Opinion

The Great Debate

Populism: The Democrats’ great divide

One day after President Barack Obama called for moving forward on trade authority in his State of the Union address, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declared, “I am against fast track,” and said he had no intention of bringing it to a vote in the Senate.

Reid’s announcement came after 550 organizations, representing virtually the entire organized base of the Democratic Party outside of Wall Street, called on Congress to oppose fast track. Though obscured by the Democrats’ remarkable unity in drawing contrasts with the Tea Party-dominated Republicans in Congress, the debate between an emerging populist wing of the Democratic Party and its still-dominant Wall Street wing is boiling.

For a constantly disputatious “big tent” party, Democrats are remarkably unified behind the jobs and inequality agenda the president ticked off in his State of the Union address — raising the minimum wage, immigration reform, paycheck fairness for women, paid family leave, investment in infrastructure, education and research and development, and an “all of the above” energy strategy. Republicans block action on all these relatively modest reforms, providing ammunition for Democrats in the November midterm elections.

But beneath this surface calm, there is a growing divide within the Democratic Party over what might be considered the tectonic plates of our political economy, a debate that has only begun to surface. Here are some of the core divisions:

Passive or Active Voice Populism

Since Occupy Wall Street, inequality has been Topic A, hardly surprising in an economy where the top 1 percent is capturing 95 percent of the income growth coming out of the Great Recession. The president weighed in, calling inequality the “defining challenge of our time.”

Drones: From bad habit to terrible policy

Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) recently lambasted legislation that may prevent the White House from transferring the lethal drone program from the CIA to the Defense Department. The provision is in a classified part of the bill, so the public may never know what it says.

This culture of secrecy underscores the reality that real drone reform is on the verge of conclusively failing to launch. Despite months of political fury and negative press, the drone program and its worst impulse — to kill without accountability for who is killed and why — are poised to become a permanent part of the way the United States conducts counterterrorism.

If there is to be any real reform on drone strikes, it must come this year — while the revelations over National Security Agency surveillance are keeping heat on the White House. Secrecy is the common denominator of the criticism the White House faces on both issues. President Barack Obama’s rhetoric on transparency and reform will always trigger cynicism so long as his administration’s practices of official secrecy continue.

Can Obama circumvent Washington?

Washington is broken,” Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee for president, said in September 2008. “My whole campaign has been premised from the start on the idea that we have to fundamentally change how Washington works.”

There are three ways that Washington works: compromise, crisis and clout. Compromise is the way Washington is supposed to work. It’s practically mandated by the Constitution, with its complex system of checks and balances and separation of powers. It’s the way the U.S. government has worked for more than 200 years.

But it’s not working very well any more. Party positions have dug in. Deal-making is harder now that there are fewer moderates in Congress. It has taken more than two years for the House of Representatives to pass a farm bill, and it’s already under attack by both conservatives and liberals.

Obama’s address: Borrowing from Bubba and the Gipper

Many presidents don’t have the problem of salvaging their second terms because the voters threw them out of office. Among those who win reelection, the successful communicators, such as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, used many of the techniques that President Barack Obama deployed in his State of the Union Address last night. He is likely to repeat them often this year, which is one that will determine whether his administration is remembered as transformational or transitional.

Giving Americans credit: While most recent presidents began their State of the Union addresses by rattling off positive economic statistics, Obama did it differently. Using archetypal anecdotes — a dedicated teacher, a high-tech entrepreneur, a night-shift worker – Obama gave regular Americans credit for reducing unemployment, adding manufacturing jobs and increasing high school graduation rates. In so doing, Obama emulated Reagan, who declared in his second State of the Union address of his second term: “Today, the American people deserve our thanks.”

By speaking for the American people instead of talking at them, Obama seeks to do what Reagan and Clinton accomplished: appeal to swing voters frustrated with political bickering.

On NSA, Obama still says ‘trust me’

President Barack Obama’s speech on Friday on intelligence reform marked a bullish shift in his approach to the National Security Agency.

The president dropped the pretense that there was “nothing to see here” — which his administration has offered since former government contractor Edward Snowden first revealed the NSA.’s expanding surveillance. Obama now acknowledges that there are problems to be solved. Yet his reforms boiled down to “trust me.”

While Obama did announce several new ways to increase accountability at the NSA, most were limited to executive actions. So the president basically changed his mind about the limits that he wants to place on his own powers. That means he can just as easily change his mind again and reverse course. So can the next president.

Christie: Crossing the line

Back in the 1970s, a Jewish organization commissioned a poll to investigate anti-Semitism in the United States. The poll included several open-ended questions. One asked, “Is there anything in particular you like about Jewish people?” The answers were recorded verbatim.

One respondent — a worker from Pittsburgh — answered, “What I like about them is that they are hardworking, aggressive and know how to get ahead.” The next question asked, “Is there anything in particular you don’t like about Jewish people?” His answer: “They’re too pushy and aggressive.”

The puzzled interviewer asked, “Isn’t that what you just said you like about them?” The respondent answered, “Yes. What I like about them is also what I don’t like about them.”

Filling judicial vacancies to protect the progressive legacy

What could never happen, finally did.

For more than 30 years the Democratic Senate caucus feebly stood by as Republicans seized control of the federal courts. Now, however, faced with a GOP filibuster of nominees for three vacancies on the appeals court that could determine the fate of most of President Barack Obama’s initiatives, the Democrats have at last responded.

The Democratic Senate majority last month eliminated the 60-vote requirement to end filibusters against presidential nominees to the lower federal courts and the executive branch. With this, they blocked a key element of the GOP’s long-term strategy to overturn the progressive legislative and judicial advances of the past 50 years, and prevent new Democratic initiatives.

Five years into Obama’s tenure, Democratic judicial appointees are still barely even with the number of active Republican judges. There are 93 vacancies, including 37 judicial emergencies as of January 7, with 53 nominations pending. If Obama is to preserve President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s legacy – as well as his own — against the many hostile judges now on the bench, he and the Senate will have to act quickly.

2014: Another election about Obamacare

Here we go again.

2014 will be the third election in a row in which Obamacare is the central issue. The Affordable Care Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law in March 2010, contributed to a fierce voter backlash against Democrats in November 2010. After the Supreme Court upheld the law in June 2012, the issue seemed to be settled by Obama’s re-election that November.

But no.

The botched Obamacare rollout this year has again thrust the issue to the top of the political agenda. Republicans are counting on opposition to Obamacare to propel them to a majority in the Senate next year. A conservative group is already running an ad attacking Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) for supporting Obamacare: “Next November, if you like your senator, you can keep her. If you don’t, you know what to do.”

2013 came to a close with two big political stories. The government shutdown in October was immensely damaging to Republicans. So damaging that House Republicans defied their conservative base and voted for a compromise budget deal last week. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) attacked the Tea Party, accusing them of pushing congressional Republicans “into this fight to defund Obamacare and shut down the government.” A fight Boehner said all along was unwinnable.

Obamacare’s endless exemptions

Thursday night, the White House announced yet another exemption from the pain Obamacare is causing so many Americans. This latest “fix” would allow some Americans who’ve lost plans to exempt themselves from Obamacare requirements by claiming the law imposes a “hardship” because it’s “unaffordable.”

“Hardship”…“unaffordable”…these are the Obama administration’s own terms. About its own law.

These are the very things Republicans and health experts warned about for years.

Danger and delay on dirty bombs

When highly radioactive material that can be used in a “dirty bomb” is moved to or from a hospital in New York City, it is done in the dead of night on cordoned streets with high security.

In Mexico two weeks ago, a truck moving a large canister containing radioactive material was hijacked at a gas station — where it had been parked with no security. The cobalt-60 that was stolen from the vehicle and then extracted from its protective lead shield is so potent that it is considered a significant national security threat under U.S. guidelines.

There are now no international mandatory requirements for how to control these dangerous materials — including how they should be transported. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the international nuclear watchdog, has only issued recommendations, in the form of a voluntary Code of Conduct.This disconnect between how nations manage extremely dangerous nuclear materials sought by terrorists creates significant security vulnerabilities. If a dirty bomb is exploded anywhere in the world, it would cross the nuclear terrorism threshold and open the door to further attacks.

  •