an art form.  If the GOP pro-business conservatives had their way -- and they did, for eight of the last 10 years -- the current lax government oversight and cozy, old-boy relationship between the oil company and its (theoretical) regulators could be even worse.

Although it's hard to imagine how things could be worse.

Meanwhile, Rachel Maddow hits the mark again, explaining why the "experts" can't get a grip on the situation, reminding us that we've been here before and why there's no hope for optimism any time soon:

May 23, 2010

Note to Rand: this IS your honeymoon

In less than a week, Rand Paul, Tea Party darling and instant political celebrity, has become to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell what the Deepwater Horizon-Gulf oil disaster is to British Petroleum.

To me, the similarities are striking. Both Paul and the undersea oil volcano were fantastic natural discoveries that promised big yields (more mega-profits for BP; street cred for Tea Partiers who propelled Paul to Kentucky's Republican Senate nomination) despite big, easily-identified risks ("What if we have major drilling problem a mile down? What about Paul's inexperience and wacky Libertarian ideas?") that experts warned about way ahead of time.

Yet in both cases, what-could-possibly-go-wrong hubris trumped are-you-sure-this-is-smart reasoned analysis.  Sudden disaster ensued, and toxic material is now spreading unchecked across the environmental and political landscapes.

To further torture the analogy, neither BP's hapless scientists, who seem to be making it up as they go, nor McConnell -- the nation's top Republican and Kentucky's senior senator, who is obliged to back Paul -- seem to have any clue about how to plug their respective gushers and contain the irreversible damage. The relatively sudden, intense scrutiny now on him has led Paul to complain that he hasn't gotten the "honeymoon" he expected from the national media.

Dude: man up, or shut up.

It seems fitting, therefore, that, after stumbling through a manure-filled political pasture when he criticized the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Paul fell face-first into a fresh, steaming cow patty late last week when he slammed President Obama for criticizing BP.  I'll let the man speak for himself:

So many layers of insanity, so little time.

The federal government deserves its share of the blame here, but going after the president who harshed on an oil corporation whose appalling safety shortcuts cost 11 men their lives -- and unleashed what will probably end up as the nation's largest environmental disaster -- is arrogant, short-sighted, and politically tone-deaf. Not to mention just plain stupid.

Yet in my opinion, Paul could be doing the nation a huge favor by revealing his Libertarian, free-market views well ahead of the election, and in turn exposing the myth of Tea Party grassroots populism.  Those emperor-has-no-clothes revelations could be the first significant crack in the TP facade,  turning off mainstream independent voters and creating a firewall for nervous Democrats.

Indeed, if Paul's seemingly unstoppable gaffery does, as some pundits are tentatively predicting, sink his Senate campaign and the Dems pick up Kentucky -- a state that hasn't sent a Democrat to Washington in decades -- it could provide a boost to the party and create momentum that might enable them to protect their majorities in both houses of Congress.

And if you think Paul is giving McConnell Excedrin-sized headaches now, wait until the Washington punditocracy gets a good strong whiff of how he feels about pot.

May 21, 2010

Straight, no chaser

This intro to the Rachel Maddow Show is so awesome it has to stand alone -- explanatory video journalism at its finest.  Ms. Maddow, the floor is yours. 

Race to the bottom

Well, that didn't take long.

In my last post, I wondered whether any of the nuttier views of Rand Paul, Kentucky's newly-minted GOP Senate candidate, would come to the surface and resonate before this fall's general election. A day later, Paul raced from TV studio to TV studio in full damage control mode, trying to put out the fire he started -- with kerosene.

News that Paul repeatedly trashed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because it didn't exempt private businesses detonated a big stink bomb in his campaign, and the stench drifted south from Kentucky to Washington, enveloping congressional Republicans hoping to prove their Tea Party bona fides.

Paul's PR disaster also created an opening for Democrats, perhaps giving them the best opportunity they've had in decades to pick up a Senate seat in deep-red Kentucky.  At least in theory.  

To me, Paul's minefield tap-dance is the clearest evidence yet of the ugly racist undercurrent in the Tea Party that made him their poster child, enabling Paul to haul in buckets of cash to trounce Trey Grayson in Tuesday's primary.  It's also yet another example of Republicans' hamfisted obliviousness on matters of race (see: Lott, Trent; Sessions, Jeff; Steele, Michael; Wilson, Joe; ... ).

The Courier-Journal of Louisville, a city with its own scars from the civil rights movement, asked Paul about his views in April, and he told them on videotape.  But it didn't become an issue at all in the GOP primary -- even though the Courier-Journal refused to endorse Paul in part because of that interview (it didn't endorse Grayson, either).

That probably explains why Paul -- who vowed to "take back our government" on behalf of the Tea Party, and dared Obama, the Partier's prime obsession, to campaign in Kentucky -- had no qualms about repeating his critique of the Civil Rights Act at least twice in the last 48 hours, on NPR and on MSNBC.  As the story gained steam, news broke that Paul has held those views a long time, and hasn't been shy about making them public

By day's end Thursday, Paul had walked back his position to declare his repudiation of racial discrimination, along with his full and unequivocal support for the Civil Rights Act as written -- but not before he'd ordered up another round of stupid.  He issued a statement declaring the Act "settled law" and rejecting any suggestion he wants  to repeal it.

Whew.  That's a relief, ain't it, Mister Charlie?  

Though the ever-lingering Ghost of Jim Crow lit the fuse on this one, the Rand Paul stink bomb could obscure important points that the general population (read: white people) should think about, and give pause to any open-minded independent voters who are considering buying into the right-wing notion that government is the root of all evil. Ezra Klein raises a few of those points here, though I disagree with his conclusion that Paul deserves the BOD on suggestions he might have racist views.  Knowing how these things work, I'd be surprised if Paul, a wealthy Republican politician and a successful eye surgeon, has two black friends to rub together, much less socializes with any who aren't on his payroll.

When it comes to matters of race, unfamiliarity usually breeds contempt.

But for my money, Rachel Maddow trumps Klein with a cogent, important, intelligent, why-it-matters take on her show intro from last night -- the best big-picture explanation I've encountered all day.  I found her reporting on the intellectuals and politicians who argued in favor of discrimination during the 50s and 60s, including conservative icon William F. Buckley, to be particularly revealing.  And repulsive.

Personally, I wonder if this imbroglio will make much difference in the long run: it's happened pretty far ahead of the Kentucky general election, the state has a relatively small black population, white Kentuckians generally send white Republicans to Congress, and white Republicans typically have taxes in mind when they go to the ballot box, not the ongoing fight for racial justice.

Still, few things give white voters more discomfort than the perception that they might be pulling the lever for an overt bigot without the good sense to use code words in public -- "state's rights," anyone? -- or without the good taste to keep his views behind closed doors (see: Allen, George).

Given that, Rand Paul may pay a price for his racial hubris.  After all, if a black man with a Muslim name can win the White House, and Massachusetts can put a Republican in Ted Kennedy's old seat, then anything can happen.

May 19, 2010

Specter Deflector

According to broad swaths of the mainstream media, yesterday's Congressional primaries was about deep voter anger.

After all, Pennsylvania voters fired Arlen Specter -- the longest-serving member of the US Senate.  In Kentucky, Republicans voting to replace retiring Senator Jim Bunning, brought back Rand Paul, a hard-charging Tea Partier who wants to eliminate the Department of Education, for a second interview. And Arkansas voters sent a shot across Blanche Lincoln's bow, forcing her into a runoff to keep her Senate seat.

At the same time, Barack Obama went 0-for-4 in candidate endorsements:  putting the candy-cane arm around Specter and giving him a big thumb's-up didn't do much good against insurgent Democratic challenger Joe Sestak, a one-term congressman and former Navy admiral.  Perhaps sensing where this thing was headed, the White House purportedly tried to clear the decks for Specter last summer by promising Sestak a cushy gig in the administration -- if he bowed out of the race.

Sestak stuck to his guns, as it were, and Spector went down in flames in the Democratic primary.

That seems to mean most incumbents are in jeopardy, and the Democrats are in power, so most of the Democrats up for re-election are vulnerable, right?  And that Obama's juice is running dry, especially outside of Washington -- right?

Not so fast.

The real takeaway from the polling on what some were calling Super Senate Tuesday, seems to be that there is no real takeaway.  At least, not one you can paint with a broad brush.  There is some kernel of truth to the angry-voters-sending-a-message thing, but the big picture, to me, is a lot more nuanced.

Specter, for example, had a lot of real problems beyond a widely reported lackluster effort by the White House.  Stapling a bright blue D over the faded red R after his name didn't help him in a closed, registered-Democrats-only primary, especially after Sestak torched him by highlighting his a 40-year record as a party-line Republican who voted for the Iraq war, supported Supreme Court justices Samuel Alito and John Roberts, and backed Bush's tax cuts.

Dems may have heard Obama backing Specter in radio ads and robo-calls, but Specter couldn't run away from his four-decade record on the right, including his association with GOP policies that made liberals the angriest in the last ten years.  Add in Specter's political death-bed conversion to the Democratic Party, and not even JFK himself, rising from the grave and stumbling down Pennsylvania Avenue to cut a pro-Specter ad, could have convinced the base on this one.

Not to mention Specter is, like, 100 years old or whatever.

In Kentucky, Rand Paul had a lot of money, a great image and was probably the truest expression of the so-called "angry voter" -- it was a GOP primary, the Republican base is sharply divided, and no Democrat has won federal office there in decades.  Given that, it perhaps is no surprise Paul soundly defeated Trey Grayson, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's hand-picked successor for Bunning.

In his victory speech, Paul vowed to "take back our government" -- though it remains unclear who took his government away, or why -- by thrashing whomever the Dems put up against him, and followed up by double-dog-daring the president to campaign in the Bluegrass State.  It will be interesting to see whether the nuttier elements of Paul's far-right message will resonate in the general election this fall.

As for Lincoln the incumbent, she won the primary relatively comfortably but couldn't scrape together the 50 percent of the vote to avoid a June runoff against fellow Democrat Bill Halter, the Arkansas lieutenant governor.  But that's largely because DC Morrison, a conserva-Dem, tripped her at the finish line: he jumped into the race and siphoned off nearly 13 percent(!) of the vote.

Yet what may go overlooked was the only straight-up, non-intramural, red-versus-blue election.  In Pennsylvania's 12th district, Democrat Mark Critz walloped Republican Tim Burns by double-digits, seizing the House seat once held by the late Jack Murtha. That win for the Dems came in a conservative-leaning district that Republicans spent a lot of money trying to take.

Coupled with generic polls that show voters still think Congress should remain in Democrats' hands, an improving economy and a slight but steady uptick in Obama's poll ratings, the win in Pennsylvania 12 should help Democrats, especially those in the White House, sleep a little easier after the Specter debacle.

May 18, 2010

Day of Reckoning

Today, we get what many are considering a preview of the upcoming fall midterm elections -- and an acid test of the strength of the Tea Party, not to mention progressive Democrats' ability to push their party further to the left.

The Washington punditry -- which I try to avoid, whenever possible -- has it that the primaries in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Arkansas and Pennsylvania all are bellwethers that can tell us whether voter discontent will help drive incumbents out of office, as well as further calcify the already rigid red-blue divide.  Watch out, they tell us, for angry hordes storming the ballot box to deliver a message about rising deficits, taxpayer bailouts and a negative referendum on the not-so-new-anymore Obama administration.

Or something.

Rachel Maddow, one of my go-to sources, validates something I've always long suspected: the Beltway punditocracy is a collective ass. Well, maybe not an ass, but certainly not thinking very broadly or creatively about this whole midterm-election thing.

Her key to understanding today's election results:  turnout.  Take it away, Rachel!

May 4, 2010

Oilpocalypse Now

President Obama's "Katrina"?

Has a nice ring to it, especially on the right. While it's easy to pin the tail on this particular donkey, the analogy seems flawed, especially when you examine some key differences.

For openers, Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster, President Bush was fully informed about the scope of the potential disaster from Katrina, and had ample warning that the worst-case scenario could happen, with accompanying, large-scale loss of life.  Second, the Bush administration cut the Army Corps of Engineers budget to maintain a flawed levee system that dates back decades.  Third, there were real people calling for help from their govenrment -- on live TV in many cases -- as the White House stumbled.

By contrast, when the oil disaster first broke, British Petroleum was slow to 'fess up about how bad things really were.  In fact, government monitors were first to sound the "uh-oh" alarm when they first realized that more than 5,000 barrels of oil was spurting from the well each day -- more than double BP's original assessment of 1,000 barrels per day.

And while we know that global warming made what would have been a relatively sane Category 2-3 hurricane in Katrina into a deadly Category 3-4 hurricane, the oil rig disaster was a man-made deal, due largely to human error and an oil giant's arrogance about its technical capabilities.

Not to mention that the White House -- probably pretty mindful of the Bush Administration's ineptitude on Katrina relief -- has kicked things into high gear, and made a high-profile presence almost immediately after the scope of the disaster became clear.

Nevertheless, this by no means is a disaster under control: oil is still pouring unchecked into the Gulf, shorelines from Louisiana to the mid-Atlantic are bracing for slicks, and the increasingly fragile environments will likely be ruined, for perhaps generations.  The disaster has the potential to wreck lives in ways not seen since 1989 -- or maybe 1979 , or 1986, or ... well, you get the idea.

The BP well disaster was not insignificant, its cause has yet to be determined and, like Katrina, the damage will likely echo across decades.  But for me, the analogy pretty much stops here.
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