Jim Gaines http://blogs.reuters.com/jamesrgaines Wed, 04 Feb 2015 22:54:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.5 Surprise! There may be a way to fix Washington. http://blogs.reuters.com/jamesrgaines/2014/11/10/surprise-there-may-be-a-way-to-fix-washington/ http://blogs.reuters.com/jamesrgaines/2014/11/10/surprise-there-may-be-a-way-to-fix-washington/#comments Mon, 10 Nov 2014 16:21:32 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/jamesrgaines/?p=111 U.S. President Obama hosts a luncheon for bi-partisan Congressional leaders in the Old Family Dining Room at the White House in Washington

The morning after the midterm elections, one of the best places to go for hope that the 114th Congress might actually get something done was a think tank not far from the Capitol called the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Founded in 2007 by four former Senate majority leaders and its director, Jason Grumet, the BPC gave itself the mission of trying to figure out how to make government work in a time when hyperpartisanship seemed to be bringing Washington to an almost complete stop.

Last Wednesday morning, former majority leaders Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota) and Trent Lott (R-Mississippi) talked about how things used to work, in a time when members of Congress lived where they worked, their kids grew up together, their spouses were friends, and compromise happened because people trusted each other, even when they profoundly disagreed.

If you want to know how bad it has become, the place to go is Grumet’s recently published book, City of Rivals: The Glorious Mess of American Democracy. “The people I have spoken to across the country who are absolutely the most fed up with Congress are members of Congress,” he said in an interview. “It’s a horrible experience. One U.S. senator described his job to me as ‘a glorified telemarketer who occasionally gets to vote for an assistant secretary of education.’”

Grumet’s story is about a breakdown of trust between the people and their representatives that started with Vietnam and Watergate but snapped outright when the reforms that followed “our long national nightmare,” as President Gerald Ford put it, failed to produce a new dawn.

The series of bribery, embezzlement and money-laundering scandals that hit Congress in the 1980s and 1990s led to many positive ethical reforms. But the scandals of the 2000s, encompassed in the name of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, were so sordid and pervasive that they put every member of Congress under suspicion, and the wave of reform that followed created as many problems as it solved.

As evidence, Grumet reports watching a group of high-priced corporate lawyers urgently hacking up finger food before a party where legislators were expected, so that the portion sizes would be in line with the so-called “toothpick exemption.”

“While recognizing that these rules were not in the best interest of the [Congress],” Grumet writes, the members “simply could not go on the record voting against them.”

In a reaction Grumet describes as “strategic self-loathing,” every sitting and hopeful elected official began running away from Washington, politically and literally. Members sold their homes and moved back to their states and districts. To avoid allegations of corruption, members stopped traveling together. The Congressional work week shortened from five days to three, and more and more of a legislator’s time in Washington was spent raising money to meet the rising costs of elections, especially since the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United. Tightening this vicious circle, the flow of money into PACs went mostly into negative ads that only encouraged public cynicism.

Eventually, the members of Congress no longer knew, much less trusted, each other. From a place where people could debate and negotiate their disagreements in an atmosphere of trust and friendship, Congress became a stage on which strangers arranged themselves in front of C-SPAN cameras, and posturing for constituents replaced serious policy debate. 

Some of Grumet’s prescriptions for these and other problems may seem politically incorrect, but they are founded on not only the work of the BPC’s researchers in residence but also the long experience of the center’s four co-founders–George Mitchell, Tom Daschle, Robert Dole and the late Howard Baker. Among them:

  • Stop passing laws that try to prevent acts that are already criminal. Let the FBI and capital police do their jobs.
  • Instead of stigmatizing all lobbyists as potential Jack Abramoffs, which threatens the work of serious policy experts along with loophole hucksters, don’t stop the revolving door, just make sure the bad guys don’t get through it. “There are a lot of lobbyists who have no business serving in the federal government,” Grumet said in an interview, “and there are a lot of lobbyists who are absolutely talented public policy experts.” (Grumet becomingly concedes that he and the BPC have a dog in this fight, since they too have a lobbying arm that pushes for bipartisan policy solutions.)
  • Return Congress to a five-day work week, and make Congressional travel a mandatory committee assignment, not a perk, to give members both close exposure to high-priority issues and the time and space they need to build trust in each other.
  • Members of Congress must have a way to debate against each other in some forum where their words don’t end up taken out of context in the next round of negative campaign ads, which is to say in private. As a journalist, it’s hard for me to advocate for less transparency, but the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, for example, could never have agreed on our founding document except in the complete secrecy of the “dark conclave.” Open government must somehow coexist with the kind of candid deliberations that happen behind closed doors, and in the interest of a functional democracy we need to find that middle ground.
  • Since the Supreme Court has set loose the flood of Big Money into politics, and since the Supreme Court isn’t going anywhere, focus for now on full and immediate disclosure of donors — no delay and no exceptions.
  • Encourage the shift away from the PACs’ knife-sharp negative ads by raising the limits on donations to the political parties, which are more accountable than anonymous, benignly aliased PACs will ever be.
  • Finally, bring back “earmarks” — not the bridges to nowhere of the bad old days, but the kind of funding for worthy local projects that makes a decision to do the right thing for the country as a whole compatible with political survival for the member who takes a “hard” vote. The prohibition of earmarks since 2011, while addressing a very real problem of abuse, robbed Congress of one of the most important means of squaring national, state and local interests, a fundamental tension in the U.S. Constitution and in the federal form of government.

This summary does Grumet’s work a disservice if it suggests that he advocates letting Congress get back to its junkets, fat cats and pork. He does not. What he advocates is government that can function even in a time of highly charged partisanship.

The polarization that exists today clearly doesn’t have to be fatal to our democracy, he argues, since it actually used to be a lot worse.

The campaign rhetoric of 1800, for example, when Thomas Jefferson ran against John Adams for the presidency, makes MSNBC and Fox News look like founts of bipartisan reason. One of Adams’s favorite newspapers said that if Jefferson were elected, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will all be openly taught and practiced.” Jefferson’s flack called Adams a “hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force nor firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

By that standard, even the nastiest races of 2014 races seem polite.

Grumet’s bottom line is this: “If your choice is to make the country less partisan or make a partisan country governable, I think the choice is pretty clear.”

Jefferson and Adams would have to agree.
I welcome your comments, reactions, amplifications, relevant links and ideas for future columns. You can reach me at jimgaines.reuters@gmail.com

PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama hosts a luncheon for bi-partisan Congressional leaders in the Old Family Dining Room at the White House in Washington, Nov. 7, 2014. From left to right are Speaker of the House John Boehner, Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. REUTERS/Larry Downing 

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Clear-eyed dissent from Supreme Court’s ruling to allow Texas voter ID law http://blogs.reuters.com/jamesrgaines/2014/10/18/clear-eyed-dissent-from-supreme-courts-ruling-to-allow-texas-voter-id-law/ http://blogs.reuters.com/jamesrgaines/2014/10/18/clear-eyed-dissent-from-supreme-courts-ruling-to-allow-texas-voter-id-law/#comments Sat, 18 Oct 2014 15:50:08 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/jamesrgaines/?p=96 RTR490V1.jpg

Before dawn on Saturday morning, the Supreme Court issued a terse, unsigned ruling that, in effect, endorsed Texas’s voter-ID law, the most restrictive such law in the nation.

On October 9, in a 147-page opinion that followed a two-week trial on the facts, the Federal District Court in Corpus Christi had struck down the law, known as Senate Bill 14, as patently discriminatory, the equivalent of a poll tax. A week later that court’s injunction was overturned by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Appeals Court for the Fifth Circuit.  It was this stay of the injunction — in effect a decision to let the voter-ID law go into effect — that  the Supreme Court left in place in on Saturday with its 57-word decision. The decision did not articulate the Court’s reasoning, but a blistering dissent made clear that its basis was not Senate Bill 14, but rather the confusion that a change so close to the election might create.

Excerpts of that dissent, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and  joined by justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, are below. For ease of reading citations are omitted, but they can be found in the full text here.

I would not upset the District Court’s reasoned, record-based judgment, which the Fifth Circuit accorded little, if any, deference … The fact-intensive nature of this case does not justify the Court of Appeals’ stay order; to the contrary, the Fifth Circuit’s refusal to home in on the facts found by the district court is precisely why this Court should vacate the stay….

[T]here is little risk that the District Court’s injunction will in fact disrupt Texas’ electoral processes. Texas need only reinstate the voter identification procedures it employed for ten years (from 2003 to 2013) and in five federal general elections. To date, the new regime, Senate Bill 14, has been applied in only three low participation elections—namely, two statewide primaries and one statewide constitutional referendum, in which voter turnout ranged from 1.48% to 9.98%. The November 2014 election would be the very first federal general election conducted under Senate Bill 14’s regime. In all likelihood, then, Texas’ poll workers are at least as familiar with Texas’ pre-Senate Bill 14 procedures as they are with the new law’s requirements….

Senate Bill 14 replaced the previously existing voter identification requirements with the strictest regime in the country. The Bill requires in-person voters to present one of a limited number of government issued photo identification documents. …Those who lack the approved forms of identification may obtain an “election identification certificate” from the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), but more than 400,000 eligible voters face round-trip travel times of three hours or more to the nearest DPS office. Moreover, applicants for an election identification certificate ordinarily must present a certified birth certificate. A birth certificate, however, can be obtained only at significant cost—at least $22 for a standard certificate sent by mail. And although reduced-fee birth certificates may be obtained for $2 to $3, the State did not publicize that option on DPS’s Web site or on Department of Health and Human Services forms for requesting birth certificates.

On an extensive factual record developed in the course of a nine-day trial, the District Court found Senate Bill 14 irreconcilable with §2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because it was enacted with a racially discriminatory purpose and would yield a prohibited discriminatory result. The District Court emphasized the “virtually unchallenged” evidence that Senate Bill 14 “bear[s] more heavily on” minority voters. In light of the “seismic demographic shift” in Texas between 2000 and 2010, making Texas a “majority-minority state,” the District Court observed that the Texas Legislature and Governor had an evident incentive to “gain partisan advantage by suppressing” the “votes of African-Americans and Latinos.”

The District Court also found a tenuous connection between the harms Senate Bill 14 aimed to ward off, and the means adopted by the State to that end. Between 2002 and 2011, there were only two in-person voter fraud cases prosecuted to conviction in Texas. Despite awareness of the Bill’s adverse effect on eligible-to-vote minorities, the Texas Legislature rejected a “litany of ameliorative amendments” designed to lessen the Bill’s impact on minority voters—for example, amendments permitting additional forms of identification, eliminating fees, providing indigence exceptions, and increasing voter education and funding—without undermining the Bill’s purported policy justifications. Texas did not begin to demonstrate that the Bill’s discriminatory features were necessary to prevent fraud or to increase public confidence in the electoral process…. On this plain evidence, the District Court concluded that the Bill would not have been enacted absent its racially disparate effects….

Under Senate Bill 14, a cost attends every form of qualified identification available to the general public. Texas tells the Court that any number of incidental costs are associated with voting. But the cost at issue here is one deliberately imposed by the State. Even at $2, the toll is at odds with this Court’s precedent. And for some voters, the imposition is not small. A voter whose birth certificate lists her maiden name or misstates her date of birth may be charged $37 for the amended certificate she needs to obtain a qualifying ID. Texas voters born in other States may be required to pay substantially more than that.

The potential magnitude of racially discriminatory voter disenfranchisement counseled hesitation before disturbing the District Court’s findings and final judgment. Senate Bill 14 may prevent more than 600,000 registered Texas voters (about 4.5% of all registered voters) from voting in person for lack of compliant identification. A sharply disproportionate percentage of those voters are African-American or Hispanic.

Unsurprisingly, Senate Bill 14 did not survive federal preclearance under §5 of the Voting Rights Act…. [R]racial discrimination in elections inTexas is no mere historical artifact. To the contrary,Texas has been found in violation of the Voting Rights Act in every redistricting cycle from and after 1970. The District Court noted particularly plaintiffs’ evidence—largely unchallenged by Texas— regarding the State’s long history of official discrimination in voting, the statewide existence of racially polarized voting, the incidence of overtly racial political campaigns,the disproportionate lack of minority elected officials, and the failure of elected officials to respond to the concerns of minority voters.

The greatest threat to public confidence in elections in this case is the prospect of enforcing a purposefully discriminatory law, one that likely imposes an unconstitutional poll tax and risks denying the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of eligible voters. To prevent that disenfranchisement, I would vacate the Fifth Circuit’s stay of the permanent injunction ordered by the District Court.




PHOTO: A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court building is seen in Washington October 5, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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Teddy Roosevelt v. Citizens United http://blogs.reuters.com/jamesrgaines/2014/10/16/you-can-take-money-out-of-politics-and-teddy-roosevelt-did/ http://blogs.reuters.com/jamesrgaines/2014/10/16/you-can-take-money-out-of-politics-and-teddy-roosevelt-did/#comments Thu, 16 Oct 2014 21:59:08 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/jamesrgaines/?p=78 RTR3DW4D.jpg

How is it possible that, given overwhelming public concern about the direction of the country, we could be facing historically low turnout in the midterm elections on Nov. 4?

The question isn’t new. As trust in government has swung up and down in the past half century, turnout for midterm races, as in presidential years, has varied relatively little, each staying within a 10-point range. Studies of nonvoters have found many reasons, but one of the big ones is that people know a single vote rarely if ever determines the outcome of an election.

By this reasoning, of course, why would anyone ever vote?

A portrait of U.S. President William McKinleyFor those with no family member to vote for, the best answer is usually “civic virtue,” which just means caring about the country, its direction and its future. That old answer to an old problem takes on new urgency in elections when the country faces some form of peril.

One of those moments came in 1896, after the panic of 1893, a time when the Gilded Age’s concentration of great wealth among the very few made a sharp contrast with the deep economic depression that most of the country was suffering through.

The elections of 1896 and 1900 were the last in American history when turnout exceeded 70 percent. Both pitted the populist William Jennings Bryan, defender of the common man, against William McKinley, supporter of the gold standard and, in Bryan’s view, a tool of “the money trust.”

The specter of a Bryan presidency was so palpable and frightening to the corporate and financial worlds that the McKinley campaign was able to pioneer a crude early form of modern political fundraising: His campaign manager simply visited heads of large banks and corporations, asked them how much they would spend to beat Bryan, and took their checks to the bank.

McKinley was able to raise $3.5 million that way in 1896. Calculations of the current value of old money are notoriously squishy, but the equivalent in economic power today would be well north of $1 billion and, in any case, far more money per ballot than was ever spent before or since.

Money talked so loudly in McKinley’s lopsided victories that in the end it seems to have worked too well. After McKinley’s assassination in September 1901, criticism of his fundraising made campaign finance reform a signature issue for his running mate and successor, Theodore Roosevelt, who started talking about it not long after becoming president. Though TR accepted corporate contributions for his campaign of 1904, he ignored the donors’ requests for payback (Henry Clay Frick groused, “We bought the son of a bitch, and then he didn’t stay bought”) and pushed through the Tillman Act of 1907, which prohibited banks and corporations from contributing to political campaigns.

A century of campaign-finance reform followed, the constant drift of it being to regulate, contain and disclose the flow of Big Money into U.S. politics. Some of that reform was halfhearted because the people who voted for it needed the money they were supposed to be cutting off. But it reflected the public’s strong conviction that letting corporations and the wealthy use their financial power to exert a greater say in elections than ordinary citizens was just plain bad for democracy.

That view hit a big snag with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United four years ago and in McCutcheon v. the Federal Election Commission last spring, which opened the floodgates to Big Money contributions and allowed even mega-donors to remain anonymous, preventing the public from knowing where a lot of that money was coming from, and why.

Once in a while, though, you get to see where some of the “dark money” comes from and what its purpose is, and when that happens, as it did last week, it’s clear why nondisclosure is such a bad idea.

Given the partisan divide on this Supreme Court, it’s probably going to take new laws and new lawmakers to change things, and that’s what my vote is going to be about on Nov. 4. But take your pick: Abortion, contraception, fracking, climate change, Ebola, Islamic State, failing schools, crumbling roads and bridges—there’s something for everybody in the midterm  elections.

So this column is dedicated to my 60 million fellow Americans who could have registered by now but haven’t — and to the 60 million registered voters who sat out the last midterm elections. Early voting may already have started, but it’s not too late to register, and there is help if you need it (here, here, here and lots of other places).

Our votes may not decide the election, but they say a lot about who we are. And to paraphrase Ronald Reagan’s great joke about a room full of manure and a pony, there just might be a Teddy Roosevelt in there somewhere.

I welcome your comments, reactions, amplifications, relevant links and ideas for future columns. You can reach me at jimgaines.reuters@gmail.com

TOP PHOTO: Images of President Theodore Roosevelt are seen in the background as artist Sarah Kaufmann sculpts cheese ahead of President’s Day at Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum in Times Square, New York on February 15, 2013. REUTERS/Zoran Milich 

INSET PHOTO: A portrait of U.S. President William McKinley, who served from 1897-1901. REUTERS/Library of Congress/Handout

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One in four Americans want their state to secede from the U.S., but why? http://blogs.reuters.com/jamesrgaines/2014/09/19/one-in-four-americans-want-their-state-to-secede-from-the-u-s-but-why/ http://blogs.reuters.com/jamesrgaines/2014/09/19/one-in-four-americans-want-their-state-to-secede-from-the-u-s-but-why/#comments Fri, 19 Sep 2014 09:59:10 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/jamesrgaines/?p=44 SECESSION_opinion_map with q

Click on the image to explore the the complete poll results.

For the past few weeks, as Scotland debated the wisdom of independence, Reuters has been asking Americans how they would feel about declaring independence today, not from the United Kingdom, but from the mother country they left England to create. The exact wording of the question was, “Do you support or oppose the idea of your state peacefully withdrawing from the United States of America and the federal government?”


It was hard to imagine many people would support secession. Forget the fact that the cautionary lesson of the Civil War is top of mind for many people as we commemorate its 150th anniversary; just in terms of dollars and cents, who in their right minds would give up all the money they’ve already paid into the Social Security and Medicare systems? Besides, most states get more back from the federal government than they put in.

Then the results came in. You can see them for yourself here, and you can filter them any way you want—by age, region, income, party affiliation, etc. Any way you slice it, the data are startlingly clear: Almost a quarter (23.9 percent) of those surveyed said they were strongly or provisionally inclined to leave the United States, and take their states with them. Given the polling sample — about 9,000 people so far—the online survey’s credibility interval (which is digital for “margin of error”) was only 1.2 percentage points, so there is no question that that is what they said.

template0914Secession got more support from Republicans than Democrats, more from right- than left-leaning independents, more from younger than older people, more from lower- than higher-income brackets, more from high school than college grads. But there was a surprising amount of support in every group and region, especially the Rocky Mountain states, the Southwest and the old Confederacy, but also in places like Illinois and Kansas. And of the people who said they identified with the Tea Party, supporters of secession were actually in the majority, with 53 percent.

The question is, what do results like this mean for the country?

First, it should be acknowledged that intramural conflict has been in character for Americans since the earliest settlements, when Puritan New England faced off against Royalist Virginia in the English Civil War. More than a century later, the Revolutionary War was barely won when the states, never quite friendly, were at each other’s throats, and the infant nation came close to being strangled in its crib.

It was in part to avoid the danger that the colonies would break into competing regional confederacies that the founders plotted to hold the Constitutional Convention of 1787. But even when the new Constitution made secession illegal, the impulse to break up stayed strong. Serious state and regional threats of secession flared up in 1799, 1814 and 1828. Fifteen years before 11 Southern states did secede in 1860, sparking the Civil War, William Lloyd Garrison called for the North to secede under the banner of “No Union With Slaveholders.”

All told, secessionist feints and follies have produced notional movements for more than a hundred new states and nations in North America, from Absaroka to Yazoo. A book about such causes, Lost States, manages to be quite amusing.

Followup phone calls with a small, random sample of pro-secession respondents to the Reuters poll, however, suggest that while their wish to leave the union may not be quite what it appears, it is not amusing at all.

Those we spoke to seemed to have answered as they did as a form of protest that was neither red nor blue but a polychromatic riot — against a recovery that has yet to produce jobs, against jobs that don’t pay, against mistreatment of veterans, against war, against deficits, against hyper-partisanship, against political corruption, against illegal immigration, against the assault on marriage, against the assault on same-sex marriage, against government in the bedroom, against government in general — the president, Congress, the courts and both political parties.

By the evidence of the poll data as well as these anecdotal conversations, the sense of aggrievement is comprehensive, bipartisan, somewhat incoherent, but deeply felt.

This should be more than disconcerting; it’s a situation that could get dangerous. As the Princeton political scientist Mark Beissinger has shown, separatist movements can take hold around contempt for incumbents and the status quo even when protesters have no ideology in common.

The United States hardly seems to be on the verge of fracture, and the small secession movements in a handful of American states today represent a tiny percentage of those polled by Reuters. But any country where 60 million people declare themselves to be sincerely aggrieved — especially one that is fractious by nature — is a country inviting either the sophistry of a demagogue or a serious movement for reform.

I welcome your comments, reactions, amplifications, relevant links and ideas for future columns. You can reach me at jimgaines.reuters@gmail.com

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A constitutional amendment to take Big Money out of politics dies quietly http://blogs.reuters.com/jamesrgaines/2014/09/12/nearly-80-percent-of-americans-want-it-but-their-chance-of-getting-it-just-took-another-hit/ http://blogs.reuters.com/jamesrgaines/2014/09/12/nearly-80-percent-of-americans-want-it-but-their-chance-of-getting-it-just-took-another-hit/#comments Fri, 12 Sep 2014 18:56:54 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/jamesrgaines/?p=33 RTR45FDR.jpg

This week the U.S. Senate considered a constitutional amendment that would have allowed Congress and state legislatures to limit the power of money in politics. The debate was not much covered in the media because the outcome was so predictable. But the party-line vote that killed it should not go unnoted.

A remarkable majority of the American public — 79 percent according to Gallup — want campaign finance reform. The right and left, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, even Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly agree that, left unchecked, Big Money corrupts politics and undermines democracy.

That was one of the few things Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton agreed on, and both the American and French Revolutions were fought in part to get the financial power and privilege of aristocracy out of governance.

But even George III after Yorktown and Louis XVI on the eve of execution were more popular than Congress is today, and the strangely perverse partisanship that characterized the debate on the amendment this week helps to explain why.

In fairness, the U.S. Supreme Court started it. In two 5-4 rulings — Citizens United vs the Federal Election Commission in 2010 and McCutcheon vs. FEC last spring — the five conservative justices, like the Republicans in Congress this week, invoked the American Civil Liberties Union’s traditional hard line on free speech to justify lifting restrictions on political spending.

The liberals on the court, just like the Democrats in Congress, embraced a position closer to what was once the hard-right view. Ronald Reagan’s political godfather, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, stated the position clearly in his breakthrough credo of 1960, The Conscience of a Conservative: “In order to achieve the widest possible distribution of political power, financial contributions to political campaigns should be made by individuals alone. I see no reason for labor unions — or corporations — to participate in politics. Both were created for economic purposes and their activities should be restricted accordingly.”

When you find Democrats close to Goldwater’s position and Republicans on the side of the ACLU, you have to wonder if something other than principle is driving the argument.

Is it that Republicans benefit from Big Money more than Democrats do? Maybe, or maybe that’s just a coincidence. No matter. Democrats are as willing to take the money as Republicans are, and Republicans know as well as Democrats do what money does to politics. In his book Republic, Lost, Lawrence Lessig quotes several prominent Republicans to that effect — out-of-office Republicans, of course, including former Representative Joe Scarborough. “Across the spectrum, money changed votes,” the host of Morning Joe said of his years in Congress, “… and I’m sure it has in every other administration, too.”

To be clear, we’re not talking about bribery or quid pro quo corruption, just the kind of thing that happens between friends who do favors for each other because — well, maybe not exactly because, maybe it’s just another coincidence — one of them has money and needs some regulation changed and the other has political power and needs that money, a lot.

This is an indictment of no one, in either party. The system is corrupt, not the people (Jack Abramoff aside). The people are doing what the system allows and now more than ever demands.

This is a hard problem, because two first-priority principles are in conflict, free speech and civic integrity. But there are weak points in the front lines of this contest that might suggest areas of compromise.

The core principles that the court affirmed in Citizens United and McCutcheon are that corporations are people, with the same right to influence politics as voters, and that you can’t place arbitrary limits on political donations because money is speech.

Well, yes, money talks. But we regulate speech all the time —in debate on the floor of Congress, for example, and when lawyers argue before the Supreme Court. As former Justice John Paul Stevens argues in his recent book Six Amendments, we do that especially when “there is an interest in giving adversaries an equal opportunity to persuade a decision maker to reach one conclusion rather than another.” Like a voter trying to decide between two candidates. Remember the equal-time rule and the Fairness Doctrine? We’ve worked on these problems before.

Corporations are “legal persons,” to be sure, but they are “people” who do not die and cannot vote, who have liability protection as well as civil rights, who can live in many countries simultaneously and whose duty is — and must be — not to democracy or the common welfare but to maximizing profits and shareholder return.

Especially given U.S. corporations’ global spread, the days are gone when the CEO of any multinational could say, “What’s good for [your company name here] is good for America.” When asked if he would consider building more refineries in the United States to forestall future gas shortages, then ExxonMobil chairman Lee Raymond replied, “Why would I do that? I’m not a U.S. company, and I don’t make decisions based on what’s good for the U.S.” Raymond was not being anti-American, just honest.

We prevent citizens of other countries and foreign corporations from donating to our politicians and political causes, why not multinationals?

All corporations neatly fit James Madison’s definition of “factions,” by which he explained the need for checks and balances and the separation of powers in three branches of government. “By a faction,” he wrote, “I understand a number of citizens…who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

On the other hand, Catholic Charities and the Sierra Club are corporations and factions, too. Again, this is not easy.

No one ever imagined that the constitutional amendment defeated in the Senate this week would get enough votes to get through Congress, and there were problems with its language that make its loss difficult to mourn.

But the people will have a vote in November that could affect the fate of reform in the next Congress, and if they weren’t attentively watching the roll call vote on Thursday afternoon, the mid-term candidates’ campaign staffs surely were. We will start seeing the commercials next week.

It is difficult to overstate how much is at stake, and Goldwater didn’t when he put it this way: “Our nation is facing a crisis of liberty if we do not control campaign expenditures. We must prove that elective office is not for sale. We must convince the public that elected officials are what James Madison intended us to be, agents of the sovereign people, not the hired hands of rich givers….”

The Senate’s lone socialist, Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, couldn’t have said it better himself.


 I welcome your comments, reactions, amplifications, relevant links and ideas for future columns. You can reach me at jimgaines.reuters@gmail.com


PHOTO: U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) (R) addresses a news conference in support of a proposed constitutional amendment for campaign finance reform, on Capitol Hill in Washington September 8, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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US strategy vs. Islamic State: Better right than fast http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2014/09/02/why-we-dont-have-a-strategy-yet-makes-good-strategic-sense-against-the-islamic-state/ http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2014/09/02/why-we-dont-have-a-strategy-yet-makes-good-strategic-sense-against-the-islamic-state/#comments Tue, 02 Sep 2014 17:57:33 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/?p=34009 RTR44KEZ.jpg

In her recently published memoir Hard Choices, former Senator Hillary Clinton recounts the meeting, nine days after the election of 2008, when President-elect Barack Obama first asked her to be his secretary of state. He “presented a well-considered argument,” she writes, “explaining that he would have to concentrate most of his time and attention on the economic crisis and needed someone of stature to represent him abroad.”

No doubt he meant that sincerely -- the U.S. financial system was still deep in crisis — but in the context of events this summer, Obama’s assumption that he would be focused mainly on domestic concerns suggests how little even a president of the United States can claim control of world events. The murders of American journalists James Foley and now Steven Sotloff by the Islamic State have put a very fine point on that.

Few U.S. presidents have faced as many disparate foreign-policy challenges as those that confronted Barack Obama this summer. Last month alone, he managed to help remove the too-sectarian leader of Iraq, helped to stand up a more inclusive government there, then launched a campaign of air strikes to support efforts to keep it from folding further into the Islamic State. The month began with a “green on blue” attack in Afghanistan that cost the life of a U.S. general (the first such casualty in 44 years) and ended with a resumption of political hostilities between presidential candidates that took  the Afghan government to the brink of collapse on the eve of the U.S. troop withdrawal. Meanwhile “liberated” post-Gadaffi Libya slid further toward chaos, Israel waged war with Hamas in Gaza, and Russia more or less invaded Ukraine.

Last week, while most of that was still going on, the president was asked at a press conference whether he would seek congressional approval to take action against the Islamic State in Syria as well as Iraq. He said yes but it would have to wait until specific plans were fully developed in light of all possible variables: “We don’t have a strategy yet.”

Widely and in some places willfully taken out of context to mean “I have no idea what we should do”, that quote was the headline everywhere, the talk of the Sunday morning news shows. Of all the many politicians and pundits to castigate Obama for lack of a detailed battle plan, perhaps the most remarkable was Kentucky’s Senator Rand Paul, a libertarian deeply suspicious of U.S. military action, someone who opposed punishing Syria for its use of chemical weapons and who has advocated cutting off all foreign aid. “If the president has no strategy,” he said, “maybe it’s time for a new president.” If that new president were himself, he said, he would call a joint session of Congress and ask for authorization to “destroy ISIS militarily.”

In the aftermath of IS’s many outrages against Americans, Iraqis and Syrians alike, the urge to action is natural and proper, as it was after 9/11. Since then more than 6,700 Americans have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly 50,000 came home wounded, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans died in the wars as well. Some experts plausibly argue that U.S. policies toward Iraq and Syria contributed to the rise of the Islamic State.

Such outcomes, ordinary diligence and building the best conditions for success all argue for the greatest care in developing strategy for a region that has been so consistently defiant of U.S. intentions and is now in so fluid a state.

Conversations on the sidelines of this week’s NATO summit in Wales and direct talks during a trip to the Middle East by Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will be aimed at coalition-building, which by all accounts will be critical to defeating the Islamic State. As an illuminating graphic in the Wall Street Journal suggests, the tangle of nations who share an interest in IS’s demise suggests reason for hope that military and diplomatic efforts can and will succeed.

The new government in Iraq has already given the region’s most powerful rivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran, something to agree on. This week, for the first time since the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s deputy foreign minister flew to Riyadh for talks.

Since any strategy will implicate the fate of Russia’s ally Syria, Moscow too may have a role to play, which could draw U.S. and EU policy toward Vladimir Putin and Ukraine into the diplomatic calculus.

In short, the global chessboard has never been more three-dimensional, fraught with both peril and potential.

In a recent interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, former Secretary Clinton observed that the Obama administration’s foreign policy watchword—“don’t do stupid stuff”—was “not an organizing principle,” which is true enough. But given past results and present complications of U.S. policy in the Middle East, it is at least the right place to start. If the forthcoming plan of military and diplomatic attack on the Islamic State manages only to avoid the unintended consequences of previous Western interventions in the region, that will be a strategy worth waiting for.

PHOTO: Iraqi Shi'ite militia fighters hold the Islamic State flag as they celebrate after breaking the siege of Amerli by Islamic State militants, September 1, 2014. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

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Waiting for the cold light of day in Missouri and the Middle East http://blogs.reuters.com/jamesrgaines/2014/08/26/missouri-and-the-middle-east-seemingly-nothing-in-common-but-everything-at-stake/ http://blogs.reuters.com/jamesrgaines/2014/08/26/missouri-and-the-middle-east-seemingly-nothing-in-common-but-everything-at-stake/#comments Tue, 26 Aug 2014 21:02:12 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/jamesrgaines/?p=12 RTR43POA.jpg

Aside from the strange fact that both the Ferguson Police Department and the barbarians of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are using U.S. armor and weaponry, the shooting death of Michael Brown and the murder of James Foley would seem to have little in common, about as little as the Midwest and the Middle East.

Yet the similarities are evocative. Both frame enormously complex problems in the context of a single, riveting incident. Both were deaths in the American family, calling every parent to feel something of the Brown and Foley parents’ bottomless grief and to think, if only for an instant, “there but for the grace of God….”

Both events draw attention to life-and-death issues that call on every resource of our minds and hearts: What to do about racial divisions at home and the horrific outbreak of lethal sectarianism abroad.

A man holds up a sign supporting American journalist James Foley during a protest against the Assad regime in Syria in Times Square in New YorkBut both stories are also missing some critical specifics: What actually happened between Brown and Officer Darren Wilson, and exactly how — in pursuit of what regional and global strategy — should the United States act against the forces that killed Foley?

Both incidents hit uncomfortably close to home for me. I might well have felt one way about the Islamic State—“Go all in and shoot the bastards”—if my eldest son had not just told me that he thought a good way to start what he hopes will be a career in public service would be to sign up for Officer Candidate School. The military is an honorable profession, but I lost friends who did that when I was in college.

As for Ferguson, decades as a journalist cautioned me to wait for the full story to unfold — wait for all the evidence, the policeman’s story and the grand jury – before making a judgment.

But then my second son came home with one of his oldest and best friends for a sleepover last week. He and his friend, who is black, were driving through a suburb of Washington when they were stopped by white policemen for what the officers said was a broken tag light, though this van actually had no tag light. My son and his friend were detained on the side of the road, questioned and searched for more than half an hour because the police did not believe that the van my son’s friend was driving belonged to his mother.

In the morning, as we watched the news from Ferguson together, my son’s friend told me that his father had told him for as long as he could remember that the police would treat him differently because he is black. His father was right, he said—stops like the one that night happened to him “all the time.”

But these are anecdotes, not the basis for decision-making. I know that neither fear for my son’s life in the military nor my other son’s eye-opening moment with his friend should influence my position on matters of such importance. Letting emotions of the moment inform such decisions really isn’t right. Everyone knows that.

In the wake of Foley’s horrific murder, videotaped and posted online for maximum impact, the U.S. response seemed as clear to top administration officials as it might have seemed to me. The U.S. had to “crush” (Secretary of State John Kerry) and “destroy” (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey). Republican hawks in Congress said the same thing on the Sunday morning talk shows, and some pundits were quick to second them.

Only a resounding silence came from President Barack Obama, who will have to articulate a strategy and get congressional approval for it before much crushing and destroying can actually take place.

Likewise in Ferguson, the eulogists for Michael Brown called for action to prevent the recurrence of a crime that has not yet been proved or even defined. In that sense some of the speakers at the funeral and the late-night protesters on West Florissant Avenue resembled nothing so much as those talking heads on the morning news shows who were ready to hit the beaches.

Understandably inflamed by the awful deaths of these two men, advocates for aggressive U.S. military action in the Middle East, like those ready to punish Darren Wilson, are mistaking questions for answers.


TOP PHOTO: Michael Brown Sr, yells out as his son’s casket is lowered into the ground at St. Peter’s Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri August 25, 2014. REUTERS/Richard Perry/Pool

INSET PHOTO: A man holds up a sign in memory of U.S. journalist James Foley during a protest against the Assad regime in Syria in Times Square in New York August 22, 2014. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri 

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Why America can’t disown the children at our border http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2014/07/14/how-a-little-known-1996-act-set-the-stage-for-the-child-migrant-crisis/ http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2014/07/14/how-a-little-known-1996-act-set-the-stage-for-the-child-migrant-crisis/#comments Mon, 14 Jul 2014 17:43:47 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/?p=32870 Two young girls watch a World Cup soccer match on a television from their holding area where hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center in Nogales

It only seems like the latest immigration crisis hit by surprise, turning up suddenly on the U.S. border from someplace deep in the jungles of somewhere else.

In fact, the children’s exodus from Central America has been in the making for decades. It is coming from a region where the United States has been a major political and military player for more than half a century, and it has roots in U.S. streets and prisons. If these kids weren’t the ones suffering the worst of it, you might call them payback.

During the 1980s, when much of Central America was racked by civil wars, thousands of Honduran, Salvadoran and Guatemalan families fled north and settled in U.S. slums, where their kids formed gangs in part to protect themselves from existing gangs who rejected and threatened them. Police traced the worst of the carnage in the Los Angeles riots of 1992 to street gangs, including an obscure group of Salvadoran immigrants that called itself Mara Salvatrucha.

In response, prosecutors got tough, charging even underage gang members as adults and using the new “three strikes and you’re out” legislation to imprison as many immigrant slumdog felons as possible.

Then in 1996, tacking right in response to the 1994 midterms that brought Newt Gingrich’s 104th Congress to power, President Bill Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, known by its awkward acronym IIRIRA (eye-RYE-rah). Its purpose was to enforce stricter limits on immigration and expand the grounds for deportation, especially for those convicted of major or even minor crimes.

Once these foreign-born convicts had served their sentences, they were sent packing, 20,000 of them between 2000 and 2004. The southward flow of felons stayed strong. By 2010, the United States had deported more than 125,000 convicts to Central America -- more than 90 percent of them to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador (not incidentally, the countries that almost all the children now flocking to the U.S. call home). Honduras, the country that now has the world’s highest murder rate, got 44,000 of them.

Having come to the United States when very young, many of these deportees were native English speakers who did not know their “home” country and spoke its language badly if at all. Some had actually managed to get U.S. citizenship, which was stripped from them upon their felony convictions. Some were young men who had never been in a gang, convicted of relatively petty, non-violent crimes. But that was before they went to prison, the crucible in which gang allegiances and a taste for savagery are best refined.

NO HEADLINEYou could think of this “gift” to Central America as the U.S. version of the 1980 Mariel boatlift, when Fidel Castro emptied his prisons of Cuba’s hardest cases and shipped them to Florida.

These American convicts were sent to the right place at the right time, fed into a criminal nexus of weapons, soldiers and military discipline inherited from the civil wars and into a region with weak, corrupt governments but immensely powerful cartels that had just discovered crack cocaine and were in dire need of distribution and enforcement capabilities.

Soon the Mara Salvatrucha from L.A.’s Pico-Union neighborhood and the 18th Street Gang from the nearby Rampart section -- gangs now known to law enforcement as M-13 and M-18 -- expanded north into Mexico and branched out from drugs into extortion, human trafficking and murder, sometimes for money, sometimes just for fun. Known for remorseless brutality, M-13 has in recent years tied up with Los Zetas, the cartel started by former anti-drug commandos from the Mexican Special Forces, which has moved aggressively to take over territory in the Northern Triangle of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Building on their success in Central America, the old L.A. gangs have spread out in the U.S. as well. M-18 now has tentacles in all large U.S. cities and 37 states, as well as outposts in Europe and the Middle East. In 2012, M-13 became the first street gang ever designated by the U.S. Treasury Department as a transnational criminal organization, making it subject to financial sanctions.

Clearly, more border security, criminal intelligence and diligent prosecutions are critical, but that will not be enough. If the history of the L.A. gangs in Central America suggests anything, it is that get-tough policies do not work by themselves.

Immigration, social service and law enforcement experts in North and Central America know what the solutions are -- you can find them hereherehere and in a hundred other places. What they have in common is that they are hard, expensive and time-consuming, requiring not so much muscle as a major upgrade in local U.S. consular services, tight multinational cooperation, steel-spined resolve and as much money as needed for as long as it takes.

Resolve and money seeming to be in short supply, both the Obama administration and Congressional Republicans favor amending the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 to permit the Border Patrol to turn back Central American children as quickly as they are turning back those from Mexico, which is to say immediately.

Before doing that, it would be well to consider whether this is the right way to treat children, wherever they come from. At least some of the kids coming from Mexico are fleeing violence there, too. How many have been sent back to more abuse or even death? Nobody knows, and, so far at least, U.S. immigration policy doesn’t want to know. But to treat the children from Central America this way risks repeating the mistakes that brought them here.


I welcome your comments, reactions, amplifications, relevant links and ideas for future columns. You can reach me at jimgaines.reuters@gmail.com.


PHOTOS: Two young girls watch a World Cup soccer match on a television from their holding area where hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center in Nogales, Arizona June 18, 2014. REUTERS/Ross D. Franklin/Pool

Detainees sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in Brownsville, Texas June 18, 2014. REUTERS/Eric Gay/Pool 

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To celebrate the Fourth of July, don’t go see this movie http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2014/07/02/to-celebrate-the-fourth-of-july-dont-go-see-this-movie/ http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2014/07/02/to-celebrate-the-fourth-of-july-dont-go-see-this-movie/#comments Wed, 02 Jul 2014 16:26:43 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/?p=32570 Independence Day fireworks light the sky over the U.S. Capitol, Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, in Washington

The week of July Fourth seems an odd time to release a film that questions the patriotism of the president of the United States, but that is precisely what right-wing idol Dinesh D’Souza sets out to do in his new film America: Imagine the World Without Her.

I wouldn’t ordinarily dignify such nonsense with a column, but America the movie exemplifies everything that’s wrong about the American political conversation these days, rich with examples from both left and right.

You get to meet a Sioux activist who wants to blow up Mount Rushmore, and a Chicano activist who talks about the golden morning when the United States will no longer exist. A former professor says that under certain unspecified conditions it might be just fine to drop a nuclear bomb on the United States.

The evil empire? “You’re sitting in it,” says the professor.

D’Souza lays out all of the worst charges against America, from slavery to the genocidal confiscation of Indian lands, from the way the American brand of predatory colonialism has stolen the world’s resources to the way American-style free-market capitalism robs from the poor and gives to the rich.

He then knocks down these charges one by one, with arguments almost as foul as the real and alleged crimes.

Slavery? It’s been around for centuries, says D’Souza, and there were even black slaveholders who sided with the Confederacy.

Genocide? Fewer Indians were killed by settlers than died of disease.

Predatory colonialism? Where? We let Iraqis keep their oil, and we didn’t “steal anything” from Vietnam. (Unless I missed it somewhere, South America is not mentioned.)

Then D’Souza swings around to his main target, President Barack Obama, whom he portrays as a believer in this radical-left narrative of American shame, in “America the Inexcusable.” As a result, says D’Souza, Obama is engaged in a conspiracy to bring the U.S. to its knees.

D’Souza has made the same case several times before -- in three books and an anti-Obama “documentary” that came out during the 2012 campaign -- and by doing so he has made a name for himself. At a recent convention of Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition, where Michelle Bachmann and most of the major Republican contenders for president in 2016 spoke, it was D’Souza who got the standing ovation.

D’Souza finds the root of Obama’s treason in an armchair psychoanalysis of the president’s early history.

“All politics is driven by deep motives,” he told the Faith and Freedom audience, "and the deep motives here are envy, resentment, revenge, hatred, self-hatred.” In America, as in his previous works, he traces these “very low and degraded emotions” to the anti-colonialism of Obama’s absent father and to Obama’s guilty association with such political dartboard figures as Saul Alinsky and Bill Ayers.

Maybe the most outrageous bit of propagandist hooey in America (there is a lot of competition) comes after a clip from the 2009 inauguration in which Obama calls us “to begin again the work of remaking America.”

“To remake America,” D’Souza says, slowly and ominously, “you have to unmake the America that’s here now.”

Then, over footage of poor old ravaged Detroit, D’Souza accuses Obama of having enacted a policy of “economic redistribution never before imagined, aimed at returning centuries of stolen goods” -- as if the president who bailed out GM and Chrysler was actually responsible for soaking Detroit dry in order to give it all away.

Conservative commentator and best-selling author, Dinesh D'Souza exits the Manhattan Federal Courthouse after pleading guilty in New YorkNear the end of the film (spoiler alert) D’Souza deals with his own legal predicament. Six weeks ago, he pleaded guilty in federal court to making illegal campaign contributions in 2012 through third parties, including the woman to whom he was engaged, though he was married at the time.

At this point in the narrative D’Souza inserts a clip in which Fox News’ Sean Hannity calls D’Souza “the latest victim to be targeted by the Obama White House,” which allows him to avoid saying it himself.

What he does say is pretty close, though: “I made a mistake … But we don’t want to live in a society where Lady Justice has one eye open and winks at her friends and casts the evil eye at her adversaries. Where will they stop?”

He will be free to make the charge of selective prosecution more directly after his sentencing on Sept. 23.

Let’s be honest: America isn’t perfect or purely good. It’s a nation in progress, not a religious figure. All we can hope for is to make it, as the preamble says, “a more perfect union.”

As we do that, we have no excuse for a political conversation more rancorous than the one at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, when despite their deep division over slavery -- about the most contentious issue imaginable -- our ancestors managed to agree on a Constitution that became a model for the world.

That spirit of pragmatic compromise has faded almost to invisibility, as the example of America and the political stalemate in Washington attest.

At the Faith and Freedom forum, D’Souza said he decided to release America this week “because I want to reach beyond the political audience. I want people to say, ‘Hey Honey it’s the Fourth of July, let’s go see America.’”

Instead, let’s declare our independence from such partisan venom. I can think of no better way to celebrate this Fourth of July.


I welcome your comments, reactions, amplifications, relevant links and ideas for future columns. You can reach me at jimgaines.reuters@gmail.com.


PHOTOS: Independence Day fireworks light the sky over the U.S. Capitol, Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial (from L-R) in Washington, July 4, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Conservative commentator and best-selling author, Dinesh D'Souza exits the Manhattan Federal Courthouse after pleading guilty in New York, May 20, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

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Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom forum features a kinder, gentler Republican message http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2014/06/27/ralph-reeds-faith-and-freedom-forum-features-a-kinder-gentler-republican-message/ http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2014/06/27/ralph-reeds-faith-and-freedom-forum-features-a-kinder-gentler-republican-message/#comments Fri, 27 Jun 2014 13:25:21 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/?p=32009  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie walks out to shakes hands with Ralph Reed after he spoke at the second day of the 5th annual Faith & Freedom Coalition's "Road to Majority" Policy Conference in Washington

The great American composer and critic Virgil Thomson used to say that when he went to a concert, he didn’t listen to music. He listened for music.

That was a good way to approach the latest convention of Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition in Washington, D.C. There was music in the air, especially for those who still hope there is some common ground in our deeply divided republic, but you had to listen hard.

“Every day of this presidency has been an impeachable offense,” said Monica Crowley of Fox News. “This is the deliberate takedown of America.”

Michelle Bachmann said that President Barack Obama’s most lasting legacy would be “the establishment of lawlessness in the United States of America,” at which point a man in a Revolutionary War uniform and tricorn hat waved a “Don’t Tread On Me” flag and shouted “Right!”

Through all the racket, though, came the quieter but distinct voices of serious people with serious ideas. This was surprising, not only because political discourse in the United States has grown so rancid but also because -- as Thomson’s approach to music criticism suggests -- everything good comes as something of a surprise.

Before an audience that could be counted on to cheer every reference to government dysfunction and overreach -- and at a time when elections sometimes seem reducible to an argument about whether or not Washington is a positive evil -- it was surprising just to hear leaders of Republican conservatism concede that government might be good for something.

Supporters of U.S. Senator Thad Cochran embrace after run-off victory in Jackson, MississippiAnd some of them went a lot further than that.

Utah Senator Mike Lee, who in 2010 defeated three-term GOP incumbent Bob Bennett in one of the Tea Party’s first big upsets, talked not about reducing the cost of government so much as moving the budget to states and local communities, to get government closer to the problems that need solutions. “The primary goal should always be to build a functioning government that works for all Americans,” he said, “especially for the poor and the middle class.”

Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum castigated fellow Republicans for “not connecting with the people who are hurting in this country….[I]f you listen to the message that we’ve been delivering, it’s all about the business owners, all about the corporations, all about Wall Street.”

Rand Paul, too, broke Ronald Reagan’s hallowed Eleventh Commandment and talked openly about the flaws of fellow Republicans -- specifically, those who confuse the search for peace with weakness and those who exempt themselves from laws they pass and vote for bills they haven’t read. He called for term limits, described his political enemies as “bipartisan” and, unlike some at the conference who linked freedom exclusively to Christianity, cited the founding fathers’ call for civic virtue rather than adherence to any single creed.

Almost every speaker offered full-throated support for the pro-life position on abortion, but notable Republican pro-choice figures -- Condoleezza Rice, Olympia Snowe, Tom Ridge, Colin Powell -- were proudly invoked as an example of the party’s commitment to inclusion.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, in his first appearance before the Faith and Freedom Coalition, talked about a “culture of life” that looks beyond the unborn child. “When we say we’re pro-life, we need to be pro-life for the entire life. We need to stand up for the hurt and the wounded. We need to be there for even for those who stumble and fall, to lift them up….To me that’s the true meaning of being pro-life.”

Arthur Brooks, president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, devoted virtually his entire speech to poverty in America, to the obligation to fight for “those who need it most. The rich will be fine, because they always are. But the poor need you. That’s why we’re here -- because they’re being left behind. Some will say, ‘Yes, but they voted for the other guys.’ Who cares! Patriots fight for everybody, no matter how they vote…."

“I know you’re ready to fight for the free-enterprise agenda, for American greatness,” he said, “but that’s not the question. The question is whether you have enough love written on your heart to fight for everybody. Everybody. No exceptions.”

It is easy to be cynical about what politicians say, especially in an election year. But Brooks came with the poll numbers.

“Sixteen percent of Americans say that the Republican Party is compassionate,” he said. “Sixteen percent. What was the only piece of data you needed to call the 2012 presidential election? ‘Who cares more about people like you?’ That was all you needed, because it went two to one for Obama….We have to turn that around.”

In a week when black Democrats in Mississippi turned out to help save an old white Republican from a challenger perceived as reactionary and insensitive to their needs, it wasn’t hard to see how that might work.

The theme of the Faith and Freedom conference was “The Road to Majority,” meaning a mid-term election this year that would return power to Senate Republicans. But this new drift of GOP rhetoric seems aimed at more than a few Senate seats.


I welcome your comments, reactions, amplifications, relevant links and ideas for future columns. You can reach me at jimgaines.reuters@gmail.com.


PHOTOS: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (L) walks out to shakes hands with Ralph Reed after he spoke at the second day of the 5th annual Faith & Freedom Coalition's "Road to Majority" Policy Conference in Washington, June 20, 2014. REUTERS/Larry Downing

Mississippi State Representative Rita Martinson (L) and Jennifer Hall, supporters of Republican U.S. Senator Thad Cochran, embrace after results were announced that Cochran defeated Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel during a victory celebration in a run-off election in Jackson, Mississippi June 24, 2014. REUTERS/Lee Celano



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