Paying the political price

I have been reading Edward Kennedy’s memoir, True Compass, in my free time. It’s a lively read:  rather strange insofar as it centres on the peculiarly privileged Kennedy family, but fascinating insofar as the Kennedy family has been at the centre of many epochal events (the Cuban Missile Crisis, the civil rights movement, the assassination of both JFK and Bobby Kennedy).

In the next few days, I plan to share a couple of excerpts that stand out for me. First up:  the passage of civil rights legislation, originally championed by JFK — and the political price the Democrats paid for doing the right thing.

The bill was passed into law just seven months after JFK’s assassination.

On June 19, 1964, a year to the day after my brother sent his civil rights bill to Congress, it passed into law on a vote of seventy-three to twenty-seven.

We knew that the Democratic Party would pay a price for this achievement. [President] Lyndon Johnson himself put it most succinctly when he remarked, “We may win this legislation, but we’re going to lose the South for a generation.” And he was right; this marked the onset of the transformation of the region from Democratic to Republican.

Other Democratic leaders foresaw this as well, yet they acted to pass the bill nonetheless. I’m convinced that they acted, as had my brother in his speech, beyond political calculus:  this was simply the right thing to do.

(pp. 217-18)

Today, the Democrats — who won the election in 2008, decisively — are struggling to pass legislation which would reform the health care system in the USA. They face opposition from both Republicans and certain conservative Democrats.

Sometimes the opposition is grounded in legitimate concerns (Is the cost sustainable?) and sometimes it is grounded in an utterly cynical political calculation (If Republicans defeat health care reform, we will have dealt President Obama a crippling blow.)

I quote Kennedy’s memoir to make this simple point:  politicians have been known to put the public interest ahead of personal or partisan political interests.

What would happen if Republicans voted in favour of health care? They would assist President Obama in realizing a historic achievement.

They would also perform a great public service. Literally tens of millions of Americans would benefit hugely as a direct result. The question is, are Republicans (and the aforementioned conservative Democrats) willing to pay a political price, as the Democrats did in passing a civil rights act in 1964?

It is abundantly clear that the answer is No. Grasping power matters more than the public good, to this generation of Republicans.

Of course, there shouldn’t be any negative political consequences for passing legislation that will benefit tens of millions of Americans. Unfortunately public debate has been poisoned by persistent, pernicious distortions and outright lies about what health care reform would entail.

That, of course, is a deliberate strategy on the part of those for whom the public good is an incidental concern.

William Shatner performs the poetry that is Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin outdid herself in the incoherence of her farewell speech. But it gets even better when William Shatner turns the speech into a beatnik poetry reading.

Here’s the relevant paragraph of the speech, as transcribed by Huffington Post:

And getting up here I say it is the best road trip in America soaring through nature’s finest show. Denali, the great one, soaring under the midnight sun. And then the extremes. In the winter time it’s the frozen road that is competing with the view of ice fogged frigid beauty, the cold though, doesn’t it split the Cheechakos from the Sourdoughs? And then in the summertime such extreme summertime about a hundred and fifty degrees hotter than just some months ago, than just some months from now, with fireweed blooming along the frost heaves and merciless rivers that are rushing and carving and reminding us that here, Mother Nature wins. It is as throughout all Alaska that big wild good life teeming along the road that is north to the future. …

Classic! If they should happen to pull the video from youtube — in the USA, you can view Shatner’s rendering on TPMtv.

Politics matters

It’s easy to be cynical about politics and politicians. Yes, government is inefficient. Yes, wealthy people exert undue influence, and receive benefits that others don’t. There’s even some truth in the statement, “All politicians are the same.”

But cynicism is a luxury, to be indulged in when times are good. When times are bad — people come to the startling realization that politics matters. Government matters.

We’ve had eight years of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and their friends, inside and outside of government (Haliburton, Blackwater). That bitter experience has moved many people to re-engage in the political process.

David Kurtz, a contributor at Talking Points Memo:

I was practicing law in Missouri, more or less happily, and enjoying our two toddlers, when Hurricane Katrina hit my home state. It was wrenching to watch from afar, a maddening combination of an intimate knowledge of the people and the place, a powerlessness to help, and a growing rage over the inhumane response and the cynical indifference.

Katrina crystallized for me what I wanted for myself. Within a year I’d decided to leave the law and return to journalism, trading a stable traditional career for a chance with a small start-up, TPM.

Publius, a contributor at Obsidian Wings:

I started blogging because of a deep anger about Iraq and the exploitation of 9/11 that bubbled in me during 2003. This deep anger caused me to return to politics — to see its importance. In short, Bush woke me up from a long slumber. And I’ve been very engaged since.

But I’m just a small inconsequential fish in a big ocean. The bigger story is that this same anger — this same frustration — has led liberals to organize in more numerous and consequential ways. In the last few years, we’ve seen new think tanks. We’ve seen blogs flower. We’ve seen the rise of media sites like TPM and Huffington with real journalistic chops. We’ve seen unprecedented efforts to register and canvass voters.

In short, we’ve seen a new energy driving liberals back to politics. …

When your strategy is to make half the country hate you [referring to Karl Rove’s polarization of the electorate], that half is ultimately going to fight back, and it’s ultimately going to win. Tonight, it did.

the back of Bushcredit: Paul J Richards/AFP/Getty

And this outpouring of relief from Hilzoy, another contributor at Obsidian Wings:

After eight years of assault on our Constitution, we have elected a President who teaches Constitutional law. I cannot express what this means to me.


I wear lipstick / You’re a dipstick

This is simply hilarious:  “Don’t Speak For Me, Sarah Palin” sung to the tune of “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina.” A masterpiece of the genre — whatever precisely the genre is.

I keep thinking we’re done with Sarah Palin, here at [A]mazed and [Be]mused. But when you’re a blogger, Sarah Palin is the gift that keeps on giving.

How unlikely is a McCain victory?

In order to win, John McCain needs to capture all of the “toss-up” states, plus steal Pennsylvania from Obama’s column. Here’s a good explanation:

How likely is it that McCain can steal Pennsylvania?’s rolling average has Obama polling at 51.8%. Pennsylvania

It seems to me that an Obama blowout is more likely than a narrow McCain victory.

Middle ground on abortion?

I was planning to post on the topic of abortion in connection with the presidential election. Benjamin has now beaten me to it.

I would still like to weigh in and attempt to reframe the debate. People’s thinking on this topic has been regrettably unsophisticated to date.

Barack Obama has been criticized for adopting an extreme position on abortion. In his defence, I’d like to point out that legislation often is cunningly worded to trap Senators in a no-win position. They can’t support the legislation, as worded; but if they vote against it, they will suffer political damage.

(It’s akin to the trap set for Jesus when someone asked him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” As this blogger points out, “The leaders believe that they have given Jesus a difficult question because he is likely to offend at least one group of people no matter how he answers.”)

Here’s Obama’s defence of his supposedly extreme position:

On an issue like partial birth abortion, I strongly believe that the state can properly restrict late-term abortions. I have said so repeatedly. [emphasis added] All I’ve said is we should have a provision to protect the health of the mother, and many of the bills that came before me didn’t have that.

Part of the reason they didn’t have it was purposeful, because those who are opposed to abortion … were trying … to polarize the debate.

Obama wants to escape this willful polarization of the abortion debate. He is seeking out middle ground where it is notoriously difficult to locate.

There are two interesting data points in this post by Amy Sullivan at Swampland.

First, Sullivan notes that the debate is now shifting away from the irreconcilable pro-life / pro-choice dichotomy:

There’s been growing momentum over the past few years behind an alternative approach to the abortion issue, an effort some people refer to as “abortion reduction.” The idea is that whether they’re pro-choice or pro-life, most people agree that it would be a good thing if the abortion rate could be lowered — whether through preventing unplanned pregnancies or by providing economic and social supports for women who would like to carry their pregnancies to term.

The effort got a big boost this year when Barack Obama plugged it in his acceptance speech. And it seems to resonate with Americans who are tired of the shouting matches that usually occur whenever abortion comes up — when Obama mentioned it again in the third presidential debate, focus groups dials soared.

This morning, a religious coalition is going up on the air with a radio ad calling for support for abortion reduction policies. The ad is running on Christian radio stations in 10 swing states.

As long as the debate is bogged down on questions like, “Is a fetus a human being? Is abortion murder?”, we’re faced with a binary Yes / No impasse. But Sullivan is right:  we may be able to achieve a broad consensus in support of an alternative thesis, “The incidence of abortion in America (and other Western countries) is too high, and government should take measures to reduce it.”

Second, Sullivan cites a Roman Catholic organization that promotes a broader definition of the term “pro-life”:

The Real McCain

Andrew Sullivan dishes on the Republican Candidate’s true nature:

Mickey, of course, is obsessed with immigration and believes that McCain would actually support a Bush-style immigration law were he to win next week. Really? Really? You see: what I’ve learned from watching McCain these past two months is that there’s nothing he wouldn’t do if it could get him a small bump in a news cycle, polarize the electorate, and appeal to a rabid base that is now his only source of power.

In my view, McCain would clearly be prepared to veto such a bill if it helped bring his party base behind him. He would also have a veep who is running from Day One to succeed him and eager to play the most revanchist elements in her base against her boss.


As for McCain, we have seen how he deals with what were once his principles. Balancing the budget? He caved to Bush’s tax cuts and proposes to increase the deficit more than a liberal Democrat in his first term. Torture? He agreed to the 2006 Military Commissions Act, thereby legalizing the very torture techniques that were once used against him. Climate change? He picked a veep who doesn’t believe it’s man-made. When people talk about this man’s honor, they need to grapple with these facts. If McCain is prepared to authorize the torture of other human beings, to do to others what was once done to him in order to help Karl Rove’s 2006 election strategy, there is nothing deep down inside him but a desire for power, no line he won’t cross.

This is the real reason I could never vote for McCain based on his “pro-life” stance, despite the Conservative assertion that Christians should. I would find it very difficult to elect someone who has as voted so clearly in favour of abortion without restriction as Obama has. But I would find it even harder to vote for someone whose stance on abortion is based purely on political aspirations.

Palin I trust when it comes to the pro-life issue. But of course, she’s proven that she’s willing to go even further than McCain regarding political backstabs. Still, considering my assertion that a foetus is a human being, I also believe that thousands of deaths a week would constitute a huge crime toll. If it weren’t for the fact that I believe laws aren’t sufficient to stop abortion from occurring, I would be a lot more conflicted over a battle between Palin and Obama. At least it’s relatively certain she would attempt something to reduce the abortion count.

As it is, McCain, not Palin, is the one who concerns me when it comes to an issue which is a lot more than political, if one accepts the conservative Christian perspective. If we’re really worried about millions of lives being lost, why do so many Christians back someone who has only made this a key issue relatively recently, once it became clear that he needed to win key votes back in the Evangelical base?

An Obama-Biden ticket is superior in many ways to the Republican pair. Conservatives would attempt to make this into a one-issue vote. But if McCain can’t be relied upon for anything else, I’m not convinced we should be making abortion the key talking point… because that’s all it is: Talk.

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