Saturday, January 30, 2010
After watching some of the news coverage following the State of the Union, I was struck by how much coverage was given to one part of it – President Obama’s criticism of the recent Supreme Court decision which potentially will change the way campaigns are run and financed. You can click here to read my whole analysis of the decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, but in essence the Supreme Court held that corporations are free to use their own money to run advertisements in support or against a candidate that is running for election.
In his speech, President Obama said, “With all due deference to separation of powers, last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections. I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests or, worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people. And I urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps correct some of these problems.” At he same time, the cameras apparently caught Justice Samuel Alito (who voted with the majority and was appointed by President George W. Bush) mouthing the words, “that’s not true” or something of the like.
The next day both Republicans and Democrats predictably lined up to criticize one and defend the other (Obama or Alito). Republicans were critical of the President for criticizing the Supreme Court as they sat right there and said that he did step over the bounds of separation of powers. Democrats criticized Alito for reacting in an unprofessional manner for a Supreme Court Justice. While the Supreme Court routinely attends the State of the Union Address, they are seen as the non-political branch of the government and therefore, they sit there and just listen without any reaction. Part of a Judge or Justice’s disposition is such that they are not supposed to pre-judge issues and simply decide cases on their own merits completely outside the world of politics. As such, they are supposed to be a-political. Well, both parties struck me that their criticism and or defense smacked of hypocrisy.
For the Republicans to say that the sitting President should not criticize the Supreme Court during the State of the Union, what do they say about all the times Republican Presidents have criticized justices for being “activist” and especially during the State of the Union, I can recall Presidents Reagan and both Bush’s criticizing Roe v. Wade and President Reagan routinely asked for a constitutional amendment to overturn it. I never heard any criticism then. Also, what if the Republicans had won in 2008? Do they really think that “President McCain” would have avoided the red hot issue when he has been a champion of campaign finance reform for much of his career? As a Senator, he has been critical of the decision and I expect, “President McCain” would have had something very similar to say.
As for Democrats, they were critical of Justice Alito for saying that the President wasn’t correct. As a side note, there is a lot of chatter in the legal community as to whether President Obama was right regarding the issue of foreign corporations. There is a debate whether or not the Supreme Court decision would extend to foreign companies or be limited to American corporations, so for Justice Alito to say that the President was wrong, could be right when it comes to the foreign corporations possible involvement.
So what do I think? I think they were both wrong, but for slightly different reasons. Justice Alito should have some composure as a Justice on the highest court on the land and be able to keep his thoughts to himself. Meanwhile, I have said since the case was decided that President Obama’s criticism is completely hypocritical as he has been the biggest campaign fund raiser by far in American politics. Also, one other thing that I have failed to mention in my prior posts on this Supreme Court decision is that it applies to labor unions as well. You don’t think that will help the President and his fellow democrats? As I’ve said, politics and money go hand in hand and the more the politicians try and separate the two, the more their OWN supporters will try and find the loopholes. If that’s not hypocrisy, what is?
Unfortunately, in a speech where the President tried to reach out to Republicans by espousing many of their ideas (tax cut and credits, off-shore drilling, earmark reform, etc.) and attempted to engage them on some of his issues like health care reform, the parties found something in the speech that could drive them farther apart. In a speech that was an attempt to set up bi-partisan talks, the partisans found a way to make a partisan issue. That’s why I am losing faith in national politics as a whole. It seems like even when there are a few individuals who will try and work together, most of the partisan players are more willing to try to bring the others down then they are in trying to enact meaningful legislation.
Thursday, January 28, 2010
That was my initial gut reaction after the speech, “What was he thinking?” I expected optimistic oratory and I got a speech that seemed angry in its tone. In fact, as I was listening, it seemed like it took sometime before the President said a line that got applause – something that is rare for a State of the Union Address. Looking at the transcript, it was about 10% of the way through the speech that he got his first applause line. While that might not seem like much, most Presidents get an applause right at the beginning of a State of the Union Address by simply saying the “state of our union is strong.”
So what was different? After reflecting on it last night, it dawned on me that the President was not directing this speech to the American people but at Congress itself. In doing so, he was trying to reflect the anger that the American people felt towards
When I started to think about it, it made sense. He was trying to be the voice of the American people and criticize Congress for the tone and the way the “politics as usual” is done in that town. When things are going well economically, the American citizenry is much more willing to put up with political rancor. But when things go wrong, they turn on its politicians for playing petty politics and not trying to work towards common solutions. Along these lines, the President took both parties to task for the anger the people are feeling. He criticized the Democrats for having “the largest majority in decades and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills.” He then turned to the Republicans and said “if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business … then the responsibility to govern is now yours, as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership.” He then summed it up with a line as he looked at both parties and said, “We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions.”
He didn’t stop there though. Those of you who read my blog regularly and listened to the President last night had to know that the line that I loved the most was when he said, “Those of us in public office can respond to this reality by playing it safe and avoid telling hard truths and pointing fingers. We can do what's necessary to keep our poll numbers high and get through the next election instead of doing what's best for the next generation.” I honestly believe that the President believes this. As he said earlier in the speech, he “didn’t take on health care because it was good politics.” In fact, I applaud the President for standing by his convictions regardless of the political cost. Ultimately, it may hurt his party come the fall elections, but he has committed himself to trying to accomplish these goals and that conviction came through last night.
So, in my preview, I was saying that the first thing I would be looking forwas optimistic oratory. While I didn’t get it, what I got instead, actually impressed me. It was a different kind of speech from the President and only time will tell if it resonates or works. We’ll see if he follows up on his promise to engage Republicans on health care reform or other issues and to hold monthly meetings with the senior leadership of both parties. Unfortunately, in an election year, there might not be much that gets done, but it could lay the critical groundwork for next year when there is a short window to accomplish things before the Presidential race of 2012 starts heating up.
The second thing I said I was going to look for is for the President to tell Congress exactly what he wanted them to do on health care reform. I’ve read some pundits this morning that seem to suggest that he didn’t say. I disagree (and it may be because the pundits didn’t like the answer). It seemed clear to me that he wants to engage Republicans on the issue and come to some consensus. In fact, he said, “Don't walk away from reform, not now, not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people. Let's get it done.” He also said that if anyone “from either party” had ideas that met his goals of bringing down premiums and the deficit, covering the uninsured, strengthening Medicare for seniors, and stopping insurance company abuses, that he wanted them to let him know.
Ultimately, we will see how this progresses over the next couple months, but I hope that Republicans take this invitation seriously and engage in the process and stop just being the party of “No!” Also, I hope the liberal Democratic leadership (read: Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid) will allow some open discussion with the Republicans regarding the health care bill and will not just insist that it be their bill or nothing at all. I think that President Obama’s political advisor David Axelrod said it best a few weeks ago when he said that the Democrats cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good. In other words, some health care reform bill is better than none at all.
The last thing I said I was looking for was how the President would address the economy and the budget deficit. Not surprisingly, it is how the President started his speech as he said his number one priority was a jobs bill. Everyone, including Republicans applauded the line. But will they vote for it? That remains to be seen. The devil will be in the details and the President provided some, such as tax credits for small businesses who hire and for “green jobs” and cutting capital gains taxes for small business investment. As he actually gave the details, I was struck by how much was there that Republicans could actually support. Bi-partisan support should be able to embrace those issues, we shall see if they do. The president wants it done immediately. It will rest in the Senate Republicans hands to see if they engage or simply continue to say no and use their new found member to filibuster the bill.
On deficit reduction, the President reiterated his call for a spending freeze on discretionary spending starting with the next budget (2011). He also called on the Senate to reinstate the PAY-GO laws which simply means that any new legislation which deals with revenues or expenditures must be revenue neutral, so if you are proposing a tax cut, you must show an equal offsetting expense reduction or raise in other taxes. The same goes with expenditures. Those of you who have read my blog from the beginning and read my essay on the 2008 election know that I am a HUGE fan of this law and it is one of the main reasons I was critical of the Republicans during the Bush administration who wrote tax cuts to avoid the PAYGO structure because they knew it couldn’t pass the muster of that law. Eventually, the Republicans just repealed it as the deficits grew so it wouldn’t hamper their plans. Ultimately, we’ll see what Congress does on these issues, but I like what the President proposed.
I don’t want people to think that they were not things that I disagreed with in the speech – there were, but this post is getting long already. In summary, I thought it was hypocritical for the President to call for more transparency in law making when the Democrats were not doing that on the health care bill. I also thought it was hypocritical for him to criticize the recent Supreme Court decision on campaign finances when he is the biggest campaign fundraiser in the history of electoral politics. I also found that it was getting old that he continued to blame President Bush for the deficit he inherited. We know already that you inherited a bad economic situation, why do you always have to remind us? Surprising to some of my conservative friends, I will not criticize Obama on his call to repeal “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell,” but that is for another post.
One final note again about bi-partisanship: since the Senate voted down the independent bipartisan commission on deficit reduction, the President said he would appoint one by executive order. While it will not have the same weight that a Congressionally appointed commission would have had, I liked that he wasn’t going to be held hostage by the extremes of both parties who are the ones that defeated the commission in the first place. Now that’s leadership and it’s why on the whole, I thought the President’s speech was exactly what was called for in the midst of this political chaos.
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
He’s already started to give a preview of what will be included in the address. I have read that he will say that “[He’s] a lot more optimistic than [he] was a year ago.” Along these lines he will address
This is the first thing I will be looking for – the typical Obama oratory that can inspire even the cynical; an oratory that makes you want the country (and by extension him) to succeed. Anything less that the full Obama oratorical skills will be very disappointing and will probably be judged a failure. State of the Union Addresses are typically used as the President giving a laundry list of items he wants to see passed. While President Obama will undoubtedly do some of this, I think if he focuses on a laundry list, it will be a mistake. Certainly he will need to make the case again for health care reform (more on that later), as well as jobs programs and fiscal discipline, but if it simply becomes some laundry list, it will lose the average American viewer and any oratory at the beginning or end will seem simply added for effect.
The second thing I want is for him to tell Congress what exactly he wants them to do on health care. Should the House pass the Senate bill? Should they strip it down to a bare bones bill that can have some moderate Republican support? Should they engage the Republicans in conference and try and reconcile the two bills to something that can get passed by both bodies? While he may not come out specifically and say it, I’ll be looking for how he addresses it and if his wishes can be read between the lines. However, Congress cannot be his only audience on this issue. As an advocate for health care reform, I want him to really make the case to the American people again as to why this is so important especially since the reform is so close. It is in this area that Obama the campaigner needs to return – not Obama the policy wonk.The final thing I’m looking forward to is his addressing the economic problems and the growing deficit. He has already made indications of what he will propose on the deficit as he is already calling for a freeze on non-security discretionary spending over the next three budget years. While this would still only apply to a portion of the federal budget, it will supposedly save $250 billion over the next decade. So how can the President help boost the economy, create jobs, all while not raising the deficit, I’ll be waiting to see what he says.
One final note (not pertaining to the State of the Union Address): is bi-partisanship truly dead? I am afraid so. The latest sign. Today, the Senate defeated the appointment of an independent bi-partisan commission to look at the long term problem of the deficit and to make recommendations as to how it can be addressed. How did it lose? Ironically, that was bi-partisan as the extremes of the parties defeated it together. The liberal democrats who want to protect entitlement programs voted it down for fear the commission would recommend cuts while the conservative republicans voted against it as they were concerned that the commission might propose tax increases. Mind you, the commissions job was only to make recommendations, but the extremes in both parties were still afraid to take an honest look at the situation. Once again, as a moderate, I feel completely left out as though my opinion is completely at the whim of the extremes in the political world. Have we become that polarized? Apparently so.
President Obama: If you can do anything to bring that civility and bi-partisanship back to
Thursday, January 21, 2010
What am I talking about? The Supreme Court today announced its decision in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Without getting into the specifics of the case, the High Court essentially held that corporations are free to use their own money to run advertisements in support or against a candidate that is running for election. Previously, the law prohibited corporations from spending their own money in such a way. Instead, corporations had to go through the step of setting up a PAC (Political Action Committee), but Citizens United argued that such a prohibition was a violation of their First Amendment Free Speech rights and five of the Justices agreed.
So what does mean? We can now expect corporations to run advertisements supporting different candidates. In fact, the next logical step would be that people will set up corporations to specifically fund advertisements to air for candidates. Such corporate “funding” would be completely outside the campaign finance law limits. In other words, this opens a HUGE loophole for individuals or corporations to funnel money through to support their candidate of choice.
Why is this significant? It completely changes the way elections will now be run. Candidates will not only have to worry about ads that their opponent will run, but ones that corporations may run against them. It will also open up the amount of money that will be spent on political campaigns to heights never imagined. If a campaign does not have much money and a corporation decides it wants that candidate defeated, it will be very difficult for that candidate to survive unless another corporation comes to his or her rescue.
Who does this help? Conventional wisdom says that this will help the Republicans because they are the ones that are more cozy with big business. In fact, the 5-4 decision broke on those ideological conservative/liberal grounds where the four conservatives plus moderate Justice Kennedy voted to strike down the law. Additionally, conservatives applauded the decision while liberals decried it. President Obama criticized the decision saying that it will give “a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics.” However, wasn’t it just a year and a half ago that Candidate Obama decided to forego public financing for the general election while Republican John McCain agreed to the limits. Why did Obama decide that? Because he was able to raise over $1 Billion dollars towards his campaign. The Democrats certainly didn’t seem to be at a money disadvantage in 2008 and even though I am a supporter of the President, I have to call him on his hypocritical criticism of this decision. In short, I don’t think either party will benefit to a large degree, instead this will add another dynamic that politicians will need to navigate. The good ones will be able to do that where the bad ones won’t. Additionally, corporate America as a whole is seen by the public as supporting the Republicans over the Democrats but the truth is, they support both parties. In essence, they hedge their bets.
What do I think? I have never been an advocate of campaign finance reform, but not for the reason that most conservatives are (that ideological argument about free speech). Rather, I’m just more practical and perhaps jaded. Money and politics go hand in hand whether you want them to or not. I heard it described like this once: “Campaign money is like water on pavement; it will find the cracks and seep through no matter how small those cracks are.” That’s the perfect analogy and today the Supreme Court didn’t make a crack in the pavement, they created a chasm! I have always thought the way to deal with money and politics is to only have one rule. Each candidate can collect as much as they want, from whomever they want; they just have to disclose it. Who people get there money from, in many ways, will tell you more about what policies they will support than the candidate’s own words.
One final note regarding the Supreme Court – who are the activists now? The criticism that conservatives have had of the judicial system is that the courts go beyond their scope of what they should do. If a law is passed by the popularly elected branch (Congress) and signed into law by the “republically” elected executive (President), then the courts should not just strike down the law and ignore what the majority of people voted for. Conservatives always complain about justices or judges who insert themselves into the law making process. To do so has always been the definition of being a judicial activist. Yet, I don’t think any Republicans will criticize Justice Kennedy (who wrote the opinion), Chief Justice Roberts or any of the other conservative justices as being an activist judge. However, the argument could be made that this is exactly what they did. I always find it curious how people swallow their criticisms when the shoe is on the other foot.
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
“And the lights went out in
First: Voter Excitement. The Republicans clearly had the excitement level in this race. One of the many under-appreciated truisms of politics is that races aren’t necessarily won by convincing the other side to switch their vote or even get the undecided voters to break their way. It’s won by getting YOUR voters to the polls and the other side failing to do that. In a sentence, that’s what happened here. Clearly, Republicans and more conservative independents were fired up about the opportunity to send a message regarding what’s been happening nationally over the last year. They are fed up with the federal government’s spending and the health care bill became the prime example of it. In the meantime, the Democrats were NOT excited about Martha Coakley.
I spoke with my cousin last night who lives in
Second: Democratic Overconfidence. Think about it. If I had said after Ted Kennedy passed away in August that a conservative Republican was going to win the special election to fill his seat, you would have laughed me out of the room. I think the Democrats were thinking that way as well. Consider this: Scott Brown’s campaign was going on an ad blitz on this campaign as soon as the primary was over. The Coakley campaign acted as if the election was over once she won the primary. The simple fact is, she didn’t get serious about campaigning in this election until just a few weeks ago. I heard another pundit put it perfectly by saying, when Scott Brown was campaigning actively through the Christmas season, Martha Coakley was, literally, on vacation. It was only after the Coakley campaign realized that it might lose that it sprang into action. By that time it was too late. She had already been labeled by the other side and it was going to be difficult for her to reframe the election at that late hour.
Third: The Candidate. Along with some of the tactical mistakes of her campaign mentioned above, Martha Coakley turned out to be a weak candidate. She was too easily tied to
All these things added up to a disastrous result for the Democrats and a HUGE victory for the Republicans winning that all important 41st seat in the Senate. I must say I am bittersweet about the result. Those of you who know me and my politics know that I still consider myself a moderate Republican and I enjoy seeing the party have a victory. I also feel that the Democrats deserved it for essentially setting this scenario up. Prior to 2004, the interim Senator appointed by Governor Patrick would have stayed in office until 2012, completing Senator Kennedy’s term. But in 2004, the Democrats changed the law because at the time they were worried about Republican Governor Mitt Romney appointing a replacement for John Kerry if he had won the presidential election against President Bush. So in some respects, the Democrats deserved this for trying to change the rules last time.
However, those of you who have followed my blog lately, know that I have been in support of the health care reform that is currently being debated. If this election ends up spelling the defeat of that legislation, I must say that I will be disappointed and for that reason, the result is bitter sweet.
So what now? I must give Luke Russert, of NBC News and son of the late Tim Russert, credit for this line, but I think it’s too good not to reprint – in the words of Axl Rose, Democrats must be asking themselves, “Where do we go now?” In the next day or two, I hope to post what options are available to the Democrats who are still hoping to pass health care reform. For now, I just keep thinking that the Democrats still must be thinking that as for health care reform “the lights [may have] went out in
Thursday, January 14, 2010
Well the Democratic leadership in both houses have decided to forego this formality and instead what is referred to as legislative ping-pong. Essentially, both houses will continue to amend their bills until they are identical. This avoids the need for a conference as the identical bills can be sent to President Obama presumably for his signature. Normally, I would not have a problem with this approach, but the way the Democrats are actually conducting these negotiations is completely out of the public eye. The democratic leaders are going to the White House for sessions with the President’s key advisors in a manner that completely shuts off the discussion from public scrutiny. The only updates that the public gets are the reports of what comes out of the people involved in the negotiations. With this approach, I cannot support the President who had promised to make government more transparent. This essentially hides the legislative process from the public and I believe sets a bad precedent for the future. Republicans have tried to make some hay out of this, but obviously, this whole story is taking a back seat to the tragedy that occurred in Haiti this week.
That being said, as I write this, it appears a deal has been reached on one of the key roadblocks to the bill – funding mechanisms. Organized labor was supporting the House bill as it funded the program through increased taxes on the wealthy, where the Senate bill taxed high end health care plans, many times referred to as “Cadillac plans.” Today, organized labor apparently agreed to the excise tax on high end health care plans in exchange for the limits being raised.
What remains unclear is where the negotiations are on other key points of dispute such as the Stupak Amendment, which deals with whether tax dollars would go to fund abortions under the plan. Once again the Stupak Amendment which prohibits such spending is in the House bill while it is not in the Senate bill. I will continue to try and monitor these updates, but like I said, the way the negotiations are being conducted, it becomes difficult to get information.
As for the Republicans, they continue to sit back and unanimously oppose the bill. There have been attempts to get one of the Maine Senators to come aboard, but so far, they have refused. The Republicans seem content to allow this bill to pass so that they can run against it. However, I must ask, “If you truly care about the future of your country and a bill which you think is absolutely horrible is about to be passed, why are you going to let it pass for hopeful political gain?” That my friends is how a politician thinks. They have no concern for the future generation, only the future election. I believe the Republicans dropped the ball on this health care debate last summer. Republicans pride themselves in being devoted to the free market and allowing the market to fix problems. It is for that reason that they despise government involvement in business and economics even when the practices of the business are such that they take advantage of the average consumer.
Last summer, Senate Finance Chair Max Baucus (D-MT) proposed the idea of having health care reform be done by developing non-profit cooperatives which people could buy their insurance from. The idea was that the government would give an infusion of money to start the co-ops, but that they would then run themselves. The government might even provide stipends to low income people to pay the premiums or tax breaks to middle income people. However, the government itself would not be in the business of running any sort of health insurance plan. It would be the perfect way to inject some much needed competition into the health insurance industry and it would do it in a way that would force the for-profit companies to rethink the way they operate in only making decisions based on stock prices and bottom lines. When I heard the idea, I thought it was brilliant. It allowed the government to provide a sense of accountability in the industry without becoming directly involved while letting America’s free market approach ultimately fix some of the inequities.
So what happened? Eventually, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid decided to take health care over for himself rather than have it go through the Finance Committee like it should. Probably because Senator Baucus is too moderate and liberals ridiculed the co-op idea as not going far enough and the plan was dropped. But for a month, it was a real possibility. Supposed Senate Republicans had recognized the long term value in such a plan and had decided to get behind it. Other moderate democrats like Ben Nelson & Evan Bayh certainly would have supported it as well. Once a few moderate democrats jumped on board it could have started a wave of support that could have really picked up steam and you would have had a truly bi-partisan effort in trying to reform health care. An opportunity missed on the Republican politicians. And why? Because they did not want to hand President Obama his prized piece of legislation on a silver platter because they know he would have benefited most
It was once said to me that “Politicians make decisions based on the next election while Statesmen make decisions based on the next generation.” As I watch the polls, this health care debate may be weighing in the Republicans favor politically for the mid-terms, but I can’t help but think, why are there so many politicians in the Republican party – the party I’ve called my home? Yet, right now, there seems to be statesmen in the Democratic party as they are voting on legislation that they believe will help the next generation even if it costs them this November. Even if you disagree with their politics, that is courage and conviction you have to admire, and for some (not all), it makes them a statesman in my book.