Opinion

The Great Debate

Populism? Where are the pitchforks?

Americans are in a surly mood, confronting rules they feel are rigged against them. President Barack Obama captured this populist temper in his re-election campaign.  He then launched his second term declaring that inequality is the “most pressing challenge of our time,” and laying out a popular agenda to raise the federal minimum wage, provide pay equity for women, establish universal pre-school and other initiatives that polls show the public strongly supports.

Republican obstruction, however, has blocked progress on all these — even as the House GOP last week passed Representative Paul Ryan’s budget, which cuts taxes for the rich and corporations, turns Medicare into a voucher program, slashes spending on education and protects subsidies to Big Oil.

Yet it is the president’s popularity that has cratered. Republicans are expected to easily retain control of the House in the November midterm elections — though Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) refuses to move bills on any of the public’s agenda. The Democratic Senate majority appears endangered. Data maestro Nate Silver is making the Republicans favorites to take the Senate in the fall midterms.   The New York Times reports Democrats are “scrambling to avoid disaster.”

Why can Republicans block politically popular measures without paying a political cost? Is populism merely entertaining froth, all the rage in Berkeley salons but impotent in real-world politics?

In fact, populist sentiments are on the rise. But the stunted economic recovery — and big GOP money — makes it hard for Democrats to exploit them.  Disarray on message pulls the populist punch. All this, ironically, helps conservative candidates peddle their own populist poses, often confusing voters.

Revising Obama’s ‘deporter in chief’ policy

In response to angry complaints from the Latino community about the administration’s deportation policies, President Barack Obama ordered a review in March “to see how to conduct enforcement more humanely.” At the same time, however, White House officials said the administration would neither suspend deportations nor expand the opportunities to stay for illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children.

That will not mollify his critics. Nor should it.

In a February speech, Obama had spoken movingly and from personal experience about the damage done to black and Latino young men by the loss of a father and the appallingly high number of fatherless homes.  Yet a month earlier, immigration officials had deported Josue Noe Sandoval-Perez. He “had been in the country for 16 years,” according to the New York Times,had no criminal record, paid taxes and was the primary breadwinner for his children – one an American citizen, the other [son] an immigrant who is here legally.”

In Obama’s five years in office, his administration has deported nearly 2 million undocumented immigrants, largely Latinos — reaching a new high of nearly 420,000 in fiscal year 2012. It took President George W. Bush his entire two terms to deport as many people as Obama has in five.

America is not broke

“We’re broke.” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Tea Party groups have repeated that phrase so frequently that it must be true, right?

But America is not broke. Our short-term budget outlook is stable, and our long-term challenges are manageable if both sides are willing to compromise. So why would politicians falsely claim that we’re broke? To justify radical changes to our nation’s social contract that Americans would never accept any other way.

This may be surprising, given how much we hear about a looming “debt crisis.” But annual budget deficits have fallen by almost two-thirds over the past five years. The total national debt is actually projected to shrink in each of the next three years as a share of the economy.

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.

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.

Tea Party zealots hold the public debate hostage

This year’s contrived budget crisis is headed to its climax, as the date for defaulting on the nation’s debt approaches.

Washington’s budget debates are dizzying and incomprehensible. But at stake is what kind of country we will have. House Republican Tea Party zealots, backed by well-funded right-wing lobbies, continue to manufacture budget crises. They want to alarm Americans into accepting cuts in basic security — in food stamps, and home heating, in Social Security or Medicare benefits — that would otherwise be utterly unacceptable.

Lost in the uproar is any reasoned discussion of the real strategies we need to make this economy work for working people. It is vital that the president and the Democrats in Congress end this macabre dance and make it clear to people just what the stakes actually are. The measure of any compromise deal is whether it will crush the hostage-takers.

Why this shutdown isn’t like 1995

The political battlefield of the current government shutdown looks a lot like the last big shutdown of 1995. But major changes within the Republican Party in Congress — a weaker leadership, the demise of moderates and two decades of gerrymandering — could make this year’s endgame far harder.

Then as now, a rebellious Republican Congress used a budget bill to set up a deliberate confrontation with a Democratic president over spending priorities. GOP militants and radicals in the House – today’s wing nuts — bet that gridlock, disarray and the embarrassment of a shutdown would force the White House to give in.

Then, as now, the president defied the Republican brinksmanship and took the political risk of a government shutdown rather than bowing to the GOP’s surrender terms. Former President Bill Clinton enjoyed the sport of sparring with Congress and President Barack Obama, after giving in so many times in the past three years, has finally decided to dig in his heels.

Shutdown: A fight with no room for compromise

To end the government shutdown, all Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) needs to do is let the House of Representatives vote on a budget. It would pass within 30 minutes. Virtually all 200 House Democrats would vote to keep the government open, as would as many as 50 Republicans. An easy majority.

But no. Boehner and other Republican leaders refuse to do that because they are in thrall to Tea Party conservatives. Hard-line conservatives number about 50 out of 232 House Republicans. But those conservatives are threatening to lead an insurrection against party leaders if they dare to allow a vote. Other Republican members are terrified that they will face a tough primary challenge from the right if they don’t go along with the Tea Party.

So what have we got? Minority government.

It’s outrageous when you think about it. Hard-line conservatives are blocking majority rule so they can get their way. They insist they are taking a stand on principle. Why? “Because we’re right, simply because we’re right,” one of them told the New York Times.

Obama’s political options

Fiscal crisis? What fiscal crisis? The stock market is up, unemployment is down and the deficit is shrinking.

The fiscal crisis is in Washington, and it’s a crisis of Washington’s own devising. All those deadlines! January 1: the fiscal cliff. March 1: sequesters. March 27: a possible government shutdown. Sometime in August:  the debt ceiling, again.

The unending fiscal crisis could take up the entire year. President Barack Obama desperately wants to end it. For one thing, more spending cuts could bring on a recession. For another, an unending fiscal crisis would monopolize the agenda. No time for Congress to take up immigration reform or gun control or the minimum wage or preschool education.

Boehner resurrects the antebellum South

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is now in Williamsburg, Virginia, meeting with his House Republican conference at their annual retreat. The GOP House members have likely gotten over the initial shock of the November elections – in which President Barack Obama won more than 51 percent of the vote and the Democratic majority swelled in the Senate.

Though the Republicans lost House seats and their candidates collected more than a million fewer votes than their Democratic rivals, the GOP retained a majority in the House of Representatives. This consolation prize has allowed Boehner to claim that House Republicans have a mandate every bit as compelling as that earned by the president. Conservative champions Grover Norquist and Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) echoed this claim.

“It’s very wrong to suggest that only the president has a mandate,” asserted former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who knows from congressional mandates. “The House Republicans also have a mandate, and it’s a much more conservative mandate than the president’s.”

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