Friday, October 31, 2014

The Trouble with Orwell

Orwell saving a puppy during the Spanish Civil War
It is 30 years after Orwell's good bad back 1984 and the world hasn't exactly come to the dire state, which many felt Orwell "predicted" like some latter-day Nostradamus, taking this novel at face value.  It seems few have read his other books, like Homage to Catalonia, or his essays, which clearly outline a man who firmly adopted progressive causes.  Instead, there are many who somehow see him in the same vein as Ayn Rand and have adopted him as an ardent anti-Communist and neoconservative like themselves.

I say this because Orwell pops up a lot in conservative media.  Here is a writer for Breitbart using Orwell to defend the conservative view that the current mainstream media is state-friendly and is used to "reinforce the Democratic Party line."  A view reinforced by the conservative pundits at Fox News, the most popular news channel in America.  This writer sees the scandals that have engulfed NSA and PRISM as a product of a Democratic regime, failing to note that NSA was founded in 1952 and has been used by every presidential administration since to eavesdrop on Americans and foreign leaders.

Since Reagan was elected to a second term in 1984, the country has been in a strange state of flux, driven more by corporate interests than any particular political ideology. We've seen the rise of neo-conservativism and neo-liberalism, which more or less adopt this corporate view of the world that has influenced politics through successive presidential administrations.  Corporations haven't always been able to get their way, but thanks to a malleable Congress and a corporate-friendly Supreme Court they  have managed to shoot down attempts to contain their influence.

It isn't so much that one political party or the other has been able to establish dominance, as it is that corporations have been able to establish dominance in a way not seen since before World War II.  This is what Orwell fought against in Catalonia.  He was angered by the English and American embrace of Franco and his fascist forces, just as much as he was Stalin rejecting the cause of the Anarchists, who Orwell felt wanted to return power to the people.  Of course, he was critical of the Anarchists too, in their inability to come together on the battle front, but what can you expect.

Animal Farm, as illustrated by Ralph Steadman
A few years before his death, Christopher Hitchens tried to defend the Iraq War in Orwellian terms in his book, Why Orwell Matters.  Hitch saw his stance on the war as similar to Orwell's "power of facing."  Granted, Hitch had a far better grasp of Orwell than do many of the political pundits who evoke Orwell's name today, but his arguments fed right into the conservative "newspeak," with Hitchens himself writing a pro-war article for the National Review, which earned him the ire of the liberal media.

Orwell never saw himself as anything more than a pamphleteer, but his books have survived and have been passed down from one generation to the next in high schools across America.  Almost every American is aware of Animal Farm and 1984.  The books were used against the Soviet regime throughout the Cold War and now seemed to be turned against a "Democratic regime" in America, as depicted by contemporary conservative writers.  "Orwellian" has become an adjective to describe everything from NSA overreach to the Supreme Court's Citizen's United decision , often used as an epithet by both political sides to describe each other.

It seems very few took the time to read between the lines of these two allegorical novels, which have become so inculcated into our minds.  It's a good thing Orwell is not around to see how badly his books have been interpreted.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Hangover IV, or Bluto's Last Stand

It's like the hangover that just won't go away.  The GOP once again threatens to take control of the Senate, judging from the latest polls, which can only mean total chaos.  Even Punch-Drunk Mitch, who at one point was given up as roadkill, has surged in the polls and looks like he may very well be Senate Majority Leader if the Republicans can steal 6 seats from the Democrats.

What's worse is that we never have been able to shake off the Bush years, with things looking very much the same in Iraq as they did 6 years ago.  Sure, the economy has improved, but there is the malingering scent of recession that leaves most Americans feeling just as nauseous now as they were back in 2008, according to the infamous polls anyway.

America has become a nation of polls.  There seems to be a poll for everything, including ranking conspiracy theories.  We just can't seem to get over our fears no matter how hard we try.  This is due in large part to the barrage of attack ads launched by the Republicans blaming everything that is wrong in current society on the presidential administration, pushing the president's approval ratings to an all-time low.

So, with five days left before elections, Democrats have gone into panic mode, even calling on the President to stump for some candidates in embattled Blue states where he still might have some appeal.   It seems that after a long summer of allowing the Republicans to tarnish the administration's record, some Democrats are actually standing by his record, which has seen economic growth and an ever-decreasing unemployment rate since it's peak of 10.2% in the summer of 2009, defying the Republicans' worst characterizations.

Not to worry, Donald Trump says the real unemployment rate is as much as 20 per cent, calling the official unemployment rate "totally phony."  While, Mitt Romney calls the Obama administration "terrible!" repeating the same caustic laments we've heard so many times before.

It has gotten so tiresome that most voters will most likely sit home.  Even if the Democrats were somehow able to hang onto the Senate, with Joe Biden possibly providing the deciding vote, nothing would be accomplished in Congress, as the Republicans would still rule the House.  This after a record $4 billion has been spent on this year's midterms.

Staggering, isn't it?  No country in the world throws so much money away on political ads each election cycle, and, like our health care system, we don't get any more for all this profligate spending.  We still get the same petty politicians fighting for control of Congress, where they seem to make out like bandits.

Just look at Mitch McConnell, a 30-year Congressional veteran, who has an estimated average wealth of $23 million.  Not bad for a guy who officially makes no more than $193,000 a year.  He must have a pretty good financial adviser, as even if he had saved every penny since 1984 it would have been pretty hard to amass that sum of money on a Congressional salary.

Of course, he's not alone.  Half of all Congresspersons are millionaires, most of them becoming so while in office.  Sure, there are the books and other opportunities to profit on their experiences, but you have to wonder how these guys and gals get so rich so fast.  You can sort through their financial disclosure forms and find mysterious relatives and other sources of income to help explain the sudden boost in assets, but there still appears to be gaping accounting holes.

It's all part of the game, which is why so many persons want in.  You think those Teabaggers came there to save Washington from itself?  Louie Gohmert may be one of the "poorest" men in Congress, but it seems Open Secrets hasn't revised his profile in four years.  Give him time and he will be in the millionaires' club too.

Fortunately, our country seems able to withstand these elections.  I suppose all that campaign spending actually boosts the GDP in the same way a hurricane or other natural disaster does, but it would be nice if we could move beyond all the vicious mudslinging and actually talk about what would actually make things work better in government.  Unfortunately, that would only happen if you could get both parties to agree on a basic set of economic and social data, but alas neither side is going to let facts stand in the way of a good argument.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The world is turning ...

I often wondered if Neil Young took the title of this album from Nevil Shute's 1957 book, set in the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse.  This album has the same post-apocalyptic feeling as Neil and friends got high on "honey slides" and sang of lost friends, loves and an impending sense of doom, as evoked in his "Revolution Blues" which notes his brief association with Charles Manson, which he mentions in his autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace.

Neil opts for a casual tone in his book, moving back and forth in time in his first effort at penning his thoughts in prose.  He notes that it was his father, a Canadian journalist for the Toronto Globe and Mail, who told him to write each day, so what you get is a journal of moments arrived at in a haphazard way befitting his nature.  I've been sharing passages with my son, who has become a big Neil Young fan himself, grooving out to his hardest stuff with Crazy Horse, like Arc-Weld.  I particularly enjoy the passages where Neil talks about his relationships with his two sons.

Most critics point to Tonight's the Night, which directly followed the loss of two of his closest friends, Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry,  as his darkest and most inward focused album, but there is something even more haunting about On the Beach, with its wider array of acoustic instruments lurking in the background, as Neil digs into his soul to find the words to express his confusion with the times and his stormy relationship with Carrie Snodgress.

Like so many "hippies," Neil was watching that feeling that propelled the 60s fade away and a new era being born in the Age of Nixon.  He was uncomfortable with his growing celebrity and the types of persons that came into his circle.  You can imagine him and his closest friends around a fire on Topanga Beach playing these songs into the early morning hours.

Black Like Me

A football team struggles for two games on the field and all the sudden there's a "racial divide" in the locker room.  Not between whites and blacks, mind you, but between blacks.  According to Mike Freeman, an NFL sportswriter, Russell Wilson, the heralded young quarterback, "isn't black enough."  Freeman couches his own opinion in several interviews he claimed he had with Seahawks' players, not naming one of them.  This story was quickly picked up by the media and given veracity by other sports commentators, notably that of Charles Barkley, who as expected used the incident to tell of his own struggles within the black community.  Of course, Seahawk players denied this, but Wilson had the best retort, "I'm just an intelligent well-spoken male."

It must have been a pretty slow Monday around the NFL, if this is the best sportswriters and commentators could come up with to explain Seattle's "leadership crisis," but one has to remember that blogs have to generate interest just like newspapers, picking up on stories that they think will stir readers, and it seemed like Russell Wilson was an easy target for Freeman, who himself is black and successful.

Freeman presents Wilson as an "Uncle Tom," being too close to management and as a result earning the ire of his fellow black teammates.  Of course, Freeman is careful to say that this is what's wrong with the NFL in general, citing other black quarterbacks which he feels had similar situations.  Barkley goes further to say that this is a cultural thing and that blacks are "brainwashed" into thinking that a successful black is not one of them, calling it a "dirty dark secret."

But, why did one successful black person, Herman Cain, say during the 2012 presidential campaign that Obama is "not a strong black man?"  Maybe it was because Cain grew up in a  "poor but happy" black home in Memphis, Tennessee, whereas Obama came from mixed parents, and was raised by his white grandparents in Hawaii, if we are going to use these silly arguments.

Barkley had been Republican until he announced he would run for governor of Alabama as a Democrat in 2006.  Not sure where his political affiliations lie these days, but here he is interviewing President Obama earlier this year, principally about basketball, but also about gay rights and other issues.  He seems to respect the president, unlike Cain and more recently Dr. Ben Carson, who both have been harshly critical of the President.

I would have liked to have seen Charles dismiss the Wilson comments entirely, rather than play into the faux debate being generated around the league, and around the country for that matter, as his statement was picked up by the conservative media to support its view of a black underclass that has been "brainwashed" to vote Democratic.  This was Cain's sentiment back in 2011, when he first announced his candidacy.

Recently, we have seen the GOP make a big pitch to blacks, presenting itself as the Party of Civil Rights, and that it was Southern Democrats who instituted segregation laws throughout the South.  Of course, what contemporary Republicans fail to mention is that many of these Dixiecrats turned Republican in the wake of the 1964 Civil Rights legislation, supporting Goldwater and other Republican candidates in subsequent elections and doing their damnedest to overturn Civil Rights legislation.   Notably affirmative action, which has been a Republican pet peave ever since Title IX was passed in 1972, breaking down the barriers in education that finally allowed blacks to not only get an equal education, but equal sports opportunities.

The worrisome thing is that the current GOP uses blacks, like Kevin Williamson, who wrote the National Review article linked above, and Michael Steele, who briefly headed the Republican National Committee, to promote this revisionist history, in an attempt to undercut the support the Democratic Party has gotten from blacks ever since 1960 when John Kennedy thought well enough to call Coretta Scott King and offer his sympathy after Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested and held in an Atlanta jail following a civil rights protest.  Nixon did not call.  Republicans have long discredited this as a political move, but it was Kennedy, not Eisenhower before, who presented sweeping Civil Rights legislation that would be passed during Johnson's term.

So, here we are 50 years later trying to assess whether certain football players are "black enough" or black presidents "strong enough" to represent the race.  So much for the "Colorblind" society Reagan tried to promote in 1986, albeit a cynical attempt to overturn affirmative action.  I don't think Charles Barkley realized the "bucket of crabs" he stuck his hand into here when he chose to seize on the issue.  It's not blacks who pit themselves against each other, it is whites who pit blacks against each other, and have done so ever since plantation days, which ironically enough is very similar to the way college and professional sports teams are set up today.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

After the Silver Rush

Looking at the map of Nevada, it must have been Jarbridge I tried to find late one summer in 1988 or 89, taking an old logging road off the highway in Idaho, and working my way into the mountains of the Humboldt National Forest.  According to a story I had read, if you could find your way into the town you would get free lodging.   Unfortunately, the road became impassable after a certain point and I was forced to turn back.  I was afraid I would break one of the axles on my long-bed Ford Ranger.  I probably took the wrong approach.

Nevada is an amazing state.  I've covered quite a bit of it on my travels and was only disappointed this one time, at myself mostly.  I love tracking down these old mining towns and Nevada has many that are much easier to find.  The territory was initially part of Utah, until the Comstock Lode changed the map.  Virginia City, which figures heavily into tales of the Old West, became the epicenter of this silver rush in the 1850s. The Nevada Territory was created in 1861 and three short years later it became a state, much to the chagrin of Utah, which remained a territory.

From the start, this was a state of big ambitions, with much of the development focusing around the Virginia Range on the western boundary of the state.  With the damming of the Colorado River in 1931, the southern part of the state began to boom, or should I say bloom, with the population center shifting to Las Vegas in the 20th century.  The capital remains Carson City to the north.  Gaming became the new way to strike it rich in the state when the silver ran out.

Bugsy Siegel is the mobster credited for developing Las Vegas into the gambling epicenter it is today.  He saw the opportunity the newly constructed Hoover Dam provided for a small town like Vegas, a straight shot from LA.  He bought William Wilkerson's Flamingo Hotel and turning it into a gambling resort at an enormous sum of money and bribes.  He didn't live to enjoy the fruits of his labor, gunned down at his home in Beverly Hills shortly after the hotel was completed in 1946.

Vegas today is a far cry from the golden era of the 50s and 60s when the Rat Pack reigned supreme.  It was a stylish Vegas captured in the movie Oceans 11.  Gambling and entertainment went hand and hand, but not even Bugsy could imagine the scale to which Vegas has grown over the years, with its fabulous new hotels dwarfing the old Flamingo, which still stands in the heart of the city, although it has been greatly expanded in size to try to keep up with the other casino resorts.

In 1999, I stayed with my family in a suite in the Bellagio, unable to find any lodging anywhere else due to a tobacco and fire arms convention.  We pulled in our rented green Cadillac.  It should have been white, but the porter treated us just the same.  The lavish resort hotel and casino was featured in the remake of Oceans 11 in 2001.

However, to me the real beauty of the state still lies to the North.  This is where the mountains lie and where you can still feel the sense of the Old West.  On another occasion, I took Highway 50 from Reno, which has to be one of the most desolate stretches in the country, punctuated by three small towns of Austin, Eureka and Ely, all of which had seen their better days, but I liked it that way.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Throwback Sunday

The Steelers looked more like a swarm of bees on Sunday as they laid waste to the Indianapolis Colts in their "throwback" uniforms from the 1930s.  Big Ben had a big day throwing for over 500 yards in route to a 51-34 rout.

The Steelers were known as the Pirates back in 1938 and were led by quarterback Byron "Whizzer" White.  Art Rooney spent a ton of money in his day to get the All-American out of the University of Colorado.  Pittsburgh was struggling and needed a big name player.  White did not disappoint, but the Pirates struggled with another losing season.  Seems like White saw this franchise was going nowhere, and decided to take advantage of his Rhodes scholarship and study in Oxford.  He came back to play with the Detroit Lions for three seasons, leading the league in rushing all three years, before enlisting in the military.

When he came back from the war, he chose law school over football, graduating from Yale magna cum laude in 1946.  He returned to Colorado, where he practiced law for many years, specializing in transaction law.  In 1960, White actively campaigned for John F. Kennedy in Colorado and was rewarded for his efforts by being named Deputy Attorney General under Robert Kennedy.  When a Supreme Court seat came open in 1962,  Jack Kennedy elevated White to the highest court in the land, in which he served until 1993.

1943 Steagles
Art Rooney struggled for decades to build a strong franchise.  He changed the team's name to Steelers in the 1940's, but during the war years, the Steelers and Eagles were combined to form the "Steagles," with a lot of conflict between the coaches and players.  Pittsburgh later merged with the Chicago Cardinals to form the "Car-Pitts" or "Carpets," but this union was just as disastrous.

Pittsburgh came back to being the Steelers in the 1950s but didn't have much success.  Rooney drafted a young quarterback out of Louisville in 1955, but cut him in training camp.  The quarterback tried his luck at Baltimore, where he became one of the most prolific passers in the NFL.  I'm sure Rooney wished he had given Johnny Unitas a second chance.

It wouldn't be until the 1970s that the Steelers finally put all the pieces together in the "Steel Curtain Dynasty," which would win four Super Bowls in six years.  The most famous player of the indomitable Steel Curtain was Mean Joe Greene, who softened his image just a little for this memorable Coca-Cola ad from that era.

The Steelers were a team 40 years in the making, with Rooney using his winnings from the horse track to keep the team going during its lean years.  He passed away in 1988, but his family still owns the franchise and resuscitated the Steelers in the first decade of 2000 behind the mighty arm of Ben Roethlisberger and a strong defense, winning two more Super Bowls.  A lot of history on this team.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Myth of the Independent Voters

Recently, Stephen Colbert had fun with "Closet Republicans," those who consider themselves Independent, like "Papa Bear" O'Reilly, but vote Republican.  Looking at this breakdown of voters from the 2012 election, at least 50 per cent of so-called Independents voted for Romney, while 45% voted for Obama.  The other 5% went elsewhere.

It's hip to be an Independent.  Linda Killian identifies at least 4 types of Independent voters.  She has fun with monikers, tabbing The Facebook Generation and Starbuck Moms and Dads, which you could probably lump into a group of iVoters, with their affinity for iphones and ipads.   One assumes these iVoters to be largely Democratic, but probably also voted for independent candidates like Gary Johnson and Jill Stein.

Her other two types were NPR Republicans, who watch NPR and still affiliate themselves with Nelson Rockefeller. This must be a dying breed, as there are probably very few left who know who he was, much less watch NPR.  Lastly, America First Democrats, those who were lured by Reaganomics and still believe it would work if only the right guy was in the White House.  These two groups most likely voted for Romney, as Obama clearly wasn't their man.  A small number might have gone with Gary Johnson, as he ran as a Libertarian, which is closest to their way of thinking.  If Ron Paul had run as an Independent, they most likely would have voted for him.

I'm sure you could break Independents down further if you liked.  Guys like Virgil Goode, who ran as a Constitution Party candidate, and Rocky Anderson, who represented the Justice Party, were basically disgruntled Teabaggers who couldn't bring themselves to accept Romney.  

You also have the Socialist Party headed by Stewart Alexander, and the Socialism and Liberation Party headed by Peta Lindsay, a 28-year old activist based out of San Francisco, who may feed into the fringes of the Facebook Generation, but given her ideological views probably considers Facebook nothing more than a bourgeois tool used to placate the masses.   Besides, she couldn't have served anyway, as she didn't meet the minimum age requirement of 35.  Better luck in 2020, Peta.

It's nice to see that these far left and far right groups actually exist and get votes in national elections, but when you get down to brass tacks, you have two types of Independents -- disgruntled Democrats and disgruntled Republicans -- who hold their nose each election and vote for the Democrat or the Republican of their choice, and don't tell anyone afterward.

Like it or not this is a two-party system and both parties do a pretty good job of keeping it that way, by absorbing just enough from the left or right of their political spectrum to assuage most disgruntled voters.  An election is decided not by the Independent voter per se, as it is the Democrats' or the Republicans' ability to reach those disaffected voters, often to the left or right of their parties, as these persons would otherwise sit home for the election.

Obama basically won a battle of attrition in 2012, getting 3.5 million less votes than he did in 2008, but fortunately for him, Romney only got 1 million more votes than McCain.  These lost votes were those who stayed home, not switched to Romney, as the overall turnout was 3 per cent less.  This should be a lesson to any Democrat running for high office, as it illustrates the importance of mobilizing the base of the party, not playing to the middle with the hope of attracting disgruntled Republicans.  They won't vote for you.

Republicans realize this, which is why they continue to cater to the Tea Party, because they know this is their base come election time.  What they hope for each election is that Democrats will stay home, so Republican governors and legislatures in key states try to create as many barriers as they can with Voter ID laws and cutting back on early voting, in an effort to keep Democrats away from the polls.  

The number of truly Independent voters are very few, and have a set of core beliefs that keep them from joining the Republicans or Democrats.  Someone like Peta Lindsay isn't going to vote for a Democrat, but the Socialist and Liberation Party only got 8000 votes. 

The Tea Party would like to think of itself as Independent, but what they have done is conduct a hostile takeover of the Republican Party, "teabagging" incumbents who they consider Republican in name only, or RINO's, but their influence is rapidly fading.  Surprisingly, no such movement has emerged in the Democratic Party.

Occasionally, a troublesome candidate like John Anderson or Ross Perot emerges that cuts into the popular vote, and sways the electoral vote in states one way or the other.  In both cases, these were disgruntled Republicans who felt their party had lost its way and needed to be taught a lesson.  Anderson failed in his mission, as Reagan won anyway in 1980.  Perot succeeded, as he drove a wedge into the 1992 election, that definitely tipped the electoral vote to Clinton.  

In 2000, Ralph Nader was blamed for tipping Florida in George W. Bush's favor by pulling a small but significant number of votes away from Al Gore.  However, had Gore won his home state of Tennessee, Florida wouldn't have figured into the election.

While there is widespread dissatisfaction, it is very unlikely we will see a rise in a viable third party.  The period of shifting political parties was part of our antebellum past.  Ever since the Civil War, it has come down to a Democrat or Republican each and each election.  To register as an Independent, as many do, freezes you out of the primary voting process, which Teabaggers realized, maintaining their Republican registration.  Being an Independent is essentially a cop out, especially if all you do is complain what a "loser" you got out of the primary process.

Call them what you will, but it is pretty easy to identify who these "Independents" are and not worry about this mythical faction of voters.  All you have to do is look at the numbers and see that they are pretty evenly split between disgruntled Democrats and Republicans, with only a handful who chose to go their own way. 

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Decoding the Dollar Bill

Just when I thought it was safe to watch the History Channel, along comes a special on "decoding" the dollar bill with the theory that the Illuminati not only influenced the design of the dollar bill but have a secret hand in our politics ever since they were first formed in 1776.  It reminds me of those old "In Search Of" television programs hosted by Leonard Nimoy that lent credibility to every half-baked theory imaginable.  Now it seems, we have the History Channel.

Decoding the Past ran from 2005-2011, but remains in syndication.  This episode dates from 2006.  The producers seem mostly interested in the paranormal, but also have an obsession for "secret societies."  I thought one of the most amusing aspects of "The Secret of the Dollar Bill" was the attempt to link the Illuminati with the Founding Fathers by inferring that there was correspondence between Adam Weishaupt, the founder of this group, and Benjamin Franklin.  Weishaupt apparently wrote to Franklin but there was no record of Franklin ever responding.

Benjamin Franklin was a freemason, as were many of the leading American politicians of the time.  The Illuminati adopted much of the imagery of the freemasons, including the eye of providence, which is featured on the one dollar bill, but this all seeing eye dates back to Medieval Christianity.    By the 18th century, it had come to be a symbol of the Enlightenment and didn't necessarily refer to God in a Christian sense, but rather as benevolent guidance.  The Eye of Providence over an unfinished pyramid was designed in 1792, with thirteen steps and the date 1776 to represent the original states and the Declaration of Independence, suggesting the influence of the Enlightenment, not the Illuminati.

The dollar bill in question didn't first appear until 1935,  not 1862 as suggested in the television show.  Salmon P. Chase appeared on the first dollar bill.  In fact, Chase was featured on all the currency at the time.  One of the perks of being the Secretary of the Treasury.  The back was rather prosaic.  George first appeared in 1929, but it was a silver note and the back looked like this.  The US Mint kind of went overboard with the idea of "13," on the 1935 dollar bill, which has fed conspiracy theories ever since, including those who see Satan in the dollar bill.  I guess the stamping of "In God We Trust"  in 1964 on the bill was supposed to eliminate this suggestion, but sadly this theory still persists.

I understand that these conspiracy theories are great fun, but when packaged as "history," these theories become incredibly misleading.  Best to show reruns on the SyFy Channel.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Run, Democrats, Run

It's either going to be a huge victory for the Republicans are a major disappointment, as predictions now have the GOP with as many as 55 seats in the Senate.  It is hard to imagine a 10-seat turnover, but the Democrats left big openings with so many retirements, including Jay Rockefeller in West Virginia, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, and Max Baucus in Montana.  States not exactly friendly to Democrats.  All though, I will be glad to see Baucus go, as he was no friend to Democrats either, having tried to kill the Affordable Care Act in committee back in 2009, and was rewarded for his efforts by being named Ambassador to China.

This was apparently an attempt to give the Democrats a better chance of holding onto the Montana seat by having the Democratic governor appoint a replacement prior to the scheduled election.  Unfortunately, the little slight-of-hand gesture failed when John Walsh, the Democrat who took Baucus's seat, was run out of the election over plagiarism charges.  I see he also had his Master's degree rescinded. You can thank the New York Times, not Fox News, for breaking the story.

With so many Democratic seats on the line, it was going to be hard to hold onto the Senate, but it still seems that the Democrats can do so if they get out the vote between now and November 4, thanks to highly contentious governors' races.  In very few races does the leading Congressional candidate have more than 50 per cent of the projected vote, which leaves the seat still open as far as I'm concerned.  Real Clear Politics has 9 seats still considered toss-ups, and two "leaning GOP." To get to 55 the GOP would have to win all nine of those toss-ups.  As it is, they have to win 5 out of 9 to gain a clear majority.  However, controversial Republican governors appear to be dragging the GOP down in key states like North Carolina and Kansas.

The Democrats dug this hole for themselves by once again failing to set the narrative in these midterm elections.  They had the perfect opening late last year, when the GOP engineered a shutdown of government and failed to get any of their conditions met in a Senate compromise bill.  Then came the Spring numbers on the health insurance exchanges, which clearly favored the Democrats, but for some odd reason the Democrats haven't made the Affordable Care Act an issue in these midterms.  Nor did Dems stress that premium rate increases have been lower than expected.  Economic figures also favor the Democrats, but once again you see the GOP pushing tax cuts and deeper austerity measures, with Democrats doing little to defend the current numbers.  As a result, misinformed John Q. Public is leaning Republican.

Obama is at his lowest approval rating, largely because of the media over-inflating ISIS and Ebola, which the Republicans have seized on down the stretch, trying to get voters to forget about the positive job numbers, the success of "Obamacare" and the ever-decreasing annual budget deficit, all issues they were initially going to stress in these midterms.

Democrats haven't done themselves any favors by playing right into the hands of the Republicans by criticizing their own President.  Mark Udall appears headed for defeat in Colorado after all his bluster about how he is "the last person [the White House] wants to see coming."  He made a complete ass of himself on CNN.

While GOP candidates stick to the party's talking points, the Democratic candidates wander all over the place, often sticking their feet in their mouths.  Alison Lundergan Grimes has been a prime example of this, but the dissatisfaction with McConnell is so great in Kentucky that surprisingly she still has a chance to win.

Rather than making themselves prey to questions like whether they voted for Obama, they should be stressing the accomplishments during his administration, all of which the Republicans fought tooth and nail to defeat but failed, notably "Obamacare."  Sadly, the Democrats have let the Republicans off the hook, particularly in Red States, where Democrats seem to feel more comfortable running away from the President, despite Congress being far more unpopular than Obama in the minds of voters.

Obama isn't making it easy for beleaguered Democratic candidates, stressing his accomplishments where he is invited to join campaigns, but even here the press points to all those who left early, and not all those who were waiting outside to get a glimpse of the President, as it was standing room only inside.  Obama also made a nice little retort to Udall's claim, by noting that Democrats voted with him on all the major legislation that was passed these last 6 years.

The Democrats had the chance to set the narrative not once, not twice, but three times, yet failed each time.  Now they have to pay the consequences.  It is too bad for the President, as he has done all he can do defending his policies.  Alas, he has faced a very unfriendly media that simply refuses to acknowledge his accomplishments, and seems as giddy as the Republicans in the major turnover they have forecast for the Senate.  I can already see CNN's John King gloating over all those blue states turned red on his big screen, as he did in the 2010 midterm elections.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Human Drift

It's amazing how some things withstand the test of time like the safety razor.  Despite all the great technological improvement, many of which King Camp Gillette imagined himself in The Human Drift, the safety razor is as valued today as it was when Gillette patented it in 1880.

I came across a little biography of Gillette some years back and was amazed to learn of the man behind the razor, whose brand name still exists on safety blades today.  He had imagined a utopia, which he called Metropolis on the site of Niagara Falls designed to house millions and using the hydro-power to generate electricity.  It is very classical in inspiration, no doubt taken from the ideas of Etienne-Louis Boullee, who had imagined a similar structure a hundred years before in his Cenotaph for Sir Isaac Newton.

However, other instruments haven't fared so well, like the slide rule, which Newton would have used himself over 300 years ago.  It's an amazing device, which NPR pays homage to in this new series.  It remained in use into the early 70s before the calculator replaced it.

I remember having to learn how to use one for math class.  I still have my Dad's old slide rule, along with his Brunton compass, which is still made today, and a little mini sextant he used for survey maps of geological veins in Africa.  He would tell me stories as he taught me how to use his slide rule.  I still have all those instruments in their respective leather cases.

I still have my grandfather's silver-plated safety razor as well,  which I continue to use today.  My son was wanting a safety razor of his own, so I bought him a nice butterfly razor, which he is very happy with.  While technological breakthroughs have made slide rules, Brunton compasses and sextants obsolete (barring a zombie apocalypse), you still can't  beat the close shave of a safety razor.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

O Pioneers!

It is hard not to think of Nebraska without thinking of its greatest writer.  Here is a marvelous piece by Capote, Remembering Willa Cather.

I remember seeing a stage production of O Pioneers! and being deeply moved by its raw emotions.  I had read My Antonia before, and soon found myself hooked, like Capote was by the simple elegance of her prose and the way she was able to evoke so many feelings through her characters.  Much of it came from the fact that she had lived those experiences herself.

Her father dragged the family from Virginia to Nebraska in 1883, when it was still a young state, settling in the town of Red Cloud. named after one of the great Oglala chiefs.  Red Cloud was still alive at the time, living on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, in the aftermath of the "Great Sioux Wars" of 1876-77.  I don't know whether Cather took any interest in the famous chief, although it is hard to imagine not.  Upon his death in 1909, he was eulogized in newspapers across the country.

Nebraska had gained statehood in 1867, shortly after the Civil War.  It had been a flashpoint before the war when the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 split the western territory in two, resulting in a bloody border war between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions.  John Brown came to Kansas in support of anti-slavery settlers.  This was the prelude to the Civil War.

Andrew Johnson attempted to block Nebraska statehood because it had become heavily Republican.  He favored the redemption of the Southern Democratic states first, but Congress managed to force the issue of statehood on him before his end of term.  Much of the same sentiments that had fueled the Civil War remained in Washington.

Cather chose to tell the tale of the pioneers, those who took advantage of the Homestead Act to form a new life on the prairie. For the most part, these were deeply religious people, Lutheran and Catholic, who originally came from Germany and other central European countries, like Willa's parents.   Many of these early homes were made of sod as there were few other materials at hand. Eventually, these pioneering settlers were able to build more substantial homes and establish towns like Red Cloud.  They also celebrated the first Arbor Day in 1872, an attempt to break the monotony of the plains.

For some Nebraska is a state of mind, which Alexander Payne captured in his latest movie.  I think this is the way most people picture the state, although the film starts out in Montana and works its way East.  You do get breaks in the prairie landscape like Chimney Rock and Chadron State Park.  You can even come across big horn rams.  It's not all cattle and corn fields.

I imagine Truman Capote would be happy to know there is a Willa Cather Foundation and that her childhood home in Red Cloud is a national historic site.  Hard to say how she would feel.  She had settled in New York, with her long time companion Edith Lewis,  when Capote came across her on a cold winter day in 1942.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Brownback v. State of Kansas

Probably the most repellent of the Republican governors elected in 2010 is Sam Brownback.  He rode the Tea Party wagon into Topeka and has literally split the state in two with his divisive policies that have even led to Republican defections, which Jessica Williams has fun skewering in this segment, The Kansas Experiment.

Brownback combines supply-side economics with religious social conservatism in a way only a teabagger could do, and not surprisingly remains a darling in the TP, despite widespread dissatisfaction with the economic experiment he undertook two years ago by slashing taxes in an effort to attract new businesses and encourage existing Kansas businesses to hire more employees.  The result has been a resounding failure.

Of course, none of us should be surprised.  Businesses typically pocket their tax cuts unless there is an impelling reason for them to take on new employees.  Brownback offered none.  Again, no surprise, because I doubt old Sam expected them to.

The large revenue shortfall has resulted in major domestic cuts in health, education and welfare, while the state government continues to operate in the red.  This is a pattern that has repeated itself in many other states, namely Wisconsin and Florida, where 2010 elected Republican governors tried the same formula and failed as well.  In unison, these douchebags all blame the federal government, notably the 2012 fiscal cliff deal Republicans engineered in Congress, for their woes.  But, of course it is Obama who becomes the target in the campaign ads that endlessly stream on television and the Internet.

Amazingly, Brownback finds himself in a dead heat with his Democratic challenger, Paul Davis, both polling about 45 per cent of the vote.  Brownback still has the religious social conservatives on his side who seem to believe that Jesus trumps economics.  For a short while there, it seemed Davis was going to blow this race wide open, but then the attack ads kicked in, including this one linking Davis to strip clubs 16 years ago.  Oh no, we can't have that in Kansas!  Once again this shows just how effective Republicans are at making everything into a moral issue, except of course their own moral conduct.  It's enough to make a preacher lay his Bible down.

Brownback has a horrible record.  Walker barely survived a 2012 recall in Wisconsin and Rick Scott is more concerned about fans than he is debating Charlie Crist on the issues.  Yet, all three remain neck and neck with their opponents in these gubernatorial races, and I imagine at least one of them will withstand his challenger.   It doesn't seem to matter what your record is these days, your party's rank and file will stand behind you come hell or high water for the other guy has to be worse.

This kind of cynicism is so deep in our political body now that it seems impossible to root it out anytime soon.  However, we have to get past this ridiculous notion that tax cuts and austerity measures are the answer to all our economic woes.  The guys peddling these policies, like Art Laffer, have been widely discredited, yet here they are still promoting these failed ideas 30 years later.  The Laffer Center would be better served as a Clown Academy.  The only persons these tax cuts benefit are the rich.

States which have raised taxes and pushed for increases in minimum wage have (gasp!) shown improvement in their economies, especially as they pump more money into their respective economies through domestic programs.  This is something these supply-side conservatives are unable to come to terms with.  They give all sorts of evil names like "shakedown socialism," where the government is coming at you with a pitchfork and demanding your hard earned money for their own personal largesse.  Fact is this redistribution of money is the only method we have of ensuring basic social services like health, education and welfare.

It's not like these businesses don't benefit either.  After all, they draw their employees from state-supported secondary schools and colleges, and take advantage of a number of other government programs and subsidies as well.  Many businesses draw a lot of their money through public contracts on everything from new roads to new municipal and state buildings to distributing welfare checks.

In the old days, state programs were a great cash cow, and kept states going through hard times.  Not anymore.  If guys like Brownback, Walker and Scott have their way, many of these domestic programs would be slashed forever and persons would be left to scrap it out in a new privatized society where you pay directly for everything, often at much greater cost.

As it is, we have some strange hybrid form of social services that is increasingly hard to pin down, as cities lease services like parking meters to private contractors to make up for revenue shortfall but then find themselves paying exorbitant rates if they want to have free days for city events. They also often underestimate the actual revenue of these services in these long term leases, content to have large lump sums up front to meet immediate budget needs.

So it goes.

Some Like It Hot

So now we have "Sizzle History," a term apparently coined by USA Today.  Karen Abbott is in search of the salacious side of American history, offering up such juicy morsels as Gypsy Rose Lee, the brothels of Chicago, and now transgender soldiers and undercover women spies during the Civil War.  Granted, these are all interesting subjects, but it seems Abbott is relying more on where your imagination takes you than what history uncovers in these tales of the seamy side of American history.

I've had my fill of journalists turned armchair historians.  It is rare that one of the books offers anything new in the way of history or interpretation.  What they seek out is the sensational and package it in a way to attract readers, more often using secondary sources.  We have Bill O'Reilly (although it is hard to think of him as a journalist, much less historian) pitching his latest "murder mystery" in Killing Patton, which should be filed under fantasy but instead occupies four places in Amazon's current Top Ten History List, in two audio book forms, kindle and hardback.  It doesn't matter that Papa Bear's books have been universally panned by historians, they sell.

Among other best sellers that pop up on my amazon front page are Tinseltown, described as "an addictive true tale of ambition, scandal, intrigue, murder and creation of the modern film industry," and The Lost Tribe of Coney Island, "the incredible true story of the Igorrotes, a group of 'headhunting, dog-eating' tribespeople brought to America from the Philippines by the opportunistic showman Truman K. Hunt."  You can easily see such tales made into lurid movies.

Reviews are genaerally mixed.  Jonathon Yardly was attacked for writing a "sexist" review of Abbott's Liar Temptress Soldier Spy for noting that "at its less-than-best it seems (dare I say it?) to have been borrowed from the pages of a woman's magazine," calling the many uncredited passages "poetic license."  Karen was none too happy about the review.

One assumes the publishers come up with these catchy titles to promote sales.  Abbott's title is a direct take on a John Le Carre novel.  It does seem as though the murder mystery has become the new way of exploring history, since many readers are most likely unaware of the subject matter presented in these nonfiction books beforehand.  However, being an investigative journalist or political pundit (especially in this day and age) doesn't automatically make you a historian.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Nothing like a good plague to shake everyone up

The "Ebola Panic" is playing out like some bad made-for-television movie of the 70s.  A scare generated for no other purpose than to influence this year's midterms, as conservative pundits have been attracted to the outbreak like proverbial flies to shit, but mainstream pundits also hover around this faux pile of fears like fruit flies, fighting for their little piece of the action.

Of course, it doesn't help when the Center for Disease Control (CDC) starts questioning itself and rushes an infected nurse at the 11th hour to the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, to be given special treatment she apparently couldn't get in Dallas.  The given was a lack of proper hazmat suits in Dallas.  Nina Pham is reportedly in good condition.

However, the sudden move was covered like O.J. Simpson's slow moving "getaway" on television, with commentary every step of the way, which makes you wonder if these news channels don't have anything else to talk about.  Coverage has been at times comical, with CNN inviting Robin Cook, best known for his medical thrillers, to comment on a possible pandemic in the wake of this latest "outbreak."  After all, he wrote the book on the subject.

Unlike AIDS, which did reach pandemic levels in the 1980s, Ebola has remained contained, but still firebrand ministers find ways to make this "plague" God's way of punishing someone.  Politicians have brazenly linked Ebola to immigration reform, and demanded visas and flights from stricken African countries be cancelled.  Of course, the news media quickly picks up on these rants, adding more fuel to the fire.

It seems like Americans love a good panic.  News ratings have soared, with Shep Smith surprisingly offering a "voice of reason"on the media-induced hysteria.  It seems Shep has become the go-to guy at Fox to let everyone know when enough is enough.  Still, Shep made sure to link Democrats to the panic.

Yes, it is another political-motivated panic meant to elicit fear in the unsuspecting public, with much of the blame being foisted on the Obama administration.  Who else?  However, Shep failed to mention that Obama has reacted to the "crisis" much faster than did Reagan, who virtually ignored the AIDS pandemic until it was too late.  I guess dear old Ronnie was trying to keep the public calm in the face of the most pervasive epidemic in modern history.

Ebola pales in comparison to AIDS, in large part because the world health community has stayed on top of the viral disease.  There have been several outbreaks since Ebola was first reported in 1976, including this case in the United States in 1990, but each time health officials contained the spread, and it is very likely they will do the same again despite the much higher number of cases in stricken West African countries.

The problem is that when you see health officials running around in hazmat suits it can't help but stir up panic, and any number of conspiracy theories are bound to ensue.  However, it would be nice if we could keep Ebola out of religion and politics.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The End of the Democratic Party as We Know It, Part V

A new pledge just like the old one, 2010
2010 played out like a repeat of 1994, replete with a "Pledge to America."  In fact, this pledge was such a pathetic rehashing of Newt's 1994 "Contract" that you couldn't possibly believe people would fall for it, but they did.  It seemed as if the origins of the 2008 banking crisis had been erased from voters' memories and they were holding the Democrats personally responsible for the horrible economy.

Once again, the Democrats had allowed the Republicans to set the narrative.  Add to that a seemingly new force in politics -- the Tea Party -- which had risen to the fore by questioning Obama's birth certificate, among other crazy things, and threatened to hold Republicans accountable to religious conservative values by challenging them in the primaries.  It was like some Fox comedy show from the 90s.  It was hard to imagine any of this was real, but real it was, and Tea Party candidates were winning Republican primaries, knocking out "old guard" figures like Richard Bennett of Utah.  This was an even more radicalized Republican Party that made a list of demands on the 112th US Congress and brooked no compromise.

Where were the Democrats?  They held onto the Senate, but by losing the House in stunning fashion, they allowed the Republicans once again to set the agenda for the next two years.  The Democrats listlessly responded to the Republican attack ads.  It was like they expected more positive job numbers to come through as they promised, but unemployment continued to hover around 10 per cent.  As Bill Clinton had said, "It's the economy, stupid!"

Obama signs the Stimulus Bill, 2009
The "Stimulus Bill," which the Democrats pushed through in 2009, had stemmed the massive loss of jobs, but wasn't enough to reverse the losses.  It was more like a tourniquet tied around the bleeding leg of the American economy, and was vilified as another one of the big liberal "give away" programs Democrats like so much.

Mostly, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (as it was formally called) gave Americans another round of tax cuts, adding a payroll tax cut to the continuing Bush tax cuts.  It also provided home mortgage relief, small business relief and numerous other recovery-minded programs that did mitigate the damage caused by the banking collapse in 2008, but as Paul Krugman wrote, it didn't go far enough, as the economy needed much more money pumping through it to get it moving again.

Democrats expected that money to come from the refinanced banks, who were already reporting profits two short years later, thanks to the massive TARP bailout.  Instead, the banks held tight to their money, much more cautious to issue new loans and continued to foreclose on first time home owners at alarming rates.  So, the Federal Reserve was forced to make up for the shortfall by providing stimulus packages of its own.  This literally resulted in "tent cities," as many Americans found themselves homeless in the wake of the depressed housing market.

There was no "New Deal," not even a new language to evoke FDR's massive federal relief program of the 1930's.  Democrats ran away from any such talk.  They didn't want to be labeled as "progressive" or god forbid "socialist" by the Republicans.  What we now had was the pragmatic Democratic Party, looking like a first time home buyer or small business owner going to a bank for a loan, presenting his meager assets on the table only to be rejected by the loan officer.

The electorate demanded accountability, and the Republicans swept state legislatures and governor mansions once again, promising greater fiscal responsibility, ushering in austerity measures that did more to depress the economy than revive it.  You had the whole Herbert Hoover v. Franklin Roosevelt 1932 debate played out again, only this time Herbert Hoover won.

It was really hard to fathom how the Democrats lost this election, but it just shows what an effective media campaign will do for a political party as long as it sticks with its message.  The Republicans stuck with their message, the Democrats did not.  Democrats started apologizing for their shortcomings and promised to review the measures they passed, including the new Affordable Care Act (ACA), which made them look accountable for the crisis.  Politics is war.  Republicans understood this.  Democrats did not.

However, the Republicans didn't seem to know they had succeeded in pulling the Democratic Party to the right.  This was readily apparent when Obama agreed to extend the Bush tax cuts in late 2010, after the Republicans had won the midterms.  This is what they had been fighting for most strenuously.  They also pushed the Obama administration to present major domestic cuts in a superficial effort to balance the budget, but now there was a major revenue shortfall due to the massive tax cuts over the last seven years, along with a bloated military budget that was considered off limits.  New taxes were off the table.

Since 2010, the Republicans have set the agenda in Washington.  Even when all the apocalyptic forecasts for the health insurance exchanges failed to materialize, Democrats still found themselves on the defensive and are expected to lose the Senate in this set of midterm elections.  Similarly, the economy has improved but the media narrative is that it hasn't improved fast enough.  What Americans want is a return to the fast-paced economy that led to the crisis in the first place, rather than slow and steady growth which had once been the hallmark of American society.

Democrats have failed to come up with a narrative to match the times.  Obama trenchantly observed in the 2008 primaries that Reagan changed the trajectory of America.  Democrats have done little to alter that trajectory.  In fact, one can argue that Bill Clinton accepted that shift in American politics, and made it his own to the point we now have persons who identify themselves as Clinton Democrats.

But, what we have are Reagan Democrats -- a new generation of Democratic political leaders who have grown up under the influence of Reagan, and don't have a leading Democratic figure to match the aura of this Republican demigod, who remains fresh in many Americans' minds.  So, to one extent or another these Democrats adopt the message of Reagan.  FDR's New Deal, Kennedy's New Frontier, Johnson's Great Society are all part of the Democratic past, no longer even mentioned in political circles.

The best this generation has come up with "Change You Can Believe In," but the slogans seemed to run out in 2012.  Maybe, "The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same" would be appropriate, as Hillary Clinton is poised to be the Democratic nominee for President once again, unless someone emerges in the coming months to challenge her, like Obama did in 2008.

This is a political party that has done a very poor job of defending its legacy and it is for that reason that we see a very poor Democratic turnout in these midterm elections, with Obama reduced to a shadow of his former self.  You can argue that his presidency deserves more credit than he has gotten, but sadly Barack Obama failed to change the trajectory of America and we continue to live in the Age of Reagan.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The End of the Democratic Party as We Know It, Part IV

2007 looked much brighter with the Democrats back in control of Congress.  The big turnover in the House of Representatives showed that Democrats could still campaign on the local and regional level, but now we saw campaigns tailor made for the different regions of the country.  It was difficult to see how Nancy Pelosi, the new Speaker of the House, was going to hold this new majority together, but she seemed up for the challenge.

It was easy enough to rally around Hurricane Katrina, which had devastated the Gulf Coast.  The many deaths and slow recovery hurt the Bush administration, which appeared ill-equipped to handle the crisis.  Americans saw for the first time how badly federal domestic programs had been gutted.  The Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) had been rolled into Homeland Security and didn't have the funding to deal with the crisis on the ground.  As a result, many New Orleans residents needlessly died, and horrible conditions lingered for months afterward.

One of the first acts of the new Congress was to address this crisis with a major appropriations bill, but the $6 billion for hurricane relief paled in comparison to the $95 billion for the ongoing war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, which made you wonder where priorities lay.  However, the Democrats were able to attach a substantial increase in the federal minimum wage to the bill.

Unfortunately, the economy was in a tailspin with home foreclosures rising and a banking crisis looming.  Three years of a runaway economy had come back to haunt Republicans, who had pushed hard for deregulation and a lower prime lending rate to boost home sales, long seen as the primary mover in the American economy.  The deregulation actually stemmed back to the Clinton administration, who had freed up Fannie Mae, the largest home mortgage company in America.  Bank loan bundling was designed to lessen the burden of all the toxic loans, but now that lending practices were virtually unregulated, these bundled loans were bought and sold over and over again with the burden spread worldwide.

This kind of economic jerry-rigging had become the staple of both Democratic and Republican economic thinking.  We lived in a highly speculative market where you could make as much as 10 to 20 per cent on what were considered "safe" investments, resulting in one of the biggest economic booms since the 1920s.  But, like the 1920s it all came crashing down in September, 2008, with the worst banking collapse since Black Tuesday, 1929.  Blame was thrown everywhere, but the Republicans took the worst hit as they had presided in the White House and Congress during the boom.

Democrats were torn between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in the primaries.  Neither offered any bold new ideas, but Obama seemd to represent the "clean slate" Americans were looking for.  Bill Clinton didn't do his wife any favors on the campaign trail, often looking like he was running for a third term.  Obama even quipped at one point, he wasn't sure who he was running against.

It seemed that Democrats badly wanted a return to the core values of the party in the fallout of the international crisis.  AIG, the world's largest banking insurance group, was particularly hard hit and required a  massive federal bailout.  The Bush administration engineered the Troubled Asset Relief Program, better known as TARP, but many felt Democrats were better suited to impose the type of regulations necessary to hold these banks accountable for the huge federal subsidized loans they were getting.  As a result, Obama not only won the national election but Democrats took commanding control of Congress.

There was great reason to celebrate, but the euphoria was short lived, as Obama brought many of the same figures that had previously served Bill Clinton onto his financial team, notably Larry Summers, who had promoted deregulation in the first place.  Despite all the malfeasance in the banking and home mortgage industry, no CEO was held accountable, and these lending institutions were the first to recover, while many Americans still remained in unemployment lines.

Rather than deal with this issue head on, the White House and Congress essentially chose to kick the can down the road, offering a number of stop-gap solutions that eased the crisis but didn't present any long term solutions.  This was particularly astounding given that Democrats had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate when Arlen Specter switched parties in 2009 to support the health care bill being pushed through Congress.

Lieberman played both parties during the 2008 election
There was no unifying message in the Democratic Party, members began to splinter off and form "gangs" holding bills hostage in committee until they got perks for their representative states.  We needed someone like Lyndon Johnson, who knew how to cut through Congressional gridlock and get bills onto the floor for a vote.  Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate Majority Leader, didn't appear to have the stomach to do it, and Obama was too new to know how to put the bills in order from least contentious to most contentious to better assuage rival interests.

Probably the worst example were the deals struck to assuage health care bill holdouts -- Joe Lieberman, Blanche Lincoln, Ben Nelson, and Mary Landrieu, among others.  Harry Reid had previously handed the bill to Max Baucus, Democratic chairman of the Senate finance committee, who sat on the bill for weeks, letting his good buddy Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, pour over it in an empty gesture of bipartisanship.   This infighting played out on national television, with the media jumping all over the "Nebraska compromise" that was reached to satisfy Nebraska senator Ben Nelson.  The end result was a health care bill that Obama had to squeeze down the throats of House Democrats, who had wanted a single payer system, to get the revised bill passed before the Republicans snatched away the Senate seat vacated in the wake of Ted Kennedy's death.

As a result of all this turmoil, Republicans seized the momentum in the 2010 midterms, overturning the House once again and making it all the more difficult to govern the country.  It seemed as if Democrats hadn't learned any lessons from the 1994 debacle.  They once again appeared rudderless, with Obama now forced into making compromises he was ill-advised to make, such as extending the Bush tax cuts for another two years to get a handful of Republican votes to overturn the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy in the military.  Once again, the Democratic Party was a political party in shambles.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The End of the Democratic Party as We Know It, Part III

Al Gore went into hibernation after conceding the 2000 election.  He reappeared several months later sporting a beard, as though he had been on a walkabout,  but it turned out he had hid away in Europe.  The beard became the subject of intense scrutiny in the media, seemingly more so than the first 6 months of George W. Bush's time in office.

The Democrats had prevailed in a fight over the leadership of the Senate, thanks to Jim Jeffords splitting from the Republican ranks to join the Democratic Senate caucus as an Independent.  The general election had left the Senate equally divided 50-50.  This nullified Vice-President Dick Cheney's tie-breaking vote, which would have given the leadership to the Republicans.  It was a tough day for Trent Lott, who had long groomed himself for the position.  Jeffords was recently eulogized for this bold move, passing away in August of this year.

It was hard to gauge which way the Democrats would turn.  They suffered a leadership crisis, made all the more apparent when they refused to stand against the PATRIOT and Homeland Security Acts, Republicans put forward in the wake of 911.  There appeared to be little resistance to the "police state" the Bush administration was creating in the wake of the worst terrorist strike on American soil in history.  Congress and the UN Security Council had approved a resolution to invade Afghanistan and root out al Qaeda, which was held responsible for the attack, along with its Taliban supporters.

However, nothing prepared the world for Bush's next bold gambit to attack Iraq, claiming in an infamous "white paper" that Saddam Hussein still had weapons of mass destruction and was linked to the World Trade Center bombings.  Hussein had essentially been under "house arrest" ever since the Persian Gulf War, as the United States continued to enforce no-fly zones, impose heavy sanctions and travel restrictions on Iraq throughout the Clinton administration.  But, apparently this policy of containment wasn't enough for the Bush administration, which felt it had to rid the world of Hussein once and for all.  The UN Security Council wasn't so amenable this time around.  Bush took to the "bully pulpit" in an effort to convince the American people that this was a "just war."

As it turned out, it wasn't such a hard sell.  It was rumored that the White House struck a deal with Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle to deliver the votes the Republicans needed to carry the resolution 77-23, which was fast-tracked in the month of October, 2002.  Twenty-nine Democrats had crossed over to vote for the Iraq war resolution, including Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Joe Biden, John Edwards and Tom Daschle, despite the defiant stand of Robert Byrd, who had pleaded with his fellow Democrats to reject the war measure.

What made the matter worse was that the UN weapons inspection team had gone into Iraq and found nothing that suggested Hussein was hiding the weapons of mass destruction the Bush administration claimed he did.  Hans Blix, who was then head of the IAEA, had filed a report that was available to US Congresspersons before the vote, but apparently no one took the time to read it.  He later spoke on that report in January, 2003.

Al Gore made a defiant reappearance at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, saying that the United States had squandered the good will of the World in the wake of 911 by going to war in Iraq.

Fear had trumped reason.  Not so much fear that Iraq represented any real threat to the United States, but that the emotional weight of 911 still lingered in the minds of American voters, and that Democrats would be voted out of the Senate in 2002.  It turned out these fears were justified, as Republicans retook the Senate in November.  Daschle remained as the Democratic Senate Minority Leader, but he was powerless in the aftermath of this electoral sweep that left Republicans firmly in control of all branches of federal government.

At this point, the Democratic Party was rudderless.  It seemed no one wanted to step forward to lead the party.  It wasn't until August 2003 that Howard Dean emerged as a leading candidate for President.  The Vermont Governor defiantly stood against the Iraq War, which had begun in March, and garnered much attention among Democratic voters.  However, it seems the Democratic National Committee wasn't ready to see such a maverick politician lead the party, and actively pushed more recognizable figures to run.  John Kerry announced his bid for President shortly before the New Hampshire primary.  Howard Dean had lost an Iowa caucus, where he had been expected to win.  He didn't make his case sound any better when he let out this infamous scream in an effort to rally supporters.  The media jumped on it, and essentially drove him out of the race, making it clear sailing for John Kerry through the remainder of the primaries.

Political campaigns had become media driven like never before.  Television could make or break a candidate.  While most news networks made a minimal effort to remain impartial, Fox News had become the organ of the Republican Party, actively promoting GOP candidates across the country.  The Democrats had to fight for air space on the other major television news networks, even on MSNBC, which was emerging as the "voice" of the Democratic Party.

I have to hand it to John Kerry.  He tried to unite the Democratic Party, extolling the virtues of the past, but he was going up against a revitalized Republican Party that would use whatever hook or crook to get George W. Bush re-elected, even if it meant besmirching Kerry's military record.  This time the election came down to Ohio.  Bush had surprisingly carried the state in 2000.  Ohio is a traditional union state, which had long supported Democratic candidates.  Clinton had carried the Buckeye state in 1992 and 1996.  The Kerry campaign felt it could regain what the Democrats had lost.  Such was not the case, and Bush secured a second term, to the disquiet of the world.

Never in modern history had a President been so reviled abroad yet win re-election.  It was like the United States had entered into a new era of isolationism, resolute in its stand against Islamicism, which had come to replace the former Soviet Union as the number one menace in the world.  The Democrats seemed powerless in the face of the Bush White House, which felt it had won a mandate from the American people, winning the popular as well as electoral vote.

Ohio voters
The oddest thing is how so many traditional union labor states were now Republican, with Republican governors and Republican legislatures.  It was hard to pin down the reason for this shift in the electorate, as this had been the base of the Democratic Party for decades.  Jesse Ventura, a former wrestler and now Independent Party candidate had won the governorship of Minnesota in 1999 and made a brief run as a presidential candidate in 2004.  The same state that had given us Hubert Humphrey.

Electoral maps now broke down the national election by counties, and it became clear that the base of the Republican party was in the rural and suburban regions of the country.  If elections were decided by land area, Republicans would dominate Congress and the state legislatures throughout the country.  The only place where Democrats polled well were urban areas and a handful of traditional Northeast Democratic states.

Part of the reason for the huge electoral shift is the politicization of religion, especially among the evangelical sects.  For the most part these Protestant groups had thrown their support behind the Republican Party, as its candidates had made religious values prominent in their campaigns, often conflating these values with government.  Bush himself had held Bible readings in the White House, and often punctuated his speeches with Biblical references.

Mike Huckabee, a Republican minister, and also from Hope,
served as governor of Arkansas from 1996-2007,
and ran for President in 2008
What the Republicans proved very good at doing in the 2000 and 2004 elections was mobilizing this religious base, shrouding its supply-side economics and pernicious foreign policy in the cloak of Christian values.  This had been the strategy of Reagan, which led to sweeping electoral wins in 1980 and 1984, and carried Bush's father to victory in 1988.  As it turned out, the Clinton administration had been little more than a bump in the road.  The Republicans saw themselves commanding Congress and state legislatures for decades to come.

The Democrats tried to remain secular in their idea of government, holding to the rules and protocols of the Constitution.  However, Democrats could no longer rely on their traditional base of support without blurring the lines, and as a result the party shifted to the right in its attempts to regain votes it had lost in previous elections.

Democrats win 2006 midterms,
thrusting Nancy Pelosi into the spotlight
The war didn't turn out very well for George Bush and the Republicans, and the economy that had been surviving thanks to shock treatments by the Federal Reserve, seemed on its last legs by 2006, when the GOP took a massive hit in the midterms.  The Democrats had retaken Congress.   This was an amazing reversal of fortune!

Al Gore had finally shaved his beard but showed no interest in running for President.  John Kerry likewise took a pass, setting the stage for Hillary Clinton, who had risen to prominence in the Senate, after winning re-election in 2006.  There was also a dark horse, a young Barack Obama, who had only recently come into the Senate in 2004, but was quickly making a name for himself.