Friday, January 28, 2011

Chris Smith Ramps up his War Against Women's Right to Choose

Anti-choice zealot Congressman Chris Smith (R-Robbinsville) has upped the ante in his crusade against a woman’s right to choose. Over the years, the congressman has never passed up an opportunity to attach an anti-abortion rider to legislation, but now he has taken advantage of the Republican/Tea Party majority in the House of Representatives by introducing a bill that would make it even more difficult for women to obtain legal abortions.

Under current law, federal abortion funding is prohibited except in cases of rape and incest. Smith’s  “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” redefines “rape” as only those instances where the rape is “forcible” (without defining the term) and invokes the exception of incest only if the woman is under 18 years of age.

A consequence of this bill would be that women who are victims of date rape, who are drugged and then raped, or who are mentally challenged and unable to resist would be denied federal funded insurance for an abortion. Companion legislation being introduced by Smith’s fellow Republican/Tea Party congressman Mike Pence would meddle further into free enterprise by prohibiting private insurance companies from covering legal abortions.

Despite the dire economy, slow job growth, and two budget-draining wars, Speaker Boehner is fast-tracking this anti-choice legislation as a top priority in the House. It seems that if the Republican/Tea Party can’t overturn Roe v Wade in the courts, it is doing everything it can to nullify it with cruel legislation. Smith, Pence, and the other 171 Republicans who signed on to this legislation are abetting the inevitable rise of dubious abortion clinics like that of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, while shutting down safe and medically superior facilities like Planned Parenthood.

Abortion should be legal, safe, and rare. Smith and his colleagues are doing everything they can to assure that it is neither legal nor safe. And by denying funding for contraception, unwanted pregnancies will increase and unfortunately backstreet abortions will be anything but rare.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Individual Responsibility

Conservatives are big on promoting “individual responsibility.” They espouse that we don’t need a government-run retirement plan, but rather individuals should be responsible for saving and investing for their golden years. Conservatives don’t support government-sponsored health care, but rather individuals should be able to opt in or opt out of personal medical insurance. So it follows that conservatives should be in favor of individual responsibility when it comes to gun ownership.

But what does individual responsibility mean with regards to firearm possession? It means that if the gun owner uses his weapon safely and responsibly, he or she has no additional obligation to society. But if the gun causes harm to others, then the owner is responsible for that harm and must compensate the victims. (I’m not referring to criminal action here; that is handled by the prosecutor. I’m advocating that the gun owner should be individually responsible for any civil harm that results from intentional or accidental misuse of a firearm.)

We already have such a model in place today. If a person chooses to drive a car, he or she is required by law to carry liability insurance. If the driver causes harm, he or she must correct that harm by compensating the aggrieved party, and that is accomplished through the insurance carrier. Safe drivers typically pay lower insurance premiums because they have fewer or no claims over a period of time. Automobile owners who complete drivers’ education classes also may have lower rates because they are typically a lower risk to the insurance companies than untrained drivers. The key point here is that drivers take on individual responsibility by carrying insurance in case of an accident. No one expects the state to pick up the tab if a driver accidentally damages property or requires another person to seek medical care.

We should do the same for firearms. As with automobiles, registration and insurance should be required for gun ownership. The free market that conservatives tout would set the rates for insurance premiums. As B.J. Richards of the Hall Institute for Public Policy points out:

People who can demonstrate that they're safe, sane, law abiding citizens would have cheap, easy access to gun insurance. Those that can't either would pay through the nose, or would be completely shut out of the system because nobody will insure them.

Choose not to insure your gun? It can be confiscated. Just like your car can be impounded on the spot if you don't have insurance.

Gun dealers would be required to see proof of insurance before they could sell a gun to an individual. Hence, profit-driven insurance companies would necessarily do background checks and those checks would most likely be more comprehensive than the weak or non-existent checks we have today.

Of course, the knee-jerk reaction from the NRA would be that any regulation or requirement to carry insurance is in violation of the Second Amendment. But this argument is fallacious. No portion of the Constitution is absolute. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, but it does not provide the right to falsely shout “fire” in a crowded theater. Similarly, the Second Amendment provides the right to any citizen to own a gun, but it does not allow that person to be irresponsible with that ownership privilege.

The NRA will also argue that criminals will circumvent the system and purchase illicit guns without insurance. This is all true, but why make it easier by allowing a mass murderer to simply walk into a Wal-Mart or gun show and buy a weapon? Any reasonable proposal, like this one, that makes it harder for criminals to obtain guns while protecting the rights of ordinary citizens should be embraced by gun owners.

Implementation of mandatory gun insurance is a win-win for all parties. It upholds the Conservatives’ mantra of individual responsibility and puts the onus for regulation primarily on insurance companies. These companies will operate in their self-interest by making insurance for high risk individuals unaffordable or unavailable.  Insurance companies gain a new revenue stream to fatten their profit margins. And society becomes safer.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

We've Rebuilt Kabul - Let's Rebuild Camden

Cross-posted from Blue Jersey

Mention Camden and what comes to mind? People immediately think of a crime-ridden city in dire poverty with no hope of rebounding.

The city is at a crossroads. The troubled city has had to lay off nearly half its cops, a third of its firefighters and scores of other workers. Once a mecca for high-tech jobs in South Jersey, Camden has been impacted by crime, the Bush recession, and a shrinking tax base. Forty percent of Camden residents eke out their existence from below the poverty line, and homicides and other serious crimes are rampant. Those residents who are lucky enough to be employed are hit by Governor Christie’s cutbacks in public transportation, education, and other areas. The library system is closing.

After seven years of state control, $175 million of special state aid, and one year after home rule has been returned to the city, there’s a lot of hand-wringing and finger-pointing in the local and national press on this issue. Mayor Dana Redd is playing a game of chicken with the unions, and the unions are reluctant to work out a compromise set of concessions.

So given this scenario, what is the future of Camden? Certainly, there are challenges - but these challenges are being met head on by businesses, residents, and community organizations.

Given the dire situation that has been emphasized by the local and national press, it is important that Camden’s stakeholders develop long-term solutions while simultaneously attending to the immediate problems at hand.

According to Dr. Richard Harris, the Director of the Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs and a political science professor at Rutgers - Camden, it is wonderful that there are people in other communities who are proactively providing assistance, but the emphasis for fixing the city’s problems must come from within. “It’s gong to be a challenge”, he points out, but he is nevertheless optimistic that it can be done. Many of the community-based organizations and partnerships have been fairly effective at attracting funding for neighborhood improvements. For example, Rutgers and Rowan Universities along with Cooper and Lourdes Hospitals are working on an employer-based housing initiative. Federal stimulus money is also being directed to some of the infrastructure improvements, specifically greenways and pathways. This is all good, Harris pointed out, and they lay the groundwork for what is really needed - more investment from private institutions. Several institutions from within the city as well as from surrounding areas are supporting the various community development and improvement organizations. On the down side, Harris says that Camden residents have become skeptical of politics and “have little faith in the political apparatus”, so they tend not to vote. Consequently, Harris asserts that politicians don’t have to worry about carrying Camden, and community organizations have opted out of the political process. Turning this view around is really important according to Harris.

One challenge facing the city is one that New Brunswick and even Newark did not have to face in their self-reinvention. Both those cities have implemented public-private partnerships with educational institutions, medical institutions and a large local corporation - Johnson & Johnson in New Brunswick and Prudential in Newark. Although  Campbell’s Soup has a hand in the revitalization of its Camden campus, the city does not have an industrial partner of the magnitude that New Brunswick and Newark have.

Despite these challenges, Dr. Harris is optimistic about the future of Camden. He feels that the city is at an “inflection point”, and the city now is in a position to “really take off.” While the state budget cuts will most likely slow things down, these public-private partnerships are  moving the city in the right direction. He points out that the fiscal crisis in New Jersey will drive a lot more collaboration such as the proposal to consolidate police services into a county-wide enterprise, as has been successful in parts of Maryland and elsewhere.

The revitalization of Camden is not without success stories - stories that don’t make the front page of the newspaper as often as police layoffs do - but “below the radar” activities that are bootstrapping the city into a more secure future.

One organization that is focused on the long term outlook for the city is the Greater Camden Partnership. According to its President & CEO, David Foster, the group is working to improve both downtown and the various neighborhoods throughout the city of 80,000 residents.

Addressing downtown, the group has formed the Camden Special Services District, a public-private-nonprofit partnership whose charter is to make the downtown and other commercial areas more hospitable to visitors and residents. The initiative was started in 2005 and is sustained by recurring annual contributions from numerous businesses and organizations.

But the downtown area is not the only beneficiary of the group’s efforts. For example, one success story is its neighborhood graffiti-removal program. According to Foster, much of the graffiti has been in place for 25 years, and there has been very little recurrence once the walls have been rehabilitated. While this may seem like a minor issue compared to some of the other problems facing the city, Foster pointed out that this program has successfully worked to change the mindset of some of those who might otherwise be prone to acts of vandalism. This approach of removing the decades of blight to help foster residents’ pride in their community has also been extended to the problem of vacant lots. The group cleaned up 81 lots and the ongoing maintenance is providing much-needed jobs to city residents. Foster pointed out that since the lots have been rehabilitated, there has not been a single incident of illicit activity, dumping, or graffiti at those locations.

Graffiti Removal (Courtesy Greater Camden Partnership)
The most ambitious project of the Partnership is the construction of the Kroc Center - a community center in the underserved Cramer Hill section that will provide resources to neighborhood residents that many of us take for granted - ball fields, swimming pools, adult day care facilities, and job training. Run by the Salvation Army and with major funding coming from the Kroc family (of McDonald’s restaurants), the center is scheduled to open at the end of next year, and will serve as an anchor institution for that neighborhood.

Like the Greater Camden Partnership, the Coopers Ferry Development Association has contributed to the nascent turnround of the city. The Association was able to influence the state to close the Riverfront State Prison, freeing up prime waterfront property for redevelopment. They worked with the developer to transform the decaying but iconic RCA building into a top-notch residential and commercial center in downtown, and had a significant role in keeping what is now L3 Communications (and its $900,000 tax revenue) in the downtown area by facilitating the state-of-the-art building. In addition to these high-visibility projects, CFDA has been instrumental in rehabilitation of parks, construction of pathways, and facilitating home improvements to improve the quality of life in the city.

Artist's Concept of Kroc Center (Courtesy JJ DeLuca Co Inc)

While the difficulties among the Mayor, the public sector unions, and the economic situation continue to dominate the news, let’s acknowledge and support the efforts by the city’s residents and businesses to lift themselves out of a seemingly hopeless situation. Camden has many advantages that it can leverage moving forward. It is more accessible to Center City Philadelphia than many parts of the City of Brotherly Love, and while some may dispute the impact on neighborhood life, the redevelopment of the Waterfront is a bona fide attraction that brings tourist dollars and jobs to the city. It has two major corporations in Campbell’s Soup and L3 Communications who have invested in their respective facilities in the city. Much of the news we see from Camden is negative, and a lot of the good work being done tends to be underreported. Rutgers’ Harris feels that the city administration has been consumed with attending to the immediate problems but that Mayor Redd recognizes this shortfall and will be more able to convey a “more balanced” message moving forward.

There is no doubt that the rehabilitation of Camden will be a long and arduous process. While the seven years of state control had some limited success, the New Jersey taxpayers did not get as much bang for the buck as they should have. And while Dr. Harris’ contention that the impetus for change must come from within is correct, the state cannot simply abandon Camden as some conservative bloggers advocate. The cutbacks in first responders have the potential to undo some of the accomplishments that the community organizations have made over the last decade, and we can’t allow that to happen. But in the short term, without a robust tax base, the mayor has a seemingly impossible task, and unless she and the unions can come to an agreement that is simultaneously fair to the unions and provides the level of protection that is needed, the state must find a way to assist. Rebuilding Camden creates more jobs in the state than does rebuilding millionaires’ portfolios.

So what does he future hold? Five years from now, Rutgers’ Harris predicts a significant increase in home ownership and small business activity within the city, and median income approaching the state and national averages. And while Harris is insistent that the metamorphosis of Camden must come primarily from those within the city, I also believe that all New Jerseyans must continue to take interest in and be supportive of what was once the jewel of South Jersey, and can once again be a source of investment, tax revenue, and Jersey pride.

Friday, January 21, 2011

What Republicans Can Learn From Google

Google’s announcement that CEO Eric Schmidt was planning to step down is not a surprise. The company was started by two young technologists, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who were prescient enough to recognize that the skills that they possessed  were exemplary for innovation, but they lacked the knowledge and experience to grow the enterprise.  Hundreds of high-tech companies with original ideas have failed due to their inability to recognize this fact. When Schmidt, an experienced businessman, was hired in 2001, he noted that Google would be successful with “adult supervision”, which he was able to provide. Now that he feels Larry Page has matured enough to provide that adult supervision, Schmidt is stepping aside.

Today, an institution badly in need of adult supervision is the Republican Party. In the short history of the 112th Congress, its most notable accomplishments have been the waste of taxpayer money by reading a redacted version of the Constitution on the House floor, and the waste of taxpayer money by voting to repeal the job-creating life-saving Affordable Care act, despite the certainty of a presidential veto in the unlikely event that the bill passes in the Senate.

No doubt, the need for adult supervision continues. GOP Oversight Committee chairman Darrel Issa has announced a series of witchhunts investigations that will pale in comparison to the GOP’s $50 milion investigation of Whitewater and the senseless impeachment of Bill Clinton  by equating sexual improprieties with “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

There’s room in our political system for social and fiscal conservatives who are willing to sit down and discuss issues without grandstanding and pontificating. Adults realize that you don’t always get what you want, and that compromise gets you more than intransigence does. (Democrats have the opposite problem - compromise before even coming to the negotiating table.) Is there anyone in the Republican hierarchy who doesn’t hate government so much that they are willing to make it work?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Guilt by Association or Calculated Political Move?

Cross-posted from

Former prosecutor and current New Jersey governor Chris Christie is no stranger to tampering with the independence of the judicial system to fulfil his political agenda. His refusal to re-nominate State Supreme Court Judge John Wallace is the most notable example.

Now, there could be something fishy about his announcement of his intention to appoint 9/11 defense counsel Sohail Mohammed as a Superior Court judge in Passaic County.

As an attorney, Mohammed has defended Muslims who were detained in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. If that’s where the story ends, then it would be a no-brainer. All Americans, no matter how heinous the crime of which they are accused, have a constitutional right to a defense lawyer. And in the aftermath of the tragic events almost a decade ago, Mohammed was actively promoting dialog between the Muslim community and Jewish organizations.

But it’s more complicated than that.

One of Mohammed’s more notorious clients was Mohammed Qatanani, who was the imam of the Islamic Center of Passaic County during the reign of Chris Christie as U.S. Attorney. In 2008, the Department of Homeland Security initiated deportation proceedings against the imam, alleging that Qatanani was connected with Hamas. Sohail Mohammed was his defense attorney.

Here’s where it gets really complicated.

Professional terrorism watcher and author Steve Emerson has written extensively in support of deporting the imam. He points out Qatanani’s connections not only with Hamas but also with other terrorist organizations in the Middle East. Is Emerson one of those “sky-is-falling” terrorist-under-every-bed-sheet alarmists, or does he have some credibility? There are endorsements (on Emerson’s web site) from reliable people like Richard Clarke and A.M. Rosenthal, so that needs to be factored into the equation. (Not surprisingly, Emerson is also praised by Bill O’Reilly and Senator Jon Kyl - not exactly bellwethers of fair play.)

Further complicating the story...

The night before the immigration judge was to announce his decision regarding Sohail Mohammed’s client, U.S. Attorney Chris Christie praised the defendant, announcing at a Ramadan break-fast dinner, “My view is he’s always had a very good relationship with us, and he’s a man of great goodwill.”

But Christie was not alone. Then-governor Corzine and Democratic congressman Bill Pascrell joined Christie in intervening on behalf of Qatanani.

Some aspects of this story are not unexpected.

Not surprisingly, the conservative bloggers and right-wing Jewish writers are apoplectic about Christie’s nomination of Sohail Mohammed to the Superior Court. Yet both of these groups decry Mohammed’s association with Qatanani, and present very little credible evidence that Mohammed himself is associated with terrorist organizations. The anti-Mohammed writers accuse Governor Christie of pandering to the growing Islamic community in Passaic County.

So how will this play out?

No one has accused New Jersey politics of being dull. So the confirmation hearings for Sohail Mohammed should be interesting. Will the Islamophobes dominate? Will Mohammed’s outreach to the Jewish community be a factor in the hearings? Will Christie’s support of a Muslim judicial candidate doom his presidential ambitions? Will Mohammed’s appointment be derailed because he aided Americans in exercising their constitutional rights? Is Christie pandering to the Muslim community, or is the governor nominating a well-qualified attorney who deserves this appointment? Will the Tea Party demand to see Chris Christie’s birth certificate?

Fasten your seatbelts, this should be an interesting ride.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Public Service

Think back to the days before satellites, cable TV and the Internet. The precursors to our contemporary entertainment and information-dissemination industry were what we retronymically call terrestrial radio and television. AM, and later FM radio that you tuned with an analog dial, and twelve channels of black-and-white television.

Back then, one of the limits that the broadcast industry faced was the finite radio-frequency spectrum. Since everything was sent over-the-air, and the spectrum was shared with other users such as police, aircraft, taxicabs, and ham radio operators, the government regulated (and still does) the allocation of frequencies to various users.

The radio-frequency spectrum is a public asset. So in return for being granted a license to use part of the spectrum, radio and television companies were required to devote part of their offerings to public service. Most broadcast stations fulfilled this obligation by providing programming in news and public affairs, the cost of which was subsidized by their other profit-making offerings.

Fast forward to the 21st century. We now have thousands of corporations using public assets - our roads, air traffic control systems, ports, and other government-subsidized infrastructure elements. Yet, these corporations are not required to operate in the public interest as the nascent broadcast industry did almost a century ago. Instead, their main requirement is to provide financial return to their shareholders.

In today’s world, corporate power and influence have usurped the democratic principles upon which this country was founded. The Citizens United decision in the Supreme Court, where corporations are afforded the rights but not the responsibilities of people, has the potential for being the final nail in the coffin of democracy. While the Republican Tea Party is almost entirely under the thumb of corporate influence, most Democrats are not far behind. Corporate lobbyists, not ordinary citizens, are driving the legislative and executive agendas. Privatization of essential government services, moving them to a taxpayer-subsidized for-profit model, is about to explode under today’s business-friendly, consumer-hostile political climate.

It’s time to rethink this paradigm. We need to take another look at the broadcasting model institutionalized in the Communications Act of 1934, where those corporations were required to “serve the public interest, convenience and necessity” as a condition for being able to use the public infrastructure. This needs to be extended to other industries. Corporations operating in the United States should still be accountable to their shareholders for turning a profit, but this should not be the sole operating criterion for their existence. There needs to be an ancillary obligation for corporations to demonstrate that they are operating in the public interest, whether it is investing in green production techniques, providing pro bono community services that leverage their expertise, or simply returning a generous portion of their profits to secular non-political community charitable organizations.

Some will say that this places too much burden on corporations’ profit-at-any-cost paradigm. This has some elements of truth. But requiring all corporations to operate, at least in part, in the public interest, the burden is spread out and the playing field is even.

Can this be done in today’s environment of corporate control of Congress? It won’t be easy. The public needs to be educated on the danger that the status quo places on our democratic system of government that is theoretically, but not really, answerable to the electorate. It won’t happen overnight. The common-sense regulation of the tobacco industry battled entrenched special interests, powerful politicians, and hundreds of millions of dollars of pro-smoking advertising falsehoods. It took at least two generations to mitigate the harmful effects of this profit-making addictive habit, but in the end the nation is much better off for it. If our system of government is to survive, we need responsible for-profit corporations to innovate and to produce the goods and services that fuel the American economy. But part of that responsibility needs to be to the people who support these corporations with America’s resources and infrastructure, and not solely the shareholders who reap the profits that these corporations generate.

Every American person who is able should consider doing some sort of public service to help those less fortunate or to just make our nation a better place to live. So should corporations.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A Promising Legacy

President Obama’s State of the Union address, to be delivered in two weeks, corresponds with a defining moment in his first term.

During the first half of his term, the president was able to accomplish a lot despite a dysfunctional Senate and the never-ending drone of Fox News and the Tea Party. Progressives expected and wanted more, but we got a watered-down health care bill passed, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell”, equal pay for women, and a lot more.

One issue that has been kept on the back burner is Social Security, and the question is how (or if) this will be addressed in the State of the Union. Republicans want to kill the program and funnel that money to their Wall Street benefactors through privatization of retirement savings. Imagine the impact if they had been successful prior to the Bush stock market crash. The obscene bonuses that the GOP benefactors have reaped would be even larger than they were, while retirees would have lost the only lifeline they had left. Many Democrats have been cowardly silent, afraid to stand up for one of the core principles of the party.

Republicans perpetuate the myth that Social Security is going broke, and they are doing everything possible to make that a reality, including their recent unnecessary cut to payroll contributions. As the accompanying video shows, during the campaign, Barack Obama made some specific and fiscally sensible promises that would retain the current benefits while keeping the fund solvent for decades to come. A progressive increase in the payroll cap is the best way to ensure benefits are there for our children and grandchildren. And a robust Social Security program is one of the best ways to stimulate the economy as retirees would tend to spend rather than save their payouts.

President Obama needs to make a strong statement in his State of the Union speech. He should reiterate his campaign promise by maintaining the current level of benefits, not changing the retirement age, and continuing cost-of-living adjustments (COLA). If he says anything else, the Republican Tea Party machine will hammer him as being the one who cut benefits for millions of Americans. Increasing the payroll cap would be a hard sell, but it’s time that the people making over $250,000 annually do their fair share.

As a matter of disclosure, I am retired and collecting Social Security. But the proposed dismantling of this signature program will not have an impact on me. Even the most draconian of the Republican proposals impacts those ages 55 and under. But as an American, I feel it is more important to provide a safety net for those who come after me than it is to enrich the coffers of corporate CEOs.

President Franklin Roosevelt’s legacy was his ability to save our democracy by extracting us from the Great Depression, the worst economic crisis in our nation’s history. His introduction of Social Security is part of that enduring legacy and has been one of America’s most successful endeavors in her 235 year history. While it’s too early to talk about Barack Obama’s legacy, one important factor was his success in bringing us out of the second worse economic crisis in our history, the Bush Recession. Despite opposition from a party whose determination to bring down the president exceeds its desire to fix the economy, things have turned around, jobs are starting to come back and optimism is starting to reappear. Yet, Obama’s legacy may be more a function of how we treat all Americans, not just the elite. If the president makes a strong statement in support of the program, keeps his campaign promises, and takes the necessary actions to defend Social Security from the GOP’s onslaught, then chances are his legacy will be a positive one. Anything other than wholehearted support would not bode well for his legacy or the nation.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Is Sarah Palin Ignorant or Just Plain Insensitive?

In a polished eight-minute video defending her inappropriate comments, including the now-famous fund-raising image of cross-hairs over Representative Gabrielle Giffords’ district, Sarah Palin continues to make things worse for herself. She accuses the media of manufacturing “blood libel” to incite the kind of violence that struck Tucson this past weekend.

Hopefully, Representative Giffords will recover swiftly and will be able to speak for herself very soon. While I don’t want to put words in the Jewish congresswoman’s mouth, Palin’s remarks are an insult to Ms Giffords and Jews everywhere. And they should be an insult to Christians, too. “Blood libel” refers to the medieval assertion that Jews used the blood of Christian children as an ingredient in cooking of matzoh - unleavened bread. It has become a popular tag line among anti-Semites both in ancient times and today.

I’m not accusing Sarah Palin of being anti-Semitic. But Ms. Palin is a professional communicator and I’m sure her YouTube videos and Facebook pronouncements are vetted by experienced message handlers. This inappropriate choice of words could not have been accidental.

Republicans are masters of Orwell’s Newspeak: if an untruth is repeated often enough, it is taken for truth. Witness the legion of Obama birthers, “death panels”, and other commonly oversimplified lies coming from the Republican Tea Party. That’s what makes Palin’s remarks dangerous and frightening.

For some reason, Ms. Palin is being given a free ride by the media. Howard Dean’s crying and George Allen’s “macaca” moment were important factors in their respective campaign failures. Sarah Palin’s insensitive remarks are far more incendiary. In her own words, she should unequivocally “refudiate” them immediately.

Thank you to my friend LHK who provided the impetus to post this article.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Style: 10 - Content: 0

What do you get when you try to emulate the two worst American presidents in my lifetime? The answer is simple - Governor Chris Christie. His recent State of the State address made it clear that he is channelling both Ronald Reagan and George W Bush.

Chris Christie’s rise to prominence was due to his role as a second-tier player in the disastrous administration of George W Bush. As a loyal fundraiser for Mr Bush, Christie was appointed to the post of US Attorney for New Jersey despite his lack of criminal law experience. In an era when US Attorneys who refused to do the political bidding of the President and the Attorney General were summarily fired, Christie thrived.

Like Reagan, Christie is a master orator with limited substance. In his address to the New Jersey legislature, he resurrected the Gipper’s “shining city on the hill” to inspire his audience (or at least those on the right side of the aisle) without any specifics.

But Christie is emulating his two idols in more than substance. He is following their reverse Robin Hood policies to enrich his wealthy cronies while placing the burden on the middle class and the poor. In his State of the State address, Christie’s credibility is stretched when he claimed, “State taxes are lower— for the first time in a decade.” Although this is true if you are a wealthy New Jerseyan, as the Star-Ledger points out, if you are a low-wage earner, your taxes have gone up in the Christie administration.

Christie’s popularity in the state and nation are products of his oratory, a mainstream media which only recently has challenged his half truths, and a persona that is unique among politicians whose waffling on issues is usually done in the public arena. One thing I do believe is his assertion that he is not running for president in 2012. His political calculation is based on the economy’s improving, leading to an Obama landslide, or the economy’s tanking, leading to a more demagogic Tea Partier winning. But I have no doubt that Christie has his eye on the prize in 2016, and as Barack Obama did in 2004, the governor wants to make a splash on the national stage by delivering a rousing keynote address at the 2012 Republican National Convention. Today’s State of the State speech was a tryout for that position, and in that respect, the governor hit a home run.


My apologies to Richard Nixon who only came in third as the worst president in my lifetime. Your overtures to China and some of your environmental policies saved you from a more
dubious distinction. But your impeachable criminal actions leading to a pre-emptive resignation lock you in as number three.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Terrorism in Tucson

The terrorist attack in Tucson has brought the issue of inflammatory political rhetoric to the forefront. On the left, Keith Olbermann has publicly apologized for any such remarks he may have made, whether intentional or inadvertent. On the right, Sarah Palin’s handlers disavow any connection between the rifle cross-hairs pointing to Congresswoman Gifford’s district and intent to incite violence. As far as I can tell, Sharron Angle has been silent about her “second amendment remedies.”

Mainstream media mouthpieces posit that the violent rhetoric has been coming evenly from all parts of the political spectrum, and it needs to be toned down. At least they got the second part right.

We will probably never know how much the rhetoric on hate radio and anti-government blogs has influenced the alleged shooter in Tucson. From media reports, this young adult was mentally compromised, and the extent to which these external factors influenced his violent actions can only be speculated upon.

Both sides of the political spectrum have had a history of violent actions in their attempt to convey their messages. The SDS in the ‘60s and Timothy McVeigh in the ‘90s are just two examples.

Both sides have also had politicians who are considered “over the top” by the other side. On the left, former Congressman Alan Grayson’s contention that the Republican health care program was to encourage people not to get sick, coupled with his bombastic chart-filled display of emotion on the House floor, was considered inappropriate by the anti-health care faction. On the right statements like “If I could issue hunting permits, I would officially declare today opening day for liberals” from Republican congressional candidate Brad Goehring fan the flames that potentially could set off mentally unstable assassins like the one in Tuscon.

At the risk of generalizing, there’s a big difference. Leadership on both sides of the political spectrum condemn violence. But while Democrats’ statements are unequivocal, the right wing’s response is atypically nuanced. Sarah Palin’s Facebook response to the Tuscon terrorism was perfunctory: “We all pray for the victims and their families, and for peace and justice.” There was nothing in her statement saying that violence has no place in our political discourse. Republican representative Blake Farenthold was unapologetic when he said, "Our politics takes place in the halls of Congress and at the ballot box. It doesn't happen at a barrel of a gun. This is clearly an isolated incident." Apparently Farenthold never heard of Dr. George Tiller or Dr. Barnett Slepian.

Undoubtedly, the pundits are right - the rhetoric needs to be toned down. But rhetoric is more than words - and especially words that convey their message with the wink of an eye. Until demagogues like Glenn Beck and Pat Robertson are marginalized by all those in power, there will be a monkey wrench in the gears of democracy that make America great. If we continue to enable these purveyors of violence not by what we say, but by what we don’t say, then the difference between our government and that of the Somali war lords is just a matter of degree.

Friday, January 7, 2011

When All You Have is a Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Nail

A conservative friend of mine (not an oxymoron) sent me this photo with the caption: “More proof there is no problem that cannot be solved with power tools.”
Certainly, that’s a typical right wing oversimplification. George Bush tried to use power tools instead of diplomacy and got us stuck in a seemingly endless quagmire in the Middle East.

One person who has been extremely effective over the last four years without resorting to blunt instruments is the former Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. Despite the Republicans’ lack of concern for the American people and the often conflicting opinions within her own party, Pelosi will be remembered as one of the most effective Speakers in recent history.

While I didn’t agree with her on everything (her refusal to investigate the actions of the Bush/Cheney Crime Family and her killing of Single Payer health care without debate come to mind), her list of accomplishments leaves a legacy that the American people can be proud of. She gets a lot of credit for herding the House through one of the most important lame duck sessions, but that’s just the culmination of a spectacular display of leadership. Her skill in navigating the minefield of health care reform - successfully maneuvering around the anti-choice zealots, moneyed special interests, and the intransigence of the Party of No -  got us the first meaningful reform of health care since Medicare was born a half century ago. Add Wall Street reform and equal pay for women - all in the shadow of virulent and mean-spirited criticism - to her list of accomplishments.

Now that we have a loyal opposition party in the House, I look forward to her working to put the brakes on the list of budget-busting gifts to the wealthy and the draconian initiatives that the Republican Tea Party is pushing.

Let’s hope that the photo is repeated in January, 2013, when the same workers are putting up that sign over the doorway.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

How Can a Jew be a Republican Today?

There’s been a lot of chatter in the blogosphere lately about the apparent discrepancy between the charitable teachings of Jesus and the “me-first” policies of the self-proclaimed Christian right. As a Jew, I have similar questions about the dichotomy between Jewish values and Republican ideology.  

It hasn’t always been this way. I remember some very prominent Republican Jews whose values aligned with those of Judaism. Senator Jacob Javits, who served in the ‘60s and ‘70s comes to mind. He was a fiscal conservative, but a proponent of civil rights who worked to end the war in Viet Nam.

One of the tenets of Judaism is “Tikkun Olom”, which means “repairing the world.”  While there are as many interpretations of Tikkun Olom as there are Jews, in essence the term refers to each Jew doing his or her part to make the world a better place for all its citizens, whether through charitable acts, working with the underprivileged, saving the environment, or providing care to those in need.  Yet the current Republican agenda is in direct opposition to this concept. Tax cuts for the wealthy, denial of rights to women and gay Americans, kowtowing to corporate polluters, and imprisoning one of every 100 Americans goes against the grain of Jewish values. .

Eric Cantor, the highest ranking Republican Jew in Congress, wants to deny medical care to over 50 million Americans, restrict earnings for those at the lower rung of the ecomonic ladder, and provide more benefits to soulless corporations.. I have a tough time equating his position as a congressman with the teachings of Tikkun Olom.

Many Jews turn to the Republican party because of their support for the right-wing factions in Israel and have established an unholy alliance with fundamental Christians who view the Jewish state as a linchpin in their ultimate salvation. Whether their bellicose attitude toward Iran benefits the quest for Israeli security is the topic of another blog, but it falls right into the current Republicans’ thinking of “declare war now and ask questions later.”

It is possible to be fiscally conservative and do what is morally right. Unfortunately, that’s not the way the current crop of Republicans and Republican Jews are behaving. People of all faiths should closely examine the tenets of their religion and ask themselves whether their political leanings are consistent with their faith teachings.

What is hateful to thyself do not do to another. That is the whole Law, the rest is Commentary.” Rabbi Hillel - first century BCE

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Don't Take Marriage for Granite

Why do we marry? That’s not a simple question to answer, and the responses are as diverse and varied as the couples who make this commitment. But all will agree that marriage is a commitment - a promise between two people that they will love and support each other regardless of whatever else happens in their environment.

Governments recognize this commitment by providing some economic and legal benefits to married couples - tax breaks, hospital visitation rights, and joint financial arrangements to name a few.

Several states recognize that this type of love and commitment can transcend gender, and thus allow couples to marry regardless of their gender. New Hampshire is one such state.

But this month, with the surge of the election of social bigots, marriage equality is in danger in the Granite State. Enough Republican Tea Partiers have been elected to give the GOP a veto-proof majority in the state legislature. Like almost every other state, New Hampshire has significant budget problems, but one of the first items on the GOP’s agenda is to deny New Hampshire residents their rights by repealing the year-old legislation that implements marriage equality.

As I have previously written, there are two aspects to marriage - civil and religious, and these need to be kept separate. Since the U.S. Constitution clearly prohibits discrimination based on gender, there is no legal rationale for restricting civil marriage to opposite sex couples. Yet, right-wingers, who are otherwise strict interpreters of the Constitution, compromise their position when it comes to marriage equality. On the other hand, proponents of marriage equality recognize that faith institutions may opt in or opt out on the issue, based on their religious tenets. But as far as government is concerned, all marriages should be universally recognized.

It would be a travesty if New Hampshire repeals its marriage equality statute. All over the country, couples who marry would live under a Sword of Damocles in danger that their vows could be rescinded and their rights breached by the whims of an intolerant legislature.

Unfortunately, at the national level, the incoming House of Representatives is teeming with troglodytes who would like nothing more than to treat marriage equality as a wedge issue. Repeal of the misnamed Defense of Marriage Act is not going to happen in the 112th Congress. As the nation has taken a step forward in repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, New Hampshire is about to take a step backward that will not be rectified for several years to come.