Monday, December 21, 2009

More Health Care Musings

Let's be completely honest with ourselves here: the Senate version of health care reform sucks. Whether that's the fault of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the Obama administration or any number of other factors is up for debate -- and somewhat pointless now.

The bill cleared a major hurdle early Monday morning with a 60-40 vote that split along party lines. Two more such votes are expected before the bill would be able to move forward for conference negotiations with the House of Representatives.

There is no public option in the Senate bill, nor is there a Medicare buy-in option for Americans aged 55 or older. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) made sure stricter anti-choice language was included in the bill -- all of these moves essentially showcased just how ineffective the Senate really is, and how one or two disgruntled and self-serving Senators can almost derail any piece of major legislation.

So what we're left with is a bill that requires Americans to buy insurance, offers subsidies for citizens who can't afford coverage of their own and puts in place insurance industry regulations that might be easily circumvented. A lot of progressive voices -- including former DNC chair Howard Dean -- have called for the bill to be killed, and while part of me has agreed (I've been a loud public option advocate from the beginning), I realize this isn't the final version.

Even with the progressive cry of "Kill the bill!," not one Democrat voted against the bill on Monday. But I've got my own theory with regards to that.

When Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) voted for the health care reform bill that came out of the Senate Finance Committee back in September, she wasn't necessarily voting for the bill. In all actuality, Snowe was voting simply to move the process forward; when she cast her vote, she said she was voting to bring the bill to the full Senate, and that her vote then wouldn't influence her vote now.

For those of you keeping score, Snowe voted against the bill on Monday.

Maybe progressives in the Senate are doing the same thing; maybe they were simply voting for the bill not because they liked it, but because they knew it would move the process along. Progressives are perhaps heartened by the fact that the House bill is more liberal than the Senate bill -- it includes a public option, has more generous subsidies, offers tighter industry regulations and even removes the insurance industry's anti-trust exemption.

By moving the bill to conference, progressives are hoping they can improve the final product -- especially since some in the House have intimated that the Senate bill as it stood would never pass the House. Lieberman and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) have said they would filibuster the final product if it was more liberal than what we currently have in the Senate, but at this point, there's no telling if that will actually come to pass.

Progressives have lost the message regarding health care reform at every step; the mainstream media instead has focused on the loud anti-reform protests, the GOP obstructionists and the centrist Democrats who are given far too much power by inane and convoluted Senate procedural rules. A president reluctant to butt heads and twist arms hasn't helped matters, and progressives who stand up publicly and call for real reform (like, say, Dean) are brushed aside and mocked.

This is our chance to finally be heard.

Petitions are making the rounds all over the Internet, thanks to the likes of the PCCC, Democracy for America, CREDO Action and FireDogLake. Sign them. Call your elected representatives, in every chamber. Call the White House. Write emails to all of them, write letters to all of them. Visit their offices if you can.

We must be heard.

Threaten to take away your vote, threaten to take away your donations. Change voter registration if you so desire. Stop donating to the DNC, but instead donate, if you can, to individual candidates. Come the next election cycle, support and vote for more progressive primary candidates -- or even third-party candidates.

But we cannot be silent, and we cannot stay home from the polls. That's exactly what the GOP wants, and if you think the White House's agenda is having a hard time passing now ... imagine how hard it would be if Republicans gained seats.

This is our time. This is our cause. If the health care bill is to be improved in conference, it must be in part because we got loud and put the pressure on the government officials we put into office. We gave Democrats a huge mandate for change last year, not a pass to make us buy expensive and ineffective products from an industry that would rather pocket our money than provide the service for which we've been paying.

We are the change we are looking for. It's time we start acting like it.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Countdown Special Comment: Kill the Bill

I know I've repeatedly cautioned on this site not to give in to emotional reactionism every time there's a development in Washington with regards to health care reform. I know I've constantly reminded the two or three people who actually read this blog that the process isn't over, that we may yet get the reform we want.

But alas, if all we're left with in the Senate is a watered-down bill that forces us to buy private insurance without really holding those companies accountable, I'm afraid I might have to reluctantly agree with the likes of former Vermont governor and DNC chair Howard Dean:

Maybe it's best to kill the bill.

Keith Olbermann, one of the media's most outspoken health care reform advocates (whose views I've posted numerous times on this blog), delivered a Special Comment on Countdown Wednesday night, in which he echoed the feelings I must now admit I feel with regards to this issue. With the bill as watered-down as it is, and the debate as muddled and incoherent as it is, maybe we are better off cutting our losses and starting over.

Problem is, I don't really want to. Olbermann's Special Comment below:

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Single-Payer Headed For Senate Vote

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will introduce an amendment to the health care reform bill either Tuesday or Wednesday that would establish a federally-regulated single-payer system that would be administered by states. This will mark the first time a single-payer system has ever come up for a vote in the Senate; it's not expected to pass, or even receive many votes.

Still, the fact that this amendment -- written in conjunction with Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Roland Burris (D-Ill.) -- is coming to a vote is a victory of sorts.

Read the amendment here. Read the fact sheet from Sanders' website here.

If HCR Falls ... What's Next?

When Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said over the summer that he wanted to make health care reform President Obama's "Waterloo," the comment was met with chuckles and eye rolls from the left, but given recent developments, the question begs asking ... if reform fails, would that in fact happen?

First, Senate Democrats struck a tentative deal last week that jettisoned the public option in favor of expanding Medicare to people aged 55 or older. Only now, in an inexplicable effort to placate Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the Medicare buy-in could be on the chopping block. The compromise of the compromise of the compromise has left some liberals wondering if we're all better off just killing the bill.

Progressives might have a point: if we're left with a bill that requires Americans to buy insurance without really controlling costs and premiums, then are we really getting anything better than we have now?

To some degree, yes; the bill would still do away with pre-existing condition denials and policy recission, and there's still the matter of the House bill containing a public option and a provision that would require insurance companies to spend at least 85 cents out of every dollar it receives in premiums on health care.

Assuming the Senate bill actually gets passed, it would have to be merged with the House bill in conference committee, and you better believe progressives in Congress are going to be fighting mad that they've already had to give up as much as they have. A lot of progressives are single-payer advocates -- or at least vocal supporters of a public option that is available to everyone and has rates tied to Medicare -- so voting on a health care bill that features none of these things wouldn't be appetizing to them.

For example: Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), a longtime single-payer advocate who co-sponsored H.R. 676, voted against the House bill because he saw it as nothing more than a giveaway to the insuance industry ... and this was with a public option, insurance cost provision and an anti-trust exemption removal.

The Senate bill has none of those things.

Let's assume for a moment that the Senate bill dies -- either because Lieberman doesn't get his way or because progressives in the caucus decide the status quo is better than a shell of reform. How does this potentially affect President Obama? Would it in fact be his Waterloo?

That's hard to say; President Clinton failed to pass health care reform in the 1990s, yet he still managed a second term of office and actually left office with a massive surplus -- of course, a sex scandal helped a lot of people forget his health care failure. But reform failed back then in part because Congress didn't appreciate the Clintons telling them what to put in the bill; does the fact that Obama has been almost completely hands-off through the entire process change things?

The landscape of Congress will likely change in 2010, whether reform passes or not. And as much as progressives might want to think otherwise, both chambers aren't going to get more liberal; sure, conservative Democrats might face liberal primary challengers, but the likelihood of a significant number of those challengers winning is low. If anything, the GOP will probably pick up seats in 2010 -- simply because incumbents rarely fare well in the first midterm elections following a presidential race.

The Democrats' collective failure with regards to health care reform -- a signature policy of Obama's campaign -- won't help matters. I don't see Republicans gaining a majority in either chamber, but there'll probably be more red than blue next November.

But what of Obama? Would he face a primary challenger is 2012? Would whoever the GOP trots out there (short of Sarah Palin) beat Obama in 2012 simply because of the public outrage over what's occurred -- or hasn't occurred -- over the past year? We know that progressive tend not to turn out on Election Day if they're upset or disenfranchised, while GOP voters always turn out, no matter what.

But looking more short-term, would a health care failure make it more difficult for Obama to pass his other legislative agendas? Climate change, job creation, civil rights issues ... if Congress ultimately rebuffs Obama on health care, would they do the same on other issues? It's hard to say; though Lieberman is proving to be a giant pain in the ass on health care, he could prove beneficial on other issues.

Though few things in Washington can be viewed in a vacuum, legislative issues generally can be. Just because a Senator is trying to block health care reform doesn't necessarily mean he or she would try to block a bill repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell. They're separate issues; unless the Senator is question has a personal vendetta against President Obama (looking at you, GOP), a vote on one doesn't affect a vote on the other.

The effects of a health care reform failure are hard to predict; I'm not even willing to consider it a failure yet. Anyone who reads this blog knows I don't fly off the handle like message board reactionaries, willing to let things play out before ultimately making up my mind. I know what I want with regards to health care reform -- Medicare For All is my preference -- but I understand how legislating works (or doesn't).

But if reform does fail, it will be labeled a failure for President Obama ... fairly or otherwise.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Balancing Disappointment and Hope

Thanks to a deal struck on Tuesday by a group on 10 Senators -- and Thursday's concession from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) -- it appears whatever health care reform ultimately passes into law will not include a public option.

But what will it include?

On top of a ban on insurance industry practices as denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions and a dropping of coverage when one gets sick; an individual mandate that would force people to buy insurance; along with limited subsidies to help those who can't afford coverage buy it, the basic outline of the compromise includes the following:

-An expansion of Medicare, meaning Americans aged 55 or older would have the option to buy into the program. Keith Olbermann reported on Wednesday night that this would start in 2011, and subsidies would not be used for Medicare buy-ins until 2014. Still, the Medicare buy-in has received support from liberal and moderate Democratic Senators alike.

-An extended version of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan to consumers in the exchanges. Insurance companies will have the option of creating nationally-based non-profit insurance plans that would be offered on the exchanges in every state. However, according to TPM's report, if insurance companies don't step up to the plate to offer such plans, that would trigger a national public option.

-There may or may not be an expansion of Medicaid; the current bill expands it to those making above 133 percent of the current poverty level. Some liberals have fought for expansion to 150 percent, or even 300 percent of poverty. Pending Congressional Budget Office reports might determine which direction this fight takes. There's also an idea being tossed around -- and advocated by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) --fashioned after Washington state's program.

Am I disappointed in the presumed loss of the public option. Yes; as it stood, the public option was a compromise. Instead of fighting for single-payer from the start, progressives in Congress began trumpeting the public option. The fight over the months has been contentious and ugly -- in part because advocates did a poor job of explaining just what the public option was and what it was designed to accomplish.

Even so, the public option that was in the Senate bill was weak; rates were not tied into Medicare, and the option was only available to roughly 2 or 3 million people -- assuming states didn't opt out of it (which the Senate bill said they could). So in a way, completely mourning the death of a poor shell of a wanted policy is kind of hard.

The point remains, though: if this bill is going to force us to buy insurance -- and as of 2014, it very well could -- what does the bill do to make insurance more affordable? Do any of the plans outlined above accomplish that? Do the subsidies accomplish that? Are there industry regulations being discussed that we don't know about that would make private insurance more affordable and more efficient?

Maybe the individual mandate, coupled with the ban on pre-existing condition denials, would lower costs -- with so many more customers, of varying degrees of health, coming into the system, maybe that offsets costs.

Maybe it doesn't.

The reactionaries on the Internet message boards and in the media will likely frame this as a disastrous development and lay the failure at President Obama's feet; I refuse to do that at this stage, since the bill is nowhere near final yet. Debate is still raging, and the Senate has yet to vote on it. The House and Senate will then likely go to conference, where more amendments will be presented, and two more votes will be cast before the bill even sniffs Obama's desk.

So there's still plenty of time for us to tell our Senators, Representatives and the White House what we want. My main theme: cost control and affordability.

We've sadly become a nation of reactionaries, and sometimes I think we suffer from a societal version of ADD; rather than let things play out and analyze the final product for its merits, we fly off the handle at every little rumor or development, crying out in victory or ruin depending on which side we sit. That does nothing for our political process or discourse, and it really does a disservice to this country.

As does threatening Senators by withholding votes and campaign donations on this one issue. Republicans are often one-issue voters: they either fight over abortion or gay rights or defense spending or tax cuts. As Democrats, we really can't afford to do this -- because for all the angst centrist Democrats are causing with regards to health care reform, there may be other issues in which we agree.

Take one of my Senators, for instance. I'm frustrated by Sen. Jim Webb's refusal to support existing legislation, including the public option -- but I have a hard time outright saying I would vote against him, because 1) that might help the Republican candidate running against him, and 2) he's done some really good things in the Senate. I applaud Sen. Webb's work on the new GI Bill, and I appreciate his efforts to help local VA hospitals receive more funding and resources.

If I punish him for just his health care stance, what else do I potentially remove from the Senate? These politicians -- and these issues -- do not exist in a vacuum, even if we wished they did. Things would be much better if that were the case, but it's not.

Besides, if we kick out all the Democrats, who's left? Likely, more Republicans -- and the only way they would touch health care reform would be to try and repeal whatever the Democrats do pass.

Analytical thinking and perspective goes a long way; sadly, we're sorely lacking in both these days.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Senate Doesn't Work

Don't believe me? Just look at the health care debate.

Not just over the past few weeks; I'm talking through the entire process. While the House wasn't exactly expedient in passing its version of health care reform, it hasn't fallen victim to the arcane trappings that the Senate has.


-When health care reform was still in committee, the Senate Finance Committee stole the show, hijacking the press and making it seem as if that committee's reform bill was the only bill, even though the Senate's HELP Committee had already passed a reform bill and there were three bills in various House committees.

Even worse, Finance Committee chair Max Baucus (D-Mont.) didn't involve the entire committee in crafting the legislation. He created a "Gang of Six" -- a group of three Republicans and three conservative Democrats -- to write a bill that lacked a public option or anything else that truly reformed the health care system. Only once the bill was put before committee for amendments did the rest of the committee get a say -- not that it ultimately mattered.

-Once the Baucus bill passed committee, Baucus, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and HELP Committee chair Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) met with White House officials (read: Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel) to combine the two bills. That lasted roughly a few weeks longer than it should've, during which time talk of a filibuster began.

The GOP, which had long ago positioned itself as unspoken defenders of the status quo (read: they weren't actively saying things are fine, but their tactic of "delay to death" effectively intimated as much), was long ago going to threaten a filibuster, but since there are 60 Senators who caucus with the Democrats, Republicans would need one of those members to cross the line and join them.

Enter Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). And Mary Landrieu (D-La.). And Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.). And Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). All, at one point or another, threatened to filibuster the bill for one reason or another -- mostly the public option.

The House has no such rules. Once bills are out of their respective committees in that chamber, the legislative body meets to combine the bills through debate and amendments. The Speaker of the House -- in this case, California's Nancy Pelosi -- could end debate at any time and bring the bill to a vote. Everyone votes, the bill either passes or fails.

Not so in the Senate, where you have horribly outdated and arcane rules originally designed to serve as a system of checks and balances. Instead, such procedural matters as the filibuster have mutated into potential legislation-killers. Not agreeing with a bill doesn't simply mean you vote against it in the Senate; instead, you talk yourself to death in an effort to prevent a vote -- or even debate -- from ever happening.

-The Democrats have to defeat filibuster attempts twice -- they did so two weeks ago, when they beat back a GOP filibuster attempt to block debate. If all 60 Democrats hadn't blocked it, the full Senate would've never even discussed the health care reform bill. Once Reid wants to bring the bill to a final vote, the Democrats will need to block the filibuster again.

Lieberman's threat still stands, and Nelson had threatened to filibuster reform if his anti-abortion amendment failed ... which it did on Tuesday (see below). While Landrieu and Lincoln have not explicitly said they might filibuster, their opposition to such ideas as the public option make that possibility a reality.

In light of Tuesday's report that a gang of 10 Senators -- five liberal Democrats and five conservative Democrats -- reached a tentative deal to jettison the public option in favor of other ideas, a new filibuster threat has emerged ... from the left.

Illinois' Roland Burris.

While liberals in the Senate -- such as Ohio's Sherrod Brown and Vermont's Bernie Sanders -- have long been championing the public option, Burris is the first to step up and actually threaten to derail the bill over it. Is it an empty threat? Maybe, but progressives will surely like the fact that one of their own is stepping up.

In a lot of ways, the public option was a compromise. When President Barack Obama decided to forgo single-payer at the outset of the debate, the public option -- a government-run insurance plan operating completely off premiums designed to compete with private companies -- became the progressives' rallying cry. But conservative Democrats have balked at the idea, citing fiscal conservatism -- even as the Congressional Budget Office repeatedly asserted that the public option would save money.

In reality, the conservative Democrats were looking out for the insurance companies, who had contributed heavily to their campaigns.

Am I dismayed at the potential loss of the public option? Sure (more on that in a later post), but that's not the point here. The point is ... the Senate just doesn't work. It's a quagmire mixed in with a clusterfuck rolled up into a never-ending maze of confusion and frustration. We would be much better off if Reid could just craft a bill, bring it to the vote and let the proverbial chips fall where they may.

But all this talk of filibusters and cloture and deal-making in an effort to get 60 votes only serves two purposes: delaying the process and watering down the final product ... which, for those who haven't been paying attention, is exactly what the GOP wants.

The House, in terms of procedures and membership, is far more representative of the American people; in the Senate, the minority (in this case, super minority) party has far too much power.

Make no mistake: if health care reform fails, I put this at the feet of Democrats, not Republicans. The GOP cannot kill this effort on their own; they need a Democrat to join them, and there are a few who have threatened to do just that. If health care reform fails, the Democrats will lose big in 2010, and they might just lose in 2012.

But if reform fails because a vote never even gets cast, then we'll see just how illogical and corrupt our federal government truly is.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Anti-Abortion Amendment Killed

Senator Ben Nelson's amendment to further restrict a woman's right to choose has been killed by a 54-45 vote. Nelson, a Democrat from Nebraska, teamed with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to impose restrictions on abortion funding similar to those found in the Stupak amendment in the House health care reform bill.

In essence, the amendment would've not only prevented federal funding from being used to pay for abortions -- which is the current law -- but it would've barred anyone receiving government subsidies for private insurance from having abortion coverage ... along with preventing insurance companies participating in the federal exchange from offering such coverage.

Under the amendment, a completely legal and protected medical procedure (Roe v. Wade, anyone?) would've been virtually out of reach for middle-class women. Score one for the pro-choice crowd.

The vote serves as a victory for the progressive angle of the health care reform debate; while progressives are faced with compromising such facets as the public option -- to the point now that some in the Senate are considering other ideas in its place -- the defeat of Sen. Nelson's amendment is a victory.

Well, unless the Senator threatens to filibuster. That's where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would come in.

Make of that what you will.

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Small Health Care Victory

Even though the health care reform debate is still working its way -- very slowly -- through the Senate, a small victory in the name of health care has already been achieved ... and women could be among the largest beneficiaries.

Some of the debate in Washington has centered around women: the fact that women often pay higher premiums than men for insurance, the fact that some states consider pregnancy a pre-existing condition, the fact that some states can even consider domestic violence as a pre-existing condition.

Then there's the stink over the Stupak amendment in the House bill that further restricts a woman's right to choose, and the fact that Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) is threatening to derail reform if the Senate bill doesn't follow suit.

But Dianna Hunt of McClatchy/Tribune Newspapers wrote an article detailing a new law that would help women avoid discrimination at the hands of insurance companies. In 2008, Congress passed the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, which as of this week prohibits insurance companies from using family medical histories or genetic testing to deny insurance or set premium rates.

That means that if a woman has a family history of breast or ovarian cancer -- or she has a genetic test conducted to see if she was at risk for such diseases -- insurance companies could not use that fact to dent women coverage or raise they rates.

The law would also prevent employers from letting family histories or genetic markers dictate hiring practices.

Given the partisan bickering in Washington over the issue of health care reform -- and its potential implications on women -- it's hard sometimes to see the small victories along the way. While this law would prove small in the grand scheme of things, it is a victory in America's pursuit for gender equality when it comes to health care.

The issues of rates based on gender, pregnancy and domestic violence as pre-existing conditions and abortions will have to be resolved -- and the latter might very well tank the whole reform effort -- but at least now a woman can find out if she has a genetic disposition to breast or ovarian cancer without worrying if an insurance company will turn her away.

We take the victories where we can get them.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Gay Rights Extravaganza!

Pretty sure the title of this blog post will be far more scandalous than the content. But hey, whatever gets people reading ...

-Bad news out of New York, as state lawmakers on Wednesday voted to reject a bill that would've made New York the sixth state in the country to legalize same-sex marriage. The measure passed the state Assembly earlier and Gov. David Paterson had pledged to sign it -- which meant momentum seemed to be on the side of equality advocates.

Then again, we thought the same thing in Maine, and look how that turned out.

Still, the news did have an unexpected side story ... a straight couple in Brooklyn has applied to have their marriage annuled. Not because they can't get along or because they realized they made a mistake; no, Rachel Murch D'Olimpio and Matthew D'Olimpio are trying to annul their marriage in order to make a statement about marriage rights:

If the government won't allow same-sex couples the right to a civil contract (which, from a legal standpoint, is a exactly what marriage is), then they didn't feel that same government should recognize their civil contract, either.

How much of an effect this will have on the debate remains to be seen -- and the state might not even grant the couple their annulment request -- but the statement has been made. Granting heterosexual couples a right not available to same-sex couples is not right, and it violates equal protection laws.

Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut and Massachusetts already see this -- as did California and Maine, before a well-funded advocate of bigotry proceeded to scare the electorate into taking away those equal rights.

However the debate unfolds in New York, I applaud the D'Olimpios for their sacrifice and their conviction.

-Even worse news, potentially, out of Uganda, as the legislature in that country is considering legislation that would essentially make homosexuality a crime punishable by either jail time or death.

No, you did not read that wrong.

The bill doesn't even try to hide its goal behind a convoluted title or complicated legal language; it's called "The Anti-Homosexuality Bill," and states the bill is designed to "protect the traditional family by prohibiting (i) any form of sexual relations between persons of the same sex; and (ii) the promotion or recognition of such sexual relations in public institutions and other places through or with the support of any Govenment entity in Uganda or any non-governmental organization inside or outside the country."

The bill "further recognizes the fact that same-sex attraction is not an innate and immutable characteristic."

The punishments are outlined as follows:

-Attempting to commit homosexuality will be a felony subject to a seven-year prison sentence. Just being gay could land you seven years in jail.

-Attempting to commit "aggravated homosexuality" will also be a felony subject to life imprisonment. This constitutes homosexual acts with persons under 18 years of age, homosexual acts in which the offender is HIV-positive and other such factors.

Cases of aggravated homosexuality will also be subject to capital punishment. Considering one of the definitions of aggravated homosexuality is "serial offence," chances are Uganda could execute someone for simply being gay even after an initial conviction.

-Victims of homosexuality (the bill's language, not mine) will not be charged, and in some cases, the offender might be required to pay the victim. But I wanna know ... who's the victim in the case of a consensual same-sex couple?

-Aiding homosexuals (like, say, knowing someone is gay and keeping quiet about it) will also be a felony subject to a seven-year prison sentence.

-One can also be sentence to seven years in prison for keeping someone detained for the purpose of committing a homosexual act, or for maintaining a brothel. On the surface, this provision doesn't seem so bad, but considering the blatant hatred and disregard in the rest of this bill, I seriously question the intentions.

-Individuals who purport a contract of marriage with members of the same sex will be subject to life imprisonment.

The bill also includes a provision essentially outlawing any language that might legitimize homosexuality: "Any International legal instrument whose provisions are contradictory to the spirit and provisions enshrined in this Act , are null and void to the extent of their inconsistency.

"Definitions of 'sexual orientation,' 'sexual rights,' 'sexual minorities,' 'gender identity' shall not be used in any way to legitimize homosexuality, gender identity disorders and related practices in Uganda."

I wish I was making all of this up; I wish there weren't countries out there that were still so neanderthal-like in their thinking that prosecuting homosexuality seemed like a good idea. Even worse, there are those in this country who have ties to the Ugandan government -- namely our favorite little secret fundamentalist group called The Family.

Rachel Maddow explains:

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And here I thought we had it really bad because we're fighting for homosexuals to have the same rights we do in this country. The fight is important, don't get me wrong; but we are talking about legislation that would make being gay illegal. If this bill passes in Uganda, simply being in love could send someone to jail -- or even death.

More of our allies in Washington need to speak up about this, and the State Department needs to get involved and make sure Uganda knows this is unacceptable. Gay rights is not just an issue in America; it's a worldwide issue, and if this bill passes, what's to stop other nations throughout the world following suit?

We can't allow this to happen. We have to do something.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Apparently ...

... I severely understated it when I mentioned earlier this afternoon that the situation in Afghanistan was complicated and difficult (for me) to understand.

Watching The Rachel Maddow Show tonight, I saw this being a lot more complicated than even I thought. Richard Engel of NBC News, who's currently embedded with troops in Afghanistan, posted to his blog on Wednesday morning about how complicated the counterinsurgency strategy (called COIN for short) that Gen. Stanley McChrystal has been advocating for quite some time.

The verbal description, which Engel lays out here, seems simple enough. But when one examines the unclassified document from the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that explains the strategy, seemingly simple gives way to mind-numbingly confusing.

I'm talking more complicated than a J.J. Abrams TV drama.

The 30-page document breaks the strategy down in steps, with page 22 putting the whole thing together for the first time. Don't believe me? See for yourself by clicking here.

Seriously. The current health care debate seems downright elementary by comparison.

Dems Threaten Christmas

Well, not really -- but the headline sure caught your attention, didn't it?

In light of the past three days' worth of debate, in which Republicans such as John McCain of Arizona griped about cost and wanting desperately to protect the same Medicare program that the GOP has traditionally railed against, Democrat Chris Dodd of Connecticut on Wednesday offered this threat:

If the GOP keeps delaying the process -- with endless debate and other obstruction tactics -- then, Dodd told Jeff Muskus of The Huffington Post, they should say bye-bye to their Christmas vacation.

The Senate is scheduled to break on Dec. 18, and Republicans have hoped to stall the health care debate through the New Year. But if Dodd -- and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) -- makes good on his threat, the Senate could be working on Christmas Eve trying to iron out health care details while the children sleep and Santa jet-sets around the world to bestow the world's youth with gifts.

Whether the threat stands remains to be seen; Senate Democrats -- along with those in the House -- made a similar threat over the summer, saying they would forgo the August recess in order to work on the bill. Such a thing never happened, and the fiasco of the August town halls ensued.

(To be fair, much of the fiasco was a result of the mainstream media focusing incessantly on the faux-grassroots, anti-reform screamers who were nothing more than a well-funded, extremely loud minority. If the media had given equal focus and air time to those who were at the town halls in favor of reform, the debate might look different today.)

Chances are, Senator Dodd is grandstanding for the sake of a progressive base that is growing more and more concerned with regards to this issue. As people in Washington hail health care reform passing the House and coming up for debate in the Senate as a victory, some are worried the bill doesn't go far enough in terms of cost control or expansion of coverage -- and the abortion amendment that was snuck into the House bill has brought its own set of heavy baggage into the debate.

But if making threats is what gets the Republican minority to stop trying to derail a domestic initiative without at least letting it come to a vote -- if a bill falls because 51 Senators vote against it, then so be it -- then I applaud Senator Dodd for what he said. That said, I want him and other Senate Democrats to live up to his word.

And while he's at it, I would love it if he would actually do something about his colleague, Joe Lieberman. If I'm Dodd -- or Reid -- I start dangling that committee chairmanship in Lieberman's face and tell him to behave or see his favorite little toy handed to someone else.

But I've already written about that before.

President Obama Announces New Afghan Strategy

As President Barack Obama gave a national address Tuesday night at West Point, where he laid out his new strategy for the war in Afghanistan, one prevailing thought kept creeping into my head:

How many of the young cadets sitting in that audience were going to die as a result of this decision?

I don't ask that question to be glib or cute or sarcastic; I realize that war, justified or otherwise, always has a price, and I understand that those who choose to serve in the military during wartime understand that sacrifice and what might ultimately happen; that's one of the things that makes their service -- and the decision of the cadets in that room Tuesday night -- so admirable. We may disagree about the necessity of war or the correct strategy, but I think we can all agree that the men and women we send to fight these wars are a fine example of this country's strength and grace, and they are far greater Americans than I will ever be.

As expected, President Obama announced on Tuesday that he would send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan over the next six months, while also hoping for additional resources from some of his NATO allies.

NATO allies have, to this point, not wholeheartedly embraced the move.

This country has been at war in Afghanistan since 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, and what was once a justified offensive aimed at bringing down a terroristic mastermind has become a qaugmire that seems to have no pleasant way out.

When most presidents make the case for war, they are bombastic, waving the American flag to rally the masses behind the cause without really diving into the all too stark realities of military combat. President Obama did not give such a speech on Tuesday; he was realistic, frank and acted as if he truly understood what he was asking of his armed forces.

After eight years of cavalier isolationism and "staying the course," Obama's mature pragmatism was welcome. Now, about the details ...

As he announced the troop increase, President Obama said that he wanted to begin troop withdrawals by July 2011. While the timetable for ending the war is welcome (if for no other reason than it would theoretically prevent military commanders from repeatedly asking for more troops and resources to keep the conflict going with no end in sight), it is neither set in stone nor is it without its own set of heavy-handed questions:

Do we begin leaving in July 2011, even if we haven't done what we set out to do?

What constitutes victory in this war?

Why announce a timetable for withdrawal in the same breath that you're telling the country you're adding troops?

President Obama was consistent throughout the campaign in saying Afghanistan was where our military focus should be; while he believed Iraq was no longer in America's best interest, and promised to bring that conflict to an end, the president claimed Afghanistan was the "right war" and the "war of necessity."

Remember why we went to Afghanistan in the first place; in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we went in to bring down al Qaeda, break up the Taliban and apprehend -- or kill -- Osama bin Laden. Initially, the offensive was a success ... but as a recent Senate report reveals, the previous administration had bin Laden in its sights, only to let him flee, presumably into Pakistan.

According to the report, bin Laden was stationed in Tora Bora, and American military forces were ready to pounce on him before former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and ground commander Tommy Franks intervened.

Some might view that as the Bush administration making a strategic move to justify a coming war in Iraq. The thinking goes that the administration knew capturing or killing bin Laden -- the entire point of the Afghan campaign -- would make military action in Iraq largely unjustifiable. There are those who believe Rumsfeld, Franks and even former Vice President Dick Cheney willingly let bin Laden escape into Pakistan so they could justify invading Iraq.

As some expected then, going to war in Iraq left Afghanistan without much in the way of focus and resources. I won't say whether the Bush administration knowingly did this -- though it wouldn't surprise me -- but the Iraq offensive is a large reason why Afghanistan is the mess it is now ... and why President Obama was faced with making a difficult and very unpopular decision.

Other questions beg asking:

At what point do we determine that Afghanistan is ready to take over on its own, both in a political and military sense? Part of our strategy is to train Afghan soldiers so they can handle the Taliban and other extremists, which is all well and good ... but when do we decide that they're ready?

How do we handle the Afghan government, which faces serious legitimacy questions and just came off a presidential election marred by fraud and corruption? President Harmid Karzai could prove to be a huge stumbling block in America's effort to strengthen Afghanistan outside of military occupation, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will have her hands full trying to walk the tight rope of supporting Karzai's administration while making it clear that America will not tolerate corruption and greed.

What about Pakistan? Intelligence suggests that bin Laden and top al Qaeda officials are hiding out on the other side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, which on the surface makes the decision to escalate in Afghanistan a head-scratcher. Vice President Joe Biden has intimated as such, and America's relations with Pakistan -- combined with the fact that Pakistan is home to several nuclear weapons -- make a military presence in that country untenable.

Still ... if bin Laden is in Pakistan (allegedly), how can we get him in Afghanistan?

I don't doubt that President Obama took this decision seriously, understanding none of the options given to him were particularly appetizing. He has faced criticism from the right for taking so long to make his decision and announcing a timetable for withdrawal, while the left is against the troop increase and threatening not to allow funding for the increase to pass.

Still, even as pragmatic and adult as the president sounded on Tuesday, his reasoning isn't all that different from President George W. Bush's when he argued in favor of a troop surge in Iraq in 2007. Rachel Maddow also pointed out after the speech on Tuesday that President Obama wasn't deviating all that much from the "Bush Doctrine," which President Bush outlined in a speech at West Point in 2002.

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When it comes to war, I'm not much of a liberal -- even though I opposed the war in Iraq from day one (last I checked, the people who knocked down our buildings and killed almost 3,000 people in 2001 weren't in Iraq). I believe the war in Afghanistan, at first, was a necessary war designed to keep us safe and get back at those who attacked us.

But as time passes, I find the war in Afghanistan far less appealing. Our strategy and focus has eroded beyond recognition over the past eight years, and while I appreciate that President Obama has presented an actual strategy -- and respect him for informing future troops in-person of the job he would ask them to perform -- I'm worried that it won't help much at this point.

Has Afghanistan become such a quagmire that any strategy aside from pulling out will be doomed to fail?

How do we pay for this escalation, even as we fight a recession and try to bring about sweeping changes to such aspects of domestic policy as health care, climate change and Wall Street? People talk of nation-building in Afghanistan, but isn't President Obama's first responsibility to help rebuild this country?

If we do capture or kill bin Laden or his top commanders, is that the end of it? The organization that attacked us eight years ago is not isolated to Afghanistan and Pakistan -- the 9/11 plot was hatched in Germany, and I'm sure al Qaeda has cells and operatives all over the world. I want us to bring down bin Laden, but we shouldn't be so naive as to think that'll be the end of our "war on terror."

We won't be able to bring out the "Mission Accomplished" banner, even if this strategy works. I trust that President Obama and his advisers have access to information with regards to this war to which we, as the general public, are not privy, but a troop escalation -- from a strategic and financial standpoint -- is a risky move at best at this point.

President Obama's legacy and chances for a second term could very well hinge on this decision. I hope this strategy proves successful, that we can capture or kill bin Laden and that our troops can finally come home safe and sound -- and I'll be honest in admitting that I don't understand much of what's going on in this war. But the questions outlined above are too heavy for me to ignore.

President Obama campaigned on focusing more on Afghanistan, which was what we apparently wanted as a nation at the time. But public opinion has shifted the longer this messy conflict goes on, and now focusing on Afghanistan doesn't seem like such a sure bet.

I'm not for the new strategy, but I'm not completely against it; I'm just a concerned American with serious questions about the outcome and cost -- financial and human -- of this war.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Dems Stay Home = GOP Win?

According to a survey released over the Thanksgiving holiday -- that received little media play -- roughly 40 percent of self-identified Democratic voters said they are "not likely to" or "definitely" won't vote in the 2010 Congressional elections.

That same poll found that self-identifying Republicans are three times more likely to vote in 2010. Next year's elections were already of interest, considering the Democrats' sizeable majority in both chambers of Congress and the reality that the President's party often loses seats in the first midterm election of his term.

So an already perilous situation for Democrats could get worse if much of their base stays home.

The news isn't necessarily surprising -- the Republican base has always been more passionate and active at the polls than the Democratic base -- but it does give those of us on the left cause for concern. Democrats need only look at what happened in the gubernatorial race earlier this month in Virginia; Democrats and independents stayed home, for a variety of reasons, while the GOP base mobilized and made Bob McDonnell the commonwealth's next governor.

If Democrats aren't careful -- or they fail to pass any significant legislation on any number of issues -- the Virginia governor's race could be a window through which we can speculate how the Congressional races might pan out.

Democrats stayed home in Virginia in part because they were unenthused with the party's candidate, Creigh Deeds. His unorganized campaign, combined with the fact that he shunned help from the White House until the very end and painted himself as a moderate, left the base wanting, while McDonnell energized the GOP base and even managed to paint himself as enough of a moderate to pick up a few independents.

Looking nationally, there are some lukewarm feelings toward Democrats in Congress -- either toward the Blue Dogs who are opposed to health care reform's most popular aspect or the Democratic leadership for failing to corrall the party together or the President's perceived inability to act on his campaign promises.

While the GOP looks no better, with its stance of opposing everything President Obama proposes simply because President Obama proposed them, the Republicans do a far better job of energizing their base -- even if that base is going through an identity crisis with the tea party protestors and the "conservative party" candidates.

That could mean seats in Congress turning red, and the very real possibility of the House and/or Senate turning red. And if you think President Obama's facing too many obstacles to pass his agenda now, just imagine how hard change will be if he has to face a Republican majority on either side of Congress.

What would it take to excite the Democratic base? In the words of Daily Kos blogger Steve Sinsiger, "Finish health care. Pass a jobs bill. Finish the climate bill. Re-regulate the financial industry. Finish the education bill. Pick up immgration reform. Repeal 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'."

Seems simple enough; if Democrats actually pass bills relating to the agendas the American people supported in November 2008, they're more likely to vote to keep the party in power in 2010. But without anything concrete to point to in the name of progress, what is there for Democrats to show to their base to get them excited?

Democrats need to get things done to close the "enormous enthusiasm gap" between the parties, or the base will stay home -- effectively handing seats to the GOP. Democratic voters staying home will make the right's job in 2010 so much easier, because elections won't be so tight. That the Democrats will lose some seats isn't in dispute -- the Blue Dogs are facing anger from their own electorates, and there have been threats of Democratic primaries in some cases -- but the question remains:

If Democrats fall in 2010, do they fall to other Democrats, or to Republicans? If these poll numbers hold true, the country's going to turn red again this time next year. I don't know about the rest of you, but after the bulk of this decade, I can't handle that again.

If voters on the left stay home, and the GOP gets back in the majority, I don't want to hear progressives bitching about not having majority status in D.C. anymore. You don't vote, you lose your right to complain.

Simple as that.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Filibuster as Cancer

Though many might dismiss The Nation magazine as a lefty, liberal thinktank, it is often the home of some thought-provoking pieces. Case in point: an article in the Nov. 23, 2009 issue, in which staff writer Christopher Hayes pointed out the legislative quagmire that is the filibuster in the Senate, not to mention a wonderful example of hypocrisy from Connecticut's not-so-favorite independent, Joe Lieberman.

According to Hayes, the filibuster "has become a cancer growing inside the world's greatest deliberative body." The practice, by which one opposed to a legislative effort delays or kills said effort through endless discussion or debate. In order to prevent filibuster, the Senate needs 60 votes for what is called cloture; though Lieberman is an independent, he caucuses with the Democrats, giving that party 60 members in the Senate.

So for the Republican Party to filibuster, it would need one of those 60 other members to join the effort. Lieberman has threatened to join the GOP in filibustering a final vote on health care reform, and as Hayes notes, he's exposing his own hypocrisy in doing so.

In 1994, Lieberman and Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) introduced legislation to reform the filibuster. "[People] are fed up -- frustrated and fed up and angry about the way in which our government does not work," Lieberman said at the time. "And I think the filibuster has become not only in reality an obstacle to accomplishment here, but it is also a symbol of a lot that ails Washington today."

The bill came to a floor vote and was roundly killed by both parties.

So in the span of 15 years, Lieberman has gone from a vocal opponent of the filibuster to threatening to use it if health care reform inconveniences his insurance overlords back in Connecticut in any way. Lieberman is not threatening to filibuster debate on the health care bill in the Senate; he, along with conservative Democrats Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana voted on Saturday night for cloture.

What Lieberman has threatened is to filibuster a final vote, if the bill contains anything remotely resembling a public option. His reasoning? Lieberman feels so strongly against the public option, he can't even allow the Senate to vote on it. You ask me, Lieberman wouldn't make a stink this big if he honestly thought the public option wouldn't pass. He knows it will, so he wants to use an arcane Senate rule to prevent the vote from ever taking place.

The House of Representatives has no such rule. Once a bill comes out of committee in the House, it's presented to the floor and debated and amended. Then the bill comes up for a final vote, where it either passes or doesn't. The Constitution allows for such ease of passage in the House, while setting up more complicated barriers in the Senate, in order to provide a system of checks and balances in Washington.

Think of it as ... a good idea gone horribly bad.

There's a misconception among the mainstream media regarding the Democrats' 60-member majority in the Senate. To hear some in the media talk, the Democrats need 60 votes to pass the bill; they don't. A bill can pass the Senate by simple majority; a bill that gets 51 votes will pass just as easily as a bill that gets 60. Where the party needs the 60 votes is for cloture; they need the 60 to block the filibuster.

I understand why the filibuster is in place in the Senate, but I also realize that it's outlived its usefulness. Like the Commodore 64, the filibuster has passed its prime; it's obsolete. I agreed with Sen. Lieberman's assertion in 1994 that the filibuster was a needless roadblock in government's efforts to pass legislation.

Unfortunately, the Sen. Lieberman of 2009 has lost sight of his own convictions, and that might cost us true health care reform. If reform fails, it will not be the Republicans' fault; it will be Lieberman's, and the Democrats' for not effectively handling him and bowing to the demands of the more conservative members. If Lieberman is threatening to kill health reform, I say threaten to take away his committee chairmanship.

Then again, with all that money the insurance industry's been giving to Lieberman, I'm not sure he can see that. All he sees is green.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Maine = FAIL

It's one thing for a state to have always been against the concept of same-sex marriage; Virginia has never allowed homosexual couples to marry, even going so far as to add an amendment to the state constitution in 2006 defining marriage as being between a man and a woman.

It's another thing entirely when people vote to take away a state's legally-granted rights when it comes to same-sex marriage. We saw this last November when California voted in favor of Prop 8, which removed the state's right to grant same-sex marriages. Over the summer, Maine's legislature and governor passed a law making same-sex marriage legal -- which meant every state in New England outside of Rhode Island legalized same-sex marriage.

At least, until the same group that funded the Prop 8 campaign in California last year came to Maine looking to have a referendum put on this year's ballot asking voters to repeal the law. They had the signatures necessary to have the referendum put to a popular vote, and an intense, well-funded debate ensued.

Heading into Tuesday night, 30 states have put the issue of gay marriage up to a popular vote; all 30 times, the electorate voted against same-sex marriage. Many thought Maine, thanks to its independent electorate, might change that. But once the returns came in, it became clear that Maine would do the same as every other state, and deny homosexuals the right to marry.

Not just deny them the right -- taking away the right Maine's government had already granted its citizens. The Civil Rights movement in the 1960s was about giving African-Americans rights they didn't already have. In some ways, the fight for equal rights for homosexuals -- including marriage -- is about the same thing: giving homosexuals the same rights heterosexuals already enjoy.

But it's also about making sure the states that have granted homosexuals the right to marry don't turn around and take it away. Five states -- New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut and Iowa -- grant same-sex marriage rights, and to my knowledge, there are no efforts to remove those rights in those states. Which makes me wonder -- why take away the rights granted in California and Maine, but not in the other states?

Are California and Maine somehow more important?

Since Massachusetts instituted same-sex marriage in 2004, divorce rates have plummeted. Iowa voters have said, by a margin of 92 percent to eight, that same-sex marriages have had no effect on their lives. The numbers back up equal rights advocates in their claims that homosexuals are entitled to the same rights as heterosexuals and yet opponents, with their deep pockets and passionate supporters, have repeatedly succeeded in denying homosexuals those rights.

Equal rights advocates have experienced one win this year, when President Obama signed into law a defense appropriations bill that included an amendment extending hate crime protection on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or diability. There is a bill in the House of Representatives that would repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and the Senate will soon be holding hearings on the controversial law.

Even though the Department of Justice has defended the Defense of Marriage Act, President Obama has repeatedly declared that he would like to repeal the law. Inroads are being made in the civil rights battle of our generation, though even I will admit how frustrating it is to see how long this fight is taking -- and even more infuriating when I see progress snuffed out by a bigoted opposition taking advantage of an easily-scared electorate.

To deny anyone in this country equal rights on the basis of who they are or who they love is not only unseemly and unconstitutional, it's downright unpatriotic. How can you call yourself a proud American if you vote to deny your fellow citizens the same rights you enjoy? The men and women of our military shedding their own blood and giving their own lives for our freedoms are not doing so in order for us to arbitrarily decide who has access to those rights and who doesn't.

This is an example of the right-wing, Bible-thumping influence that has intoxicated our political discourse over the last decade (at least); bigots are using the Bible as a crutch to justify their senseless hatred, and someone needs to stand up and call them on it. It is unpatriotic and un-Christian to deny homosexuals the right to love as they see fit; hate and denial of rights flies in the face of everything this country stands for, and it makes me sick to know people still exist who let such hate permeate their minds.

How dare we deny other Americans basic equal rights. How dare we treat homosexuals as second-class Americans simply because of who they love. Have we learned nothing from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s? Have we learned nothing from the efforts of people like Martin Luther King and Harvey Milk?

Why the hate? What is so goddamn horrible about a same-sex couple getting married?

If an 86-year old Republican in Maine, who fought in World War II, can find it in his heart to understand the importance of granting equal rights to ALL Americans, then what does that say about the selfish mouth-breathers who scream about the government interfering in their lives, while simultaneously asking the government to interfere in the lives of others?

Shame on you, California. Shame on you, Maine. And shame on every unpatriotic person who would dare deny a fellow American the right to marry. If defending equal rights for all makes me a bleeding-heart liberal, then I'm a damn liberal. I'll proudly wear that label.

I've had it with you hate-mongers. Have fun in Hell, where you belong.

GOP to Moderates: Thanks, But No Thanks

How do you elect a Democrat to a Congressional seat for the first since before the Civil War? Well, a GOP civil war of sorta helps a lot.

Democrat Bill Owens won the special election in New York's 23rd Congressional district Tuesday night, marking the first time since 1858 that a Democrat has taken that seat. But Owens didn't defeat a Republican to win the seat -- he beat Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman.

Now, I know what you're thinking ... what's the difference between the Republican and Conservative parties? Apparently, the Republican isn't conservative enough.

Hoffman, who doesn't even live in NY-23 and has been criticized for not knowing about the local issues that matter to voters in upstate New York. But that didn't seem to matter to such conservative voices as Sarah Palin, Fred Thompson and Glenn Beck -- who all endorsed Hoffman over local Republican candidate Dierdre Scozzafava.

Translation: Scozzafava, a moderate, was too liberal for the GOP, so the bulk of the party's public voices backed the Conservative Party candidate, who was eerily close in ideology to the tea party movement that has been so prevalent and mocked since April.

In short, this turned into a civil war within the conservative movement. It's not entirely surprising -- political parties usually go through periods of unrest and identity confusion after rough election losses -- but the outcome is perhaps of national interest. With only 20 percent of the country willingly identifying as Republican, the tea party movement's efforts to neutralize a moderate Republican -- and essentially handing what was a "safe" GOP seat to the Democrats -- should serve as a lesson for the GOP.

The message? Moderates are not welcome in the GOP -- which Scozzafava proved when she dropped out of the race on Saturday and endorsed Owens. There was speculation about this theme during the presidential election last year -- when John McCain selected far right-wing Palin as his running mate, while Barack Obama managed to get the Democratic base, on top of independents and even some moderate Republicans.

Though Republicans fared well Tuesday in Virginia and New Jersey, the NY-23 race is probably more telling for the party. Chris Christie won in New Jersey largely because incumbent Jon Corzine was wildly unpopular, while Bob McDonnell took Virginia easily because of his stellar, focused campaign.

But NY-23 could loom large as we approach the 2010 midterms, mostly because of the fracturing within the GOP. Some pundits are drawing comparisons to 1994, when Republicans regained control of Congress with Bill Clinton in the White House, but I don't remember such schizophrenia within the party back then. How does the GOP keep its base energized, while still reaching out to moderates and independents?

I'm not so sure it can. And after the drama unfolding in NY-23, I'm not even sure the GOP wants to. The Republican Party has become so ideologically-driven that it no longer represents a significant portion of the American population. McDonnell was able to win in Virginia in part because he successfully painted himself as a moderate -- even if his past showed him to be anything but.

I'm not saying Democrats won't lose seats in 2010 -- particularly in health care reform is weak or fails. But if the GOP can't get its act together and find a way to have its cake and eat it too (i.e., appeal to the base and independents), it won't win back the number of seats it expects. The Republican Party has become so divisive that it's started to turn on its own, and if the Democrats are smart (which is certainly in question), they can take advantage of it.

But one thing NY-23 has taught us ... watching the GOP tear itself apart is pretty entertaining.

What Happened in Virginia?

How could a state that one year ago sent two Democrats to the Senate, gave Democrats a 6-5 edge in House Representatives and voted Democrat for President for the first time since the 1960s overwhelmingly vote for a Republican for governor Tuesday night? How could Bob McDonnell stem the tide of blue that had overtaken the commonwealth of Virginia over the last couple years?

Well, there's the curious pattern of Virginia voting for the party not in the White House. When Bill Clinton was in office, the governor of Virginia was a Republican. When George W. Bush was president, Virginia puts Democrats in Richmond.

But there's something deeper -- well, several things. I can't speak much on the New Jersey governor's race, since I don't live there -- from what I hear, incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine was really unpopular -- but in Virginia, McDonnell's beatdown is pretty easy to explain.


No matter what happened, McDonnell's campaign was incredibly focused and stayed on-message. McDonnell tapped himself as "the jobs governor" early on, which was a politically-genius move. The label not only defined McDonnell's platform, but it was also easy to remember and kind of catchy -- it made for great posters and signs.

McDonnell's ads were also largely positive, focusing on his desire to gets Virginians back to work and how he would work to keep us safe. Even when Deomcrat candidate Creigh Deeds and the Washington Post got hold of a thesis McDonnell wrote in the 1980s while attending Regent University, in which the Republican complained about working women as well as "cohabitators, homosexuals and fornicators," McDonnell stayed on-message, choosing to fight off the charges by highlighting his daughter serving in Iraq and all the women who worked for McDonnell throughout his political career in Virginia.

In short, McDonnell ran a spot-on campaign.

By contrast, Deeds ran a sloppy, unorganized campaign. He never truly embraced one issue to run on -- his campaign was largely based on vagueries and the promise to continue former Gov. Mark Warner's economic policies (and inexplicably comparing McDonnell to Bush). While McDonnell was "the jobs governor," Deeds never adequately defined himself.

Deeds was also too quick to shun help from the White House, even though President Obama still had good approval numbers in Virginia. Fearing the state's independents were losing faith in the president, Deeds decided he didn't need the White House's help -- until last week, when Obama came to Norfolk to campaign for Deeds. By then, it was too late and the move smacked of desperation.

Simultaneously, Deeds went to the center; after the primaries, Deeds was to the left, but as the general campaign unfolded, he moved to the center -- claiming that becoming a moderate would help him with independents. The only thing it did, though, was upset the base (which I'll get to in a moment). Also not helping Deeds' cause? The fact that he insinuated he'd opt out of the public option that's currently being discussed in the Senate health care reform bill.

Deeds' ads were also far more negative than McDonnell's, especially when the GOP candidate's graduate thesis became public knowledge. Deeds focused intensely on the thesis, too much so. It became clear early on voters didn't care about the thesis -- either because they felt McDonnell's job proposals were more important, or they agreed with what was in the thesis.

The truth is probably a combination of both. But even when it was clear the attacks on McDonnell based on his right-wing thesis weren't working, Deeds kept hammering home the point, instead of focusing on what he would do for the state should he be elected. That further alienated independents and frustrated Democrats.

Off-year elections traditionally don't have the turnout of a presidential race, and the governor's race is no different. With the influx of new, young voters last year -- who overwhelmingly voted for Obama -- there was always the chance that those same voters would stay home when it came time to elect a governor or members of Congress.

It's been my experience that when college-age people register to vote for the first time, a lot of them think President is the only thing worth voting for. Sure, they'll vote for Senators and Congressmen if they're on the ballot that year, but off-year elections are not the territory for the young and minority voters.

The GOP knows this, and does a great job of mobilizing and exciting its base. In McDonnell's case, he managed to excite the base and grab the independents -- mostly by making himself appear moderate. Saying no to Sarah Palin had a lot to do with that, I think, as did McDonnell's insistence that his graduate thesis was over 20 years old, and that his views had changed since then.

Maybe they have, maybe they haven't.

I don't think Tuesday's results are a referendum on President Obama (see my point earlier about Virginia going against the party in the White House); I see it more as a race where McDonnell saw the issues that mattered to Virginians and hammered those home, while Deeds was unfocused and grasping at straws from day one.

Virginians care about jobs and the economy, and despite the ideological differences between McDonnell and myself (I still voted for Deeds, even with everything I just laid out), the fact remains that he did a really good job of talking about what mattered to the voters, and they turned out in droves to give him a massive win.

What will that mean for Virginia in the next four years? It's hard to tell, but if the Democrats want to make the commonwealth blue again -- it's only slightly blue at the moment -- then it needs to see what went wrong with the Deeds campaign and what McDonnell did right. The governor's race in Virginia was a combination of McDonnell's strengths, Deeds' weaknesses and a general apathy among the commonwealth's newfound electorate.

Combine those three things, and you get the 59-41 split we saw Tuesday night. The GOP will make more of it than it really is -- RNC chairman Michael Steele already has -- but unlike most things in politics, McDonnell's victory can be viewed inside a vacuum.

Friday, October 30, 2009

We Need Equality ... Kinda Now

On the rare occasion I haven't discussed health care or torture or Republican idiocy in this blog, I've discussed the issue of gay rights. I'm a fierce advocate of gay rights, because I'm a firm believer in equality for all. To me, equality is not a political issue; it's a fundamental reality of the human condition.

Regardless of where you live, what color your skin is, who you love, what deity you worship or how you identify yourself in terms of sexual preference or gender ... we are all human beings, and we are deserving of the same rights and responsibilities. Women deserve equal pay with men. Gay couples deserve to marry, just as their heterosexual neighbors can. Pagans deserve the same right to worship as Christians.

Equality is something we all should agree upon, and the fact that we don't saddens me.

Writer Joss Whedon is another who's done his part for equality, particularly in terms of gender issues. Known mostly for the creation of strong female characters, Whedon is best known for the TV shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. He also created the short-lived TV series Firefly and its resultant feature film Serenity.

Whedon also created Dollhouse, which currently airs on FOX.

In 2006, Equality Now honored Whedon for his efforts. As a fan of (most of) his work, I understand and appreciate what Whedon tries to convey with regards to equality in his work. This isn't a political message, and it doesn't really relate directly to any of the topics currently being debated in this country, but Whedon's message resonates beyond his little world of vampires and space westerns and programmable people.

His words can also be applied to just about anything.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Mr. Goodell Goes to Washington

We interrupt your regularly-scheduled health care debate and partisan bickering to bring you an odd sports update. That's right, the worlds of politics and sports merged briefly on Wednesday, thanks to a hearing conducted by the House Judiciary Committee looking into a correlation between head injuries in football and mental disorders later in life.

This will probably be the only time this blog ever links you to ESPN.

The NFL recently commissioned a report that suggested a link between football-related head injuries -- like concussions -- and future dementia and even Alzheimer's disease. Though the report suggested such a link, neither NFL commissioner Roger Goodell or NFLPA director DeMaurice Smith were willing to admit as such.

Let's face facts; the only way to completely prevent injuries in football is to get rid of the sport entirely. Football is inherently a violent game, which is a large part of the game's appeal. There's a reason the NFL and college football are so popular, and I'm venturing to guess it has a lot to do with the hitting.

I'm generally weary of Congress getting involved in sports matters; I thought the Congressional hearings on steroid use in baseball in 2003 were a waste of time. I've thought the same thing in recent months whenever Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has asked for Congressional hearings regarding the legality and fairness of the way college football crowns its national champion.

At first, I felt the same way about this hearing. But when Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) began questioning Goodell on the NFL's actions regarding the league's retired players -- many of whom are broke, destitute and/or battling severe health problems -- I saw where the connection was. The league runs a pension program for retired players, a program that, largely, has failed over the years.

Congresswoman Waters, who is married to a former NFL player, chided Goodell for his generalities (something I wish more sports writers would do) and threatened to take away the league's anti-trust exemption if action wasn't taken.

The NFL isn't exempt under the McCarran-Ferguson Act, like the health insurance companies and Major League Baseball. Sports leagues are exempt under a 1961 law for the purposes of broadcasting. The NFL has raked in billions of dollars over the last two decades in television broadcasting deals, thanks in large part to its anti-trust exemption.

With the kind of money the NFL is raking in -- even in this tough economy -- it's only fair for Congress to keep an eye on its practices and consider taking away that anti-trust exemption if the league doesn't shape up when it comes to the health and financial well-being of its players ... current and former.

Big Day for Gay Rights Activists

The gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community has been frustrated with President Obama in his first 10 months in office, since his administration has not yet repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell and has dragged its feet on -- and even defended -- the Defense of Marriage Act.

But Wednesday marked President Obama's first major action when it comes to equal rights for gays, as he signed the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which extends federal hate crime protections to those based on a person's sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability.

The measure is named after Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was tortured and killed in 1998, and James Byrd Jr., a black man who was chained to a pickup truck and dragged to his death that same year. Democrats, including the late Ted Kennedy, had tried for years to pass such legislation, but met stiff opposition on several occasions.

The solution? Add the bill as an amendment to a defense appropriations bill. That way, when Republicans voted against the bill on the basis of their opposition to the Shepard bill -- which they did -- Democrats could point out Republican hypocrisy in noting how they voted against a defense bill after crowing on an on about defending the country.

So not only does the Shepard bill make good policy in the fight for civil rights, but it could be politically shrewd for the Democrats -- which is good, when one considers how convoluted and complicated the health care reform fight has become.

Still, ignoring the health care fight for a moment, Wednesday's signing ceremony is a victory for gay rights advocates. DADT and DOMA are still on the books, and they do need to be addressed, but Congress and President Obama took a huge first step with the passage of the Shepard bill. By extending hate crime protections to the GLBT community, as well as those who are physically or mentally disabled, this administration is sending a strong message that violence rooted in intolerance of any kind is unacceptable.

Bravo, Mr. President. Thank you.

Video of the signing ceremony:

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Return of the Indy

Pardon the bad Star Wars reference; I know it was a reach, but I was struggling to come up with a title for this post.

Let's just say I'm not a fan of Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). I didn't like him in the 1990s, when he joined up with former Wisconsin Democratic Senator Herbert Kohl to begin attacking video game content and other forms of media. That crusade has continued over the years, even as studies disprove any link between violent video games and violent behavior -- and even as the video game industry has adopted a ratings system designed to keep violent games out of the hands of children.

I didn't like Sen. Lieberman when he joined with Al Gore to run as Vice President in 2000 -- mostly because I remembered his crusade to censor video games and other forms of popular media. I didn't like Lieberman this past election cycle when he decided to campaign on behalf of Republican presidential nominee John McCain.

An independent caucusing with the Democrats campaigning on behalf of Republicans -- there has to be some sort of punishment for that, right? Apparently not; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid decided earlier this year that Lieberman would not lose his chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs.

How does Lieberman thank Reid for not punishing him? By threatening to help Republicans filibuster a health care reform bill if it includes a public option. Lieberman is opposed to a public option, even though Connecticut has one, covering nearly 10,000 people, according to Countdown's Keith Olbermann.

Why is Lieberman against the public option, even in its current opt-out format? The health insurance industry -- which is vehemently fighting reform -- has a large presence in Connecticut; there are eight separate companies from which to purchase insurance in the state, including industry giant Aetna.

Aetna and Cigna are based in Connecticut.

Lieberman has received a combined $1,144,604 from insurance companies, health professionals and pharmaceutical companies since 2005. Think that money, combined with the industry's presence in Connecticut, has something to do with Lieberman's stance?

As a point of reference, the other Senator from Connecticut, Democrat Chris Dodd -- whom Ralph Nader once called "the Senator from Aetna" -- has received $2.3 million in contributions from the insurance industry in the last 20 years. Only difference is, Sen. Dodd is a huge proponent of the public option, seeing its inclusion in the HELP Committee bill passed over the summer.

Sen. Lieberman said he would not filibuster to prevent debate on the bill -- which is where Senators can offer amendments to change the bill before it comes to a final vote -- but that if a public option survives that process, he would be inclined to join the Republican minority in filibustering -- thus blocking the bill from a vote.

The Republican minority is so small -- there are only 40 in the chamber -- they would need someone who caucuses with the Democrats to join the filibuster effort. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) have been likely candidates, because of their opposition to the public option, but Sen. Lieberman is the first Senator to publicly say he would aid the filibuster effort.

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, Sen. Lieberman could kill health care reform.

Then again, Sen. Lieberman has never voted in favor of filibuster before, even if it involved a bill he would vote against. This could be nothing more than political posturing, publicly assauging the concerns of his donors, while secretly telling Democratic leadership he would allow the bill to come to a vote, even if he votes against said bill.

But, if Lieberman does let the Republicans filibuster, there should be consequences. Not just in terms of Connecticut residents voting him out of office -- though Connecticut voters overwhelmingly support the public option -- but in terms of his chairmanship.

If I'm Sen. Reid, I tell Lieberman that if he supports a filibuster, he will be stripped of his chairmanship. Then, if Lieberman goes through with his threat anyway, I make good on that threat. This issue is far too important to delay to death; issues like this are exactly why we gave Democrats a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate in the first place.

But what do I know? I'm just a liberal with a blog.

Monday, October 26, 2009

An Example of Shoddy Journalism

When I was in college, studying to be a journalist, one of the first things I learned dealt with the reality of anonymous sources. Two weeks into my Introduction to Journalism class, my professor, Dr. Joe Cosco, told us that -- whenever possible -- we should avoid using and quoting anonymous sources.

The line of thinking was thus: if a source isn't willing to put his or her name on something, then they either don't have the authority or clearance to say it, or it's not true. Dr. Cosco did admit there were times where anonymous sources couldn't be avoided, but using them, as a rule, wasn't a good idea.

I recount that story because of an article that appeared on The Huffington Post over the weekend, written by Sam Stein and Ryan Grim. With the huge red headline "Leaderless," the article quoted numerous anonymous sources claiming President Obama was against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's push to add a public option with an opt-out clause for states to the health care reform bill in that chamber.

According to the sources, Obama preferred a public option with a trigger -- which has been supported by Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) -- that would establish benchmarks that the health insurance industry would have to meet; if those benchmarks weren't met after a period of time, the public option would take effect.

Thing is ... the trigger would never be tripped, because the insurance industry could always fudge its numbers to make it appear as if they're meeting the benchmarks, even if they're not. Not to mention how deep into the pockets of many politicians the insurance industry is; a trigger could in effect kill the public option, even if one is in the final bill. In essence, a triggered public option would result in RINO -- Reform In Name Only.

The only source in Stein and Grim's story to be named was Dan Pfeiffer, a top White House aide who called the report false when talking to the website Talking Points Memo. Every other source in the story is anonymous, some nameless quote claiming to have intimate knowledge of negotiations.

If that sounds a little suspect, it probably is.

President Obama has repeatedly expressed his preference for a public option; though he has never explicitly said he would sign a bill without it and has remained open to other ideas, the President has, time and again, said he felt the public option was the best way to accomplish his goals of lowering costs and introducing competition in the marketplace. Four of the five health care reform bills in Congress include a public option, and Reid insists he's close to getting the 60 votes needed to block a filibuster on the opt-out public option.

And, for what it's worth, Stein reported on Sunday that the White House denied the initial report, saying it was "absolutely false" and that Obama and Reid were on the same page. The initial report claimed the President was backing the trigger idea in an effort to get Sen. Snowe to vote for the final bill, so Obama could call the bill bipartisan.

"A rumor is making the rounds that the White House and Senator Reid are pursuing different strategies on the public option," Pfeiffer wrote in The White House Blog on Sunday. "Those rumors are absolutely false."

Pfeiffer recalled President Obama's speech before a joint session of Congress on Sept. 9, where he made a clear case for the public option, claming it was his preference and likening it to the country's ability to choose between public and private universities. While many in Congress have either changed their mind when it comes to the public option -- which some in the House are now calling "Medicare part E" -- and others have refused to commit one way or another, the President has been consistent in his message: though the public option is just one sliver of reform, it is important and, he believes, the best way to lower costs and keep the insurance companies honest.

Keep in mind: this process is far from over. The House still needs to combine its three bills into one, and the Senate is currently in the process of merging the Finance Committee bill with the HELP (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) Committee bill. Once those things happen, each bill will be put up for a vote in each chamber. Then, the House and the Senate will get together to merge their individual bills, with a final bill possibly reaching President Obama's desk by Christmas.

We're farther along than we've ever been in this process, but there's still a long way to go. We need to keep up the pressure, both on the White House and our representatives in Congress. The insurance lobbyists continue to fight against reform, and they have deep pockets. We need to be louder than them, as loud as we were back in November when we elected Obama.

But you know what else would help? The mainstream media reporting the actual facts, instead of relying on anonymous sources to stoke anger and fear among a populus that stands to benefit greatly should health care reform -- with a robust public option -- pass. Shame on the mainstream media, and shame on The Huffington Post; they should know better.

Maybe they need to take Introduction to Journalism again.