Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Is Jon Runyan Qualified to be a Congressman?

Recently, Jon Runyan held his first press conference.  According to the Press of Atlantic City, he outlined his approach, which is not much different than the 1994 Republican Contract on America.  Runyan’s eight-point plan is to enact eight specific tax cuts.  Even though it has been proven time and again that tax cuts simply increase the deficit and don’t create jobs, Runyan’s platform is a Bush-like gift to corporations and the wealthiest Americans.

To balance the budget, Runyan calls for cutbacks in discretionary spending, but he names not a single program that he would cut.  And he calls for cutting back government employment to what he calls the “pre-Obama” levels, despite the fact that historically government has grown under Republican administrations.  (According to the US Office of Personnel Management, there are 16% fewer government employees now than there were at the end of the Reagan administration, even though the US population has grown 25% since then.)

Runyan exempts defense spending from his cuts, despite the fact that our Middle East oil wars have cost us over a trillion dollars since 2001 and we have troops deployed all over the world.

So unless the former dirtiest player in the NFL provides more specifics about his platform, we can only conclude that he is simply parroting Tea Bag talking points and there’s no substance to his approach.  I’m sure that if he is elected, he won’t be the craziest person in Congress.  After all, Michele Bachmann, Steve King, and Louis Gohmert have had a head start.  This year, the voters in New Jersey’s Third Congressional District will choose between a 300 pound Sarah Palin clone and a moderate Republican disguised as a Democrat.  We deserve better.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Killing Bees with Machine Guns

When you have an 800 pound gorilla in a room, a shotgun may not be enough to solve the problem, and in fact could exacerbate it if he gets mad at you.  There are other weapons you can use that are more effective, but the solution is a bit more drastic.  An automatic machine gun with a large supply of rounds would be enough to eliminate the threat.  But now, assume that in addition to the gorilla, there is a large swarm of killer bees in the room with you also.  The machine gun is useless against this threat, and another weapon must be found.

This is analogous to the problem Americans face today.  Our states and the nation are facing unprecedented financial difficulties.  But even though the threats are similar and the problems at the state and national levels are related, the weapons we must use to kill off these threats must be different.

For the most part, we are attacking both problems around the edges and have not been effective in executing an effective frontal attack on these threats.  At both the national and state levels, special interests, lobbyists, and timid politicians have so far been unwilling to make the tough, effective decisions that will rescue us from this financial abyss.

At the federal level, the stimulus package that was passed at the beginning of the Obama administration was a good start, but also was insufficient.   The size of the package was enough to stop the free fall, but it has not yet turned the economy around.  Because of the objections that Republicans raise at any suggestion to increase the number of “government jobs”, much of the stimulus money was funneled through for-profit corporations.  And to placate the uncompromising Republicans, tax cuts that would elate Ronald Reagan were included in the bill, unnecessarily increasing the federal deficit.

Not surprisingly, the same people who promote these deficit-inducing tax cuts rail against increasing the deficit when the benefit is going to the lower and middle classes instead of their own pockets.  We do need a second stimulus package to help the poor and middle class (including the extension of unemployment benefits which is being vigorously opposed by the compassionate callous conservatives.)  As Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman points out, an increase in government spending is the only way to avoid a long and painful Depression.

But given that an effective stimulus package will increase the deficit, it does not mean that we have a blank check.  We need to look at existing spending – nothing other than the Social Security and Medicare mandates are sacrosanct – and ensure that new spending goes directly to job creation and economic growth.  Ronald Reagan and George W Bush have amply demonstrated that tax cuts don’t solve the problem, so another approach is needed.

This means tough choices must be made to rescue the country, and bold action must be taken.  Up to now, the Defense budget has been immune to fiscal restraint and in fact continues to grow without critical evaluation of the overall effect on the economy.  Parts of the Defense budget are stimulative and, in fact, do create jobs, even if they are jobs of last resort for some workers who would otherwise be unemployed.  But the 800 pound gorilla these days is the oil war in the Middle East.  Not only don’t we have a viable exit strategy, but the justification for being in these wars is dubious.  The threat from Al Qaida in Afghanistan is minimal, and the war in Iraq is nonsensical.  The President should accelerate bringing those troops home now, and provide them with a soft landing by creating jobs here in the United States where the veterans can contribute to rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure and regain our technological leadership.  Never again should the budget for wars be subject to tricky accounting that hides their financial impact from the American taxpayer.  Ending these wars is the most effective way to reduce our deficit – why are the deficit hawks in Congress ignoring this obvious fact?

But that’s just the beginning.  We need to critically examine our military procurement.  The Obama administration made a good start with the F-22, by cancelling a program that would build an aircraft designed to fight a non-existent Soviet Union.    A critical examination of the Defense budget is bound to reveal more programs that could be cancelled or postponed without seriously impacting national security.

We should also look at our deployment of troops overseas.  Since the end of World War II, we have had tens of thousands of troops in Germany and throughout Europe and the rest of the world.  Now that other global economies are becoming as strong as or stronger than our own, it’s time for those countries to assume a bigger share of the burden of national security.  Yes, there’s a viable threat in Korea, and we should carefully consider our treaty obligations there.  Similarly, we should use our military and economic assets to ensure that Israel is allowed to thrive amidst her hostile neighbors.  But elsewhere in the world we need to do an intelligent trade-off between our economic woes at home and insisting on security self-sufficiency abroad.  Our security as a nation is not just a factor of our military power, but equally of our economic strength.

So to meet these challenges at the federal level, we must have more stimulus in the form of direct short-term government spending, be wary of tax cuts, and make a holistic and critical examination of existing programs including Defense.  While this is a good roadmap for solving the federal budget problems, it is obviously not relevant to fixing similar problems here in the State of New Jersey.

For starters, unlike the federal government, the state cannot sustain deficit spending.  Yet, projections show the state deficit, which is over $2 billion this fiscal year, to be increasing dramatically.  While next year’s budget, which must be approved by June 30, is starting to gel, whether or not there is an impasse resulting in a shutdown of state government, it is clear that Governor Christie’s approach is already a failure.  Constitutionally-mandated tax caps and Bush/Reagan tax cuts, which are being pushed by the Governor, are recipes for disaster as demonstrated in California, Massachusetts, and elsewhere.  And Christie’s budget includes tax increases in the form of fees and increased burden on municipalities while cutting taxes for millionaires.  While the federal government has a big opportunity to save money by eliminating unnecessary wars, is there unnecessary spending in the state that provides an equally rich target?  Certainly.

New Jersey has twenty one counties.  But it has over six hundred school districts and almost as many independent municipalities.  While this problem is generally recognized, as with the current federal approach, tiny solutions around the edges are being implemented instead of a full frontal assault.  While it is in the self-interest of the thousands of elected officials throughout the state to maintain the status quo, it is in the interest of taxpayers to aggressively consolidate functions such as emergency services and school districts into one per county.  Providing services at the county level eliminates duplication of highly paid management, and invokes economies of scale in procurement, and standardization of procedures, and avoids overlaps.  Similarly, consolidating the state into 21 school districts provides the opportunity for significant savings to the taxpayers.  If Emperor Christie really wants to solve the state’s financial problems, he should promote consolidation as vigorously as he attacks the middle class.  And by the way, bring back the millionaire’s tax so that those 16,000 New Jerseyans participate in the “shared sacrifice” that the rest of us 8.7 million citizens are enduring.

So while the problems on the state and federal levels seem similar, the solutions are unique.  It will take courage on the part of Barack Obama and Chris Christie to make these disruptive but necessary changes.  To date, neither has shown he possesses that courage.  The President has given undue deference and influence to the extremists in the Republican party and has received nothing in return.  The Governor is simply parroting the Reagan/Bush economic policies that got us into this situation in the first place.  So far, we are attacking both the gorilla and killer bees with water pistols.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Commotion by the Ocean

How do we rescue America from the scourge of the corporate-funded Tea Party extremists? We took a big step in 2008 by electing Barack Obama, but need to sustain that momentum over time. To do this, it is important to leverage the excitement generated by the Obama campaign and promote progressive values at all levels of elected government. As in 2008, we need to have involvement, participation, and enthusiasm at the grass roots level.

Democracy for America is an organization that is actively working toward those goals. Founded by Governor Howard Dean, DFA promotes progressive candidates, primarily in congressional and municipal races.

This past weekend, I attended a DFA-sponsored Campaign Workshop in the heart of Red New Jersey – Ocean County. The approximately 50 attendees represented diverse demographics, all with a desire to promote a progressive agenda. Many of the participants were themselves candidates for office at the county and municipal level.

All of the facilitators were experienced political operatives who have worked on campaigns across the country.

Jim Dean (Howard's Brother and head of DFA) kicked off the meeting and introduced two guests, New Jersey Assemblyman John Wiesnewski and Congressman Rush Holt. Wiesnewski is the Chair of the State Democratic Party, and not surprisingly spoke about the accomplishments of his party. Holt, one of the more progressive members of Congress, discussed lessons learned from his various electoral campaigns.

Topics covered during the general and breakout sessions included:

• Field Planning and Strategy
• Developing Campaign Messages
• Voter Contact
• Campaign and Event Planning
• On-Line Organizing
• Fundraising
• Budgeting
• Get Out the Vote and Vote by Mail

For a political novice like me, the sessions were like drinking from a firehose. The information was plentiful, on point, and credible. Certainly, anyone running for office, no matter how far down in the political food chain, should consider participating in one of these workshops. While I don’t yet know if I will get involved much beyond this blog, I left the meeting energized and happy to have been in the company of such smart people with left-leaning views.

In today's political environment, where style often trumps substance, it is important that voters don't squander their constitutional right (or is it really an obligation?) to vote and become part of the solution. I was surprised that many of my friends and colleagues back home were unaware of the recent primary elections and did not take advantage of expressing their views through the ballot box. Unfortunately, today the electoral process has been hijacked by the corporate interests and party bosses. It is everyone's responsibility to not just be aware of the issues, but also to become more savvy on the process, and actively participate in it.

On Sunday morning, Rosi Epthim, Editorial Director of Blue Jersey, sponsored a blogger's breakfast.  Blue Jersey is a great place to go to find out what some of the hot issues are in Trenton – and you'll find coverage you won't get in your local newspaper.  Rosi's notes from the breakfast are here.

Memorable Quotes from the Workshop:

“Soon is not a time.”
“Never start a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.”

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Impeachment of President Barack Obama

The Tea Party and their Republican acolytes have made no secret of their visceral hatred of our President, just like they demonstrated a similar antipathy toward Bill and Hillary Clinton in the 1990s.  Back then, the GOP dragged the country through a witch hunt against President Clinton and spent tens of millions of taxpayer dollars impeaching him, despite the fact that they knew  the Senate would not convict on their trumped-up and frivolous charges that fell orders of magnitude short of the constitutionally prescribed “high crimes and misdemeanors.”  Now, if the Republicans take control of the House of Representatives in the mid-term election (a highly possible scenario), history is about to repeat itself.

Facts and the welfare of the country are of no concern to the Republicans.  Neither is patriotism.  Their primary motivation is political power to enable them to serve the interests of their corporate sponsors and wealthy donors at the expense of the middle and poorer classes, labor unions, and minorities.

Additionally, the Republicans have shown that when they do lose elections, they have no respect for the electorate.  Besides the superficial charges that they used in the Clinton impeachment, their GOP-appointed Supreme Court disallowed the accurate counting of the Florida vote in 2000, essentially appointing George W Bush president without ascertaining the real will of the voters.  In California, they successfully recalled Governor Gray Davis, whose troubles can be traced directly to the shenanigans of Bush pal Ken Lay and Enron.  Even today, the Republican Tea Party is unconstitutionally trying to recall New Jersey’s Senator Robert Menendez – not because he committed any crime, but because they don’t like his voting record.  It should be noted that this disrespect for the electoral process is not reciprocal – the Democrats had compelling evidence of actual high crimes and misdemeanors of the Bush/Cheney administration, but no serious impeachment initiative was ever considered, nor are there likely to be indictments for some of the more egregious actions like the outing of a covert CIA agent.

The Republicans’ misuse of the filibuster and their stonewalling on even the noncontroversial presidential appointments further demonstrate the GOP’s disdain for government in general and Mr. Obama in particular.

No doubt, one of the reasons the Republicans are desperately trying to regain their majority in the House of Representatives is the fact that that is the chamber where impeachment proceedings must originate.  The focus of the impeachment initiative is likely to be California representative Darrell Issa, who was the force behind the recall of Governor Davis.  Issa is an ambitious, telegenic Republican who craves power and would love nothing more than to become the center of attention in an Obama witch hunt.   As in 1998, while there might be enough votes in a Republican-controlled House for impeachment, it is highly unlikely that there would be enough votes in the Senate for conviction.  The Republicans’ goal would not necessarily be removing Obama from his post – after all, if that happened, Joe Biden would be president, and a president with the cojones to fight for Democratic principles is not what the GOP would necessarily want.  On the other hand, that scenario would put a Republican House Speaker John “Hell No We Can’t” Boehner next in line for the presidency – a horrifying scary thought.

Nevertheless, if the Republicans regain the majority, Issa and his cabal of corporatists would use their newly-acquired subpoena power to harass and intimidate the president and his staff, thus diverting their attention and deflecting the progress and change people voted for in 2008.  It’s sad enough that the Republicans are abusing their minority power in the Senate – if they regain control of the House, things will be a lot worse.

Despite their hollow claims of fiscal frugality, the Republicans’ investigation of the Clinton administration cost the taxpayers over $80 million.  If the “party of no” regains a majority in the House, the 21st century repeat of their misguided pranks is bound to run into the hundreds of millions.

It will be difficult to stem the tide of Republican gains in the mid-term elections.  Historically, the party in the White House loses a significant number of seats.  What’s different this time is the takeover of the Republic party by the lunatic fringe of the Tea Partiers.  Despite his failings, we need to allow the President to move forward with his agenda and become well-positioned for a second term.  For the sake of our children and grandchildren, it is imperative that Democrats and moderate Republicans work to be sure the GOP tea partiers don’t hijack our country and the values we all cherish. 

Monday, June 21, 2010

So What Do Republicans Stand For, Anyway?

Over the past decade, the Republic Party at the national level has moved further to the right, and has become very effective as a well-coordinated bloc of obstructionists.  While the Democrats have managed to plod through their agenda with a diversity of views ranging from socialist (not a dirty word) Bernie Sanders to über-blue-dog Blanche Lincoln, the GOP solidly votes “no” on every national initiative – even those that it originally proposed.  The moniker “Party of No” is well-deserved.

So while it is clear that the Republicans are AGAINST everything the Obama/Pelosi/Reid administration proposes, it suggests the question, “what are the right-wingers actually FOR?”

We can answer this question by the process of elimination.  By looking at what the GOP is AGAINST, we can sift out what remains and determine what it is FOR.

Clearly, the righties are AGAINST the common people.  They eviscerated the Nixonian approach to Health Care and voted AGAINST health care for 40 million Americans.  Even though Health Insurance Reform passed, the Republicans vow to repeal this life-saving legislation in the next Congress.  And along the lines of life-saving legislation, the Republicans are AGAINST environmentally friendly legislation and the regulations that place the safety of workers on equal par with the dividends of shareholders. 

Looking at the rights of Americans, these too are not on the GOP’s agenda.  They are AGAINST the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of rights when it comes to marriage, and AGAINST a woman’s right over her own body (although some Republicans are tacitly FOR violence against abortion providers).

Republicans are also AGAINST creating jobs, as evidenced by their solid NO vote on the stimulus package.  And for those people who are out of a job, the right is AGAINST providing them with extended unemployment funding which would pour money back into the economy.

The Republic Party line argues that it is AGAINST many of the initiatives that help Americans because the party is the one of "fiscal responsibility."  Yet, its minions are FOR budget-busting wars of choice in the Middle East, and the current deficits have ballooned under Republican presidential leadership.  And while they continue to espouse their demonstrably harmful “trickle down” economic policies, the real tax cuts have been for the wealthy (the repeal of the estate tax on the national level for the top 0.5% of the population, and the failure to renew the “millionaire’s tax” here in New Jersey.)

So what’s left?  Well, the Republicans are FOR the death penalty.  Despite their mantra of the “sanctity of life”, the righties (and unfortunately many Democrats) would rather see a few innocent people put to death by the state than ban this cruel and unusual punishment as has been done in most of the civilized world.  This stance puts the United States in the same category as Iraq, Iran, Syria, North Korea, and the Palestinian Authority.  That seems to be what the right wing is FOR.

Real Energy Independence Means Clean Energy

My opinion piece, below, was published in the Burlington County Times on June 21, 2010

There are multitudes of lessons noted from the BP oil spill, but so far there are very few lessons learned. One of these is the reality that when commercial for-profit corporations are handling toxic substances, they tend to put shareholders’ interests ahead of those of the general public and the environment. This is not necessarily malicious or evil; it’s just a fact of life in corporate America. Recently, we have seen this misplaced priority resulting in unnecessary deaths not only in the oil industry, but also in the Massey and other coal mine disasters.

There’s an ongoing debate within our political sphere and among the talking heads on the cable news channels on the trade-offs between stronger regulation, the environment, jobs, and America’s insatiable thirst for energy. Even those who espouse “drill, baby, drill” concede that enforcement of existing regulations should be strengthened in conjunction with additional exploitation of underwater oil reserves.

Yet, there’s one area that has not had any critical public debate, even given the recent disasters in the coal and oil industries.

We are about to break a decades-old moratorium on the construction of new nuclear power plants. President Obama has proposed billions of taxpayer-funded loan guarantees to construct plants in Georgia, and eventually elsewhere. This is a bad idea.

Unlike the BP oil spill, which is bad enough, the damage caused by a serious nuclear accident would last for centuries. Consider Pripyat in the Ukraine. That town had to be evacuated after the Chernobyl accident. Now imagine a similar scenario around any one of New Jersey’s nuclear plants.

Some people argue that nuclear power can be made safe. Even if that were true, consider the costs involved and the burden that would be placed on the American taxpayer. Large construction projects, like the building of a nuclear plant, have almost never been delivered on time or within budget. So it will be no surprise that the president’s loan guarantees will most likely end up as a bail out for companies that build these new plants. And the problems don’t go away once the plant is built. Like oil, much of the uranium fuel required for nukes comes from areas of the world which have potential instability, and the source of supply is subject to the vagaries of world politics. Will the American taxpayer be forced to foot the bill to maintain some modicum of stability like we do with Middle Eastern oil?

Much of the spent fuel from today’s reactors is stored on-site because the United States has no comprehensive plan for safe transport and storage of the toxic material. If this waste gets into the wrong hands, a conventional “dirty bomb” could be used to contaminate a large, highly-valuable area by terrorists. Yet, today, this material is under the stewardship of for-profit energy companies that put shareholder value ahead of the environment. Just think of the recent Times Square bombing attempt – and the possibility that a copy cat event could be successful, this time with a ton of radioactive waste in an exploding van. The cleanup costs would be astronomical.

Given the hidden costs of nuclear energy, and the persistent and widespread impact of the inevitable “accident,” it would be more prudent for the United States to invest its money and intellectual capital in renewable energy such as wind, solar, and tidal power, while also promoting conservation.

The president should provide a vision and direction, just like John F. Kennedy did fifty years ago with the challenge to land a man on the moon. Our best option to satisfy our insatiable need for energy lies in a concerted effort to wean ourselves from oil and uranium, and harness the clean energy from the sun and wind while protecting our fragile environment.

The words that JFK used in 1961 ring true today, We chose to do these things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone.”

We should leave our children with a legacy of clean energy, not contaminated regions. This is what America is about.

Friday, June 18, 2010

John Adler and Israel

(Cross-posted to

Last night, I attended a rally meeting at a large synagogue in Voorhees where John Adler spoke and answered questions about Israel and the situation in the Middle East.  The meeting appears to have been sponsored by AIPAC and there were about 100 people in attendance.  While American Jews have as much diversity of viewpoint on Israel’s policies as do the Israelis themselves, this audience was clearly aligned with the right wing, as is the current government in Jerusalem.

Adler gave a short talk followed by questions and answers, although many of the “questions” were more like speeches from the audience.  Adler’s talk started off with a discussion on two meetings he had with President Obama (including one on Air Force One) on our policy toward Israel.  The congressman asserted that he and several of his colleagues impressed upon the president that some of Obama’s early rhetoric was encouraging Israel’s enemies, and that while the United States was putting pressure on the Jewish State to change its policies, no similar pressure was being imposed on other players in the region.  While Adler feels that some progress has been made in moving the president toward a stance that is both pro-Israel and in the best interests of the United States, he called these advancements “baby steps”.  He cited the president’s tempered response to the recent flotilla incident as evidence that the message is getting across. 

In response to a question from the audience, Adler agreed with those present that the mainstream press often portrays Israel’s actions in a negative light.  He said that the United States should take some sort of action with regard to some of our allies’ actions to withdraw their ambassadors from Israel, but felt this should be done privately and diplomatically.

Clearly, the audience’s biggest concern was the Iranian nuclear capability.  Adler understands the technical and political difficulties in a military solution, and would like to see more pressure put on Iran through sanctions, diplomatic means, and covert actions.

Adler is staunchly pro-Israel, and he indicated that most other members of Congress are also.  I came away with the impression that Adler’s approach is not a “knee-jerk” one, but that he clearly understands the subtleties and potential traps in approaching the necessary support of Israel with blinders on.  No doubt, Jon Runyan will espouse a similar pro-Israel position.  But the question is whether or not Runyan understands the nuances enough to effectively promote the interests of the United States and of Israel.  Perhaps one day, Runyan will face tough questions at a news conference.  I’m not holding my breath.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Level in the Half Empty Glass is Rising

Many progressive pundits and bloggers, including me (last December and more recently), have been critical of President Obama and his slow pace of implementing change and undoing the horrendous damage that the Bush/Cheney administration created.  Yet, if we reflect on the past 17 months, and especially if we postulate what a President McCain would have accomplished, we are indeed fortunate to have Mr. Obama at the helm.

While the president is generally going in the right direction, much of the dissatisfaction is due to the snail's pace at which these changes are being implemented.  We look at Guantanamo and DADT as areas where, if the president wanted to, he could eliminate almost instantaneously - yet both are still with us and both are a stain on the moral fiber of our nation. 

We are dissatisfied with the corporate wars of choice in the Middle East and with the lame version of Health Insurance Reform that provides billions of dollars to high-overhead for-profit insurance companies.  We are happy that the stimulus package passed, and hope it is effective in getting us out of the recession, but fear it may be too little, too late.  We look at the response to the BP oil spill and fret at the fact that the criminals are still in charge of the crime scene and lament the lack of urgency in the reform of the overseers. 

When the president took the oath of office, he was faced with a plethora of problems which required simultaneous attention and politically difficult solutions.  The nation was on the brink of Great Depression II.  We were involved in two unnecessary asymmetric wars with no end in sight, and the United States was a pariah on the world stage. 

Yet, despite the Republicans’ unprecedented exploitation of the Senate filibuster process, some progress has been made. 

Think about where we would be today if John McCain and Sarah Palin had been elected.  Congress would not have even tackled Health Insurance Reform in the face of a sure presidential veto.  Iran would be a third front in the wars in the Middle East.  Taxpayers would be funding the Gulf cleanup and regulatory reform would be lip service only.  And without a stimulus package, unemployment would be even worse than it is today, threatening the very existence of a robust middle class. 

The accomplishments of the Obama/Pelosi/Reid administration are numerous, but the road ahead will not be easy.  We have seen the dangerous resurgence of violent right-wing hate organizations and their legitimization in the Republican political circus.  There’s still no exit strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Financial and energy reform are still inadequate.  And despite the successes the president has had with making BP pay (at least in part) for its criminal negligence, we have an unprecedented environmental disaster that  will leave its ugly mark on one of the country’s most precious resources for decades to come. 

Now that the 2010 election season is with us, the president will most likely continue with his quixotic appeasement of the right while continuing to disappoint the left.  Yet, this disappointment must be tempered by the reality of the current political landscape.  Progressives have yet to find a way to get their message out over the repetitive noise emanating from the so-called mainstream news media and from popular propaganda machines like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. 

So should we cut the president some slack?  Absolutely not.  Should we appreciate what he has done for the country so far?  Absolutely.  While history will be the final judge, today we should be upbeat that we have a president who is intelligent and empathetic, and one who cares for all of America.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Squandered Opportunity

Like the Danish World Cup Soccer Football team, President Obama tonight solidified his sobriquet as Wimp-in-Chief and kicked the ball into his own goal and put points on the board for the opposition.  While we expected a parallel to JFK’s man-on-the-moon speech, what we got was a bunch of platitudes and set of actions more befitting Gerald Ford than John Kennedy.  Now we have not one, but two commissions to drag out deliberations  even further.  One commission, headed by an ex-Mississippi governor, will work on the restoration of the coastal areas.  The other, headed by a prominent lawyer, will develop new regulations.

What we needed to hear was how we would wean ourselves off  dirty fuels with the urgency and clear goals of a Manhattan Project.  Instead, we got a continuation of the same ineffective approach that got us into this mess in the first place.

What should the president have done?

First, he should have set a clear, measurable, and challenging goal – just like JFK did in 1961.  I would have liked him to have said something like “We will reduce our consumption of dirty fuels – coal, oil, gas, and uranium – by 50 percent in ten years.”  Secondly, just as the Manhattan Project had a strong and powerful leader with essentially unlimited resources in General Groves, the president should have put a pit bull in charge with a “take no prisoners approach” – someone like Joe Biden, who can make things happen without worrying about a political career ten years down the road.

Mr. President – as one of your ardent supporters, I was greatly disappointed tonight.  We needed bold leadership tonight, and all we got was a speech.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

On the Death of the Democratic and Republican Parties

Over the course of my adult life, both major political parties have unsurprisingly undergone change, morphing into entities that bear no resemblance to their traditional forms.  Given that, it’s time to reflect on our historic two-party system, and figure out what’s best for the country in terms of the progressive ideals that are embodied in the American experiment.

The Republic Party

The metamorphosis of the GOP started with Barry Goldwater in 1964.  While Goldwater lived a generation before the start of the demise of the traditional Republican party and was soundly defeated in his presidential bid, his famous quote, “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!   And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” established the groundwork for the ultra-conservative movement we see today.  His mutation of the GOP was somewhat sidetracked by the Vietnam War and the crimes of Richard Nixon in the 70s, but Ronald Reagan and his coterie of handlers were effective at causing the Republic party to veer sharply to the right in the 80s.  The GOP intelligentsia – from Grover Nordquist to Karl Rove to today’s Glenn Beck – pushed their agenda of corporate profits above people and our God-given environment, reckless spending to build up a post-Cold War military to fight wars of choice instead of wars of necessity, and leveraged divisive issues like gay and woman’s rights to co-opt the real agenda of pursuing the American dream of equality and justice for all.

Today’s Republic Party is controlled by a cabal of corporate interests, some well-known like Dick Cheney’s Halliburton and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and some not quite as famous such as Koch Industries which funds ultra-right wing causes like Americans for Prosperity and their Tea Party rallies.  Indeed, Murdoch’s Fox News has become the de facto propaganda arm of the GOP, while much of the mainstream media is not far behind in their promotion of the GOP agenda (see, for example, the buildup to the Iraq invasion).

The Republic Party has been taken over by the Tea Baggers, so the two are one and the same.  Pundits are espousing the fact that the fringe extremists like Sharron Angle, who is running for Senate in Nevada, are so out of whack that they can’t possibly be elected.  (Angle believes that single-income families are best and that alcohol should be prohibited).  Yet, just like it is possible to boil a frog against his best interests by raising the heat of the pot of water gradually, the American electorate is becoming inured to these extreme pronouncements by the radical right as they are repeated incessantly.  Crazy extremists on the right have been elected, and will continue to be.

So the Republican Party of Dwight Eisenhower, Christie Whitman, and Jacob Javits is gone.  Maybe even Barry Goldwater would not recognize today’s GOP.

The Democratic Party

The obituary for the moderate Republican wing is premature.  Instead, the Democratic Party, and especially the current President, have moved to fill that void.  And despite their current majority in Congress, today’s Democratic Party is weak and dysfunctional in its new role.

Weakness has been the hallmark of the Democrats over the past several decades, as exemplified by the candidacy of Michael Dukakis in 1988.  Other Democratic candidates like George McGovern and Walter Mondale had better ideas than their Republican opponents, but were weak in the art of political manipulation.  Even Jimmy Carter, who won on the coattails of Richard Nixon’s criminal actions, subsequently lost due in part to the GOP’s political pranks regarding the release of the hostages in Iran.  Despite a majority in both houses of Congress since 2006, the Democrats have allowed the GOP to drive the agenda with obstructionism and intransigence.  The hallmark of the President’s accomplishments to date, Health Care Reform, is a much-needed, but neutered version of what could have been accomplished if the Democrats realized that their GOP counterparts would not compromise.  Indeed, the Democratic leadership gave the Republic party an unfair head start when they inexplicitly took the best option (single payer) off the table on Day One.

Barack Obama, with his pro-nuclear power position and his lack of urgency in closing Guantánamo and repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, best fits the mold of a moderate Republican, not a progressive Democrat.  Much of the Democratic Congress – from Senator Ben Nelson to my own Congressman John Adler – can also be characterized as Democrats in Name Only.  Also, here in New Jersey, the majority Democratic state legislature, who have succumbed to the bullying tactics of our GOP governor, has unbelievably formally abdicated one of their primary responsibilities – that of writing the state budget – to the GOP.  That’s in an allegedly Blue state – how about in Red state South Carolina where the best the Democrats can do to oppose troglodyte Senator Jim DeMint, is to succumb to more dirty tricks and nominate an unknown unemployed military veteran whose source of campaign funding remains a mystery?

The Future

Now that the Republicans have replaced the John Birch Society and the Ku Klux Klan as the voice of the right, and that the Democrats have stepped into the role of moderate Republicans, what should be done about the void on the left?  Those that represent the progressive side of the party like Senators Bernie Sanders and Russ Feingold, and Congressman Rush Holt should seriously consider taking their left-wing (not a dirty word) bloc and forming a political party to more effectively promote a progressive agenda at the national and state levels.  It will be difficult to accomplish this against the juggernaut of corporate funding, but the modern internet helps level the playing field if used effectively.  Other barriers will be the current electoral system which is controlled by the major parties, and the Supreme Court which is controlled by business interests.  But clearly, if the current two-party system continues down its current path, America will become a corporate-controlled non-democratic country with a rapidly deteriorating middle class.  A three-party system would necessarily require discussion, compromise, and coalition-building, which would be better than the gridlocked and feckless system we have today.  These coalitions could be between Progressives and Democrats on the social agenda, and between Progressives and Republicans on limiting the reach of government on issues pertaining to personal privacy.  We haven’t had a viable three-party system in the United States in over a century.  And we’ve never needed it more than today.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Progressive's Dilemma

(Cross-posted to

Now that the primary is over and the insurgent candidates were beaten back by their respective party’s establishments, what choice does a Progressive Democrat have in New Jersey’s Third Congressional District?

Two years ago, we rejoiced at John Adler’s victory on the coattails of Barack Obama.  Adler is the first Democrat to represent this area in over a century.  His reputation as a “liberal” in the State Senate brought hope that he would pursue an agenda that would be for the people and not the corporate interests.  But it all came crashing down when Adler bucked his party by voting for the insurance companies and denying health insurance coverage for 40 million Americans for another generation.

So now it’s Adler vs. Runyan.  The Harvard-educated lawyer with tons of legislative experience vs. an ex-footballer who shuns public scrutiny.  The Democrat who abandoned the people who got him elected vs. the anti-tax Republican who harbors donkeys on his Moorestown estate to escape taxes.  A Morton’s Fork creating a dilemma for Progressives this fall.

The Case For John Adler

While Adler brags about his middle-of-the-road voting record, we can assume that in a second term, his approach would be better than that of Jon Runyan.  As a Republican, Runyan would vote in lock step with the GOP leadership, just like his potential colleagues have done over the past two years.  Say what you want about Adler, at least he shows some independence.  But the overriding rationale to vote for Adler has nothing to do with votes on particular issues.  The House races this Fall will be very close, and with the current anti-incumbency fervor, the race for control of the House of Representatives is at stake.  It is critical for the Democrats to keep control, with Nancy Pelosi as Speaker.  Despite being demonized by the right, Pelosi has been the star of the 111th Congress – building consensus among the diverse views within her party and shepherding Health Insurance Reform through the process while the President stood at the sidelines until the very last minute.  If the Republicans take control of the House, John “Hell No We Can’t” Boehner will be Speaker, second in line for the Presidency, and would make today’s obstructionist Senate pale by comparison.  If the race for Speaker gets down to a single vote, I’d want John Adler to be there representing NJ-3.

The Case Against John Adler

An Adler defeat would send a clear message that there’s not a large gap between his Blue Dog version of being a Democrat and a less-than-extreme Republican such as Runyan.  This would open the door for a real Progressive Democrat to ride Barack Obama’s coattails into the House in the 2012 election.  While he spouts much of the Tea Party rhetoric, Jon Runyan purports to be pro-choice and is not as homophobic as his party’s leadership.  If he can hold his own against their powerful grip, it might be a good thing to have someone like that in the Republic Party.

So as someone who almost always has voted Democratic, I have not yet made up my mind.  Right now, I can’t see myself voting for either candidate and regardless of what happens in the next five months, I can’t ever contemplate a scenario where I would vote for Jon Runyan.  Whether I vote for Adler or sit this one out remains my dilemma.

Beyond Petroleum

There will be a certain schadenfreude in watching BP CEO Tony Hayward squirm when he testifies before Congress next week.  He certainly deserves the grilling and it will be a defining moment for Republicans on the committee if they tone down their questions to placate their corporate sponsors.  Whether or not Hayward knew the specifics of the pre-explosion violations on the Deepwater Horizon rig, it is he who sets the tone of the company, and even today continues spewing arrogance and lies with the same ferocity that his well is spewing oil.  BP’s estimate of the magnitude of the oil has proven to be grossly underreported, and the company still restricts the press from reporting on and photographing the horrendous damage.  BP is spending millions of dollars on newspaper and television advertising while nickel-and-diming fishermen’s claims.

While Hayward is the place where the buck stops, there are other intermediaries who also must pay for their misdeeds.  Senior- and middle-level management at BP knew about the lack of adequate precautions, and their vandalizing of the Louisiana coastlands is deserving of criminal charges.  The same can be said for the management of Halliburton and Transocean, who are co-conspirators in this racket.

Certainly, the regulatory agencies are not without blame.  Those individuals in the Minerals Management Service who are found to be complicit should, at a minimum, lose their jobs and pensions, and be forbidden to hold government jobs in the future. 

All roads in this disaster lead to the secret 2001 Dick Cheney energy task force.  President Obama should ensure that the deliberations and participants of this cabal be made public immediately.

In order to preserve the evidence at the crime scene, the President should immediately appropriate BP’s resources and have the government manage the clean-up and after-action reporting.  Allowing BP to continue operations in the Gulf is no different than allowing a burglar to revisit the scene of his crime and tamper with the evidence.

Finally, the President should appoint a blue-ribbon investigative commission with subpoena power to get to the root cause of this disaster.  The commission should include experts from academia and environmental organizations.  While it is inevitable that some of the commission members would be politicians, no politician who accepted significant donations from the energy industry should be allowed to participate.

If Hayward and his co-conspirators go scot-free, this will not establish a precedent, since other executives who have committed similar crimes have also escaped punishment.  If we don’t hold these people accountable, what’s to prevent a Chernobyl from happening here when another executive puts profits ahead of people and the environment?

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Disasters Я Us

Imagine a factory where employees are required to work six days a week under sweatshop conditions. Add to this the fact that the doors of the factory are locked so that people can not leave, even to get a breath of fresh air. Then, imagine there is a fire and 146 employees are suddenly dead. Does this sound like something that would happen in a place like Bangladesh or Myanmar? Wrong – it happened in New York City - almost 100 years ago at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. Why? Because there were few if any workplace safety regulations, and like today, the owners of the factory escaped any criminal convictions for their role in these murders.

Also in the first half of the 20th century, asbestos was widely used in building construction due to its heat-resistant properties. Yet, its toxicity was well known even then. The president of one of the largest asbestos manufacturers was reported to have remarked that it was fine for workers to be exposed to toxic material because “we make a lot of money that way.” Some workers sued, settlements were made out of court, and the largest producer of the poisonous substance, Johns Manville, eventually filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. No one was criminally convicted for allowing workers to die for the sake of profits. Even today, tons of asbestos dispersed in the air from the World Trade Center collapse continue to affect workers and rescue personnel.

This track record of corporations' disdain for environmental and safety issues continues with the BP disaster. The pre-explosion warnings about inadequate contingency planning are all over the news media. Survivors of the original explosion were held at sea, unable to be reunited with their loved ones, until they signed waivers of liability. The full story is yet to be told, but it seems clear that the genesis of this disaster occurred shortly after the inauguration of George W. Bush when Vice President Dick Cheney held secret meetings with oil company executives to gut the regulatory process that protected workers and the environment. Even today, the list of participants in that fateful meeting is a closely held secret.

Fast forward twenty years from now when the first of a series of brand new nuclear power plants opens after its construction is late and over budget. Like at the Three Mile Island reactor in 1979, due to lax oversight, operational procedures were not followed. But unlike TMI, which suffered only a partial meltdown, this new accident results in a complete meltdown of the reactor core. As with the Chernobyl reactor, there was an explosion. It was only partially mitigated by safety containment domes. Several square miles adjacent to the plant are now permanently uninhabitable, and the cleanup eventually costs billions of dollars – all in the name of “cheap” energy. Implausible? Not quite. Especially considering corporations' past track record of assuring the public that everything is safe, and the same corporations' complicity with government regulators.

There are other aspects of “cheap” nuclear energy that don't get much coverage in the corporate mainstream media. The problem with safe storage and disposal of nuclear waste is well known, but often left out of the debate. It should also be noted that we have not built a new nuclear plant in the United States in several decades, and while the science and engineering is well-documented, the pool of experiential knowledge from the first generation of reactor builders is rapidly diminishing. And the fuel source, uranium, is imported from foreign countries – some currently friendly and others not so.

Regardless of the industry, the pattern here is clear. Big corporations put profits ahead of people. When a disaster happens, no one is held criminally responsible and regulations, no matter how weak or strong, are put into place only after the fact.

Eliminating our dependency on foreign oil is not enough. We need to rapidly develop effective and inexpensive ways to satisfy our energy needs with renewable and clean energy like wind, solar, and tidal. President Obama should inspire us with an Apollo-like program to achieve this goal within ten years and provide the research and development funding to do so. This funding should come from increased taxes on fossil and nuclear energy as well as from fines on polluters and environmental wrongdoers. Incentives should be provided to encourage students to pursue studies in environmental and renewable energy fields. Such bold goals are the only way we will effect the dramatic change necessary to save the planet from even more apocalyptic disasters while at the same time boosting our economy with these new initiatives.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Is He Nuts?

Bobby Jindal wants more offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.  He claims the moratorium on drilling will cost Louisiana jobs.  Doesn't he realize that this current spill will create thousands of jobs cleaning up the mess that BP left behind?  I guess the environmental lobby is not contributing to his campaigns as much as the oil lobby is.