Thursday, August 27, 2009

Preliminary Thoughts, RE: CIA Torture

With the release earlier this week of the CIA Inspector General's Special Review on Counterterrorism Detention and Interrogation Activities (Sept. 2001-Oct. 2003), the interrogation practices of the CIA and, by extension, the Bush administration have returned to the national spotlight -- even if the health care debate and the passing of Sen. Ted Kennedy pushed it off the front page.

Still, the heavily-redacted report that was actually months in coming (and can be found in its 159-page entirety here) has some merit, particularly in light of news that Attorney General Eric Holder would appoint a Special Prosecutor to investigate interrogation practices. The investigation appears narrow in scope, focusing (initially, at least) on those who performed the actual interrogations.

If the Special Prosecutor (a man named John Durham) finds that CIA interrogators went above and beyond their established protocol, the Department of Justice could levy charges against them. However, as it stands now, the investigation would likely ignore the fact that those protocols -- established by the DoJ, the National Security Council and those within the White House (looking at you, former Vice President Dick Cheney and Attorney General John Ashcroft) -- were in themselves illegal.

Sure, CIA interrogators may have broken the law, but who bears the brunt of the responsibility if the guidelines they were ordered to follow were illegal? I hope Durham's investigation grows in scope as he inevitably follows the bread crumbs to the higher-ups within the previous administration. I've disagreed with President Obama's stance that an investigation of torture practices was unnecessary; if the previous administration broke laws, those responsible should be held accountable for it.

Much to Cheney's -- and late President Richard Nixon's -- dismay, being in the White House doesn't shield you from the law.

Given the size of the report, I've yet to read the entire thing. I have, however, read through the first several pages, and much like I'm doing with Jeff Sharlet's book on C Street and The Family, I figured I'd break down what I read in this report as I come across it, trying to figure out just what all this means with regards to the Bush administration and its War on Terror.

As much as I would love to break down what's hidden beneath the copious black ink boxes that litter almost every page of the report, I cannot. My x-ray vision can't penetrate redacted text. From what some Washington insiders are saying, though, what's hidden under the redacted text -- which sometimes takes up entire pages of the report -- is much worse than the atrocities we can read about now.

Fair warning: once we get to the actual descriptions of torture, this will no longer be an issue for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.

In January 2003, the Deputy Director of Operations (DDO) informed the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) that he had received allegations that CIA personnel had used "unauthorized interrogation techniques" with a detainee named Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri and requested an investigation. Around the same time, the OIG also received intel from some CIA operatives that there were activites at other international detention and interrogation sites that might have involved "violations of human rights."

This is the first mention of anything resembling torture in the report, and it comes on the first page, under the second bullet point (the first was completely redacted).

The report goes on to state that in March 2002, CIA operatives felt that Abu Zubaydah was withholding intel. Feeling the need to extract that information and prevent another terrorist attack, the report claims that CIA officials believed a "more robust approach" was needed. The report goes on to say other al Qaeda operatives were considered for this approach.

CIA interrogators were also apparently aware that captured members of al Qaeda were trained to resist certain interrogation techniques, though the report did not specify what kinds. CIA officials were left with trying to figure out how to overcome these challenges without violating international interrogation laws.

In August 2002, the Department of Justice, along with the National Security Council and the Office of General Council determined that there were 10 specific "enhanced interrogation techniques" that did not violate international torture prohibitions. The early pages of the report did not list the 10 approved methods, though there were "instances of improvisation and undocumented interrogation techniques," presumably times where interrogators took matters into their own hands -- either of their own volition or at the order of a higher authority.

On July 29, 2003, the DoJ informed the CIA that such deviations from protocol were not "significant for purposes of DoJ's legal opinions." In short? Yeah, you broke the rules, but you didn't do it by much, so it's okay.

The report goes on to specify on page 7 that the current interrogation policy (current as of May 7, 2004) differs greatly from the previous policies. CIA operatives had expressed concern that making torture practices public knowledge (which incidentally, this report does) would hurt their reputations, as well as that of the CIA as an organization.

Well, so long as your egos aren't bruised ...

While I've yet to delve into the bulk of the report, preliminary analysis does not look good. I don't care who is responsible for the implementation of torture; whoever made the decisions and ensured they would be enacted deserves to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, whether that was Cheney or Ashcroft or the CIA. This is not a matter of Republican versus Democratic ideologies; we're talking about basic human rights and standards of decency. The Geneva Conventions are in place for a reason, and tossing them aside in the interest of national security in unacceptable.

We are the United States of America. We are supposed to be better than this. I fully supported the efforts to bring down those responsible for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but when we go into some dark room and waterboard a terrorism suspect, or we tell a detainee we're going to rape his mother in front of him, we are not patriots protecting our land. We become neanderthals who, at our core, are no better than the terrorists we are trying to punish.

Protecting this country from another terrorist attack is a noble effort, and I give those who've done so by the letter of the law by deepest and most eternal gratitude. But to those who authorized and carried out these "enhanced interrogation techniques," I ask this: is our collective safety worth the sacrifice of individual liberty and human decency? Does acting like a rabid animal and channeling your inner Jack Bauer make you more American than the rest of us?

I think not.

Further impressions forthcoming as I continue reading through the report.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Sen. Ted Kennedy: 1932-2009

Sad news out of Washington Tuesday night, as Senator Edward "Ted" Kennedy (D-Mass.) lost his battle with brain cancer. He was 77.

"Edward M. Kennedy - the husband, father, grandfather, brother and uncle we loved so deeply - died late Tuesday night at home in Hyannis Port," a statement from Kennedy's family said. "We've lost the irreplaceable center of our family and joyous light in our lives, but the inspiration of his faith, optimism, and perseverance will live on in our hearts forever. We thank everyone who gave him care and support over this last year, and everyone who stood with him for so many years in his tireless march for progress toward justice, fairness and opportunity for all. He loved this country and devoted his life to serving it. He always believed that our best days were still ahead, but it's hard to imagine any of them without him."

Kennedy was one of the Senate's longest-standing and most influencial members. He had a hand in virtually every major policy to come out of Washington in the last four decades having to do with civil rights, health care or the economic well-being of the middle class. He supported equal rights for all, he tried repeatedly to bring universal health care to America, and it seemed that every time Congress considered raising minimum wage, Kennedy was right there, fighting for the common folk.

In recent years, Kennedy was an outspoken supporter of Barack Obama in his bid for the White House, passing over Hillary Clinton and claiming he saw much in Obama what made his late brothers, John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, so great. He likened Obama to a new generation of leaders that was necessary in Washington, and he gave a rousing, emotional speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention -- despite having been diagnosed with a malignent brain tumor.

Things weren't perfect for Kennedy; on top of watching his older brothers die tragically and in the public eye -- John while serving as President and Robert while running for that office -- Kennedy had to deal with lifelong back and neck problems after a 1964 plane crash that almost killed him. He also had a messy divorce, and in 1969 Kennedy crashed his car, while drunk, into the Chappaquiddick River, leaving Mary Jo Kopechne, to drown. He saw three nephews die as well, including John F. Kennedy Jr., and he battled alcohol use for years.

The incident with Kopechne effectively killed Kennedy's bid for President in 1980, but he stayed in the Senate and continued fighting for what he believed in. Kennedy held the torch of liberalism when others in his party turned from it; they were too worried that liberalism wasn't cool, and they wanted to curry favor with constituents and Republican lawmakers alike. Kennedy was capable of working with Republicans, but he never shied away from his liberal attitudes.

The health care bill that came out of the Senate Health Education Pension and Labor (HELP) Committee a few months ago has been affectionately called "the Kennedy bill" since so much of his work went into it. Though Kennedy never achieved his dream of health care for all, he did work over the years to ensure greater access to care for children and the elderly -- he was a staunch supporter of Medicare, Medicaid and VA health care, as well as S-CHIP.

Just last month, Kennedy wrote an article for Newsweek called "The Cause of My Life," detailing his dedication to universal health care. It was a powerful and moving piece, and I can only hope Kennedy's words have a greater resonance in light of his passing.

It seems cruel, in a way, for Kennedy to pass before Congress could come back from recess to vote on health care reform. Kennedy was one of the Senate's most ardent health care reform supporters, and I know it would've given him great joy if he'd been able to live long enough to see Obama sign a bill that would grant quality, affordable health care to all.

Then again, the truly great people in society -- past and present -- rarely live long enough to see the fruits of their labor. It is cruel, but maybe it's also appropriate for Kennedy to pass before a health care bill became law. I can only hope that Democrats can use his death as a rallying point, a way to finally come together, stop bickering with one another and pass a bill that would help the average American with health care.

And I hope it bears Kennedy's name. I can think of no better legacy for a man who gave so much of his public life trying to help the common man.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Public Option: the White House's Ping-Pong Ball

Depending on who you listened to on Sunday, you might've gotten the impression that President Obama was willing to forgo the public option as part of his health care reform package.

... Or not. Who really knows?

It actually started on Saturday, when Obama was speaking at a town hall meeting in Grand Junction, Colo. He told the crowd, "All I'm saying is, though, that the public option, whether we have it or we don't have it, is not the entirety of health care reform. This is just one sliver of it, one aspect of it."

Not a condemnation, but not exactly a ringing endorsement, either.

Then on Sunday, the firestorm of confusion began when Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius -- who would presumably be responsible for the implementation of the public option -- told CNN's John King that the public option was "not the essential part" of Obama's reform plan. She also said the White House would be open to health insurance co-ops as an alternative ... even though that does little in terms of keeping costs down and insurance companies honest.

Meanwhile, on CBS' Face the Nation, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs reiterated the President's support for the plan, hammering home the idea of creating competition among the insurance companies and offering potential consumers choice. Under the current system, some people who live in certain areas of the country and don't get coverage through their employer might only have one choice in terms of coverage.

Kinda hard to compete when you're the only team on the field.

Watch CBS Videos Online

Fast-forward to Sunday afternoon, when Linda Douglass, communications director for the White House Office of Health Care Reform, sent an email to Politico that read, in part, "Nothing has changed. The President has always said that what is essential is that health insurance reform must lower costs, ensure that there are affordable options for all Americans and it must increase choice and competition in the health insurance market. He believes the public option is the best way to achieve those goals."

Sunday night, an unnamed administration official told The Atlantic that Sebelius "misspoke" regarding the public option. Another one quoted in that same story said Sebelius didn't misspeak, but that the media misplayed the quote.

Anyone confused yet?

This isn't the first time the Obama administration has lost control of the health care message; in June, Rahm Emanuel hinted that the White House might be willing to forgo the public option, which left the White House scrambling to prove otherwise. And we all know about Vice President Joe Biden's habit of running off at the mouth.

Say what you want about the Bush administration -- and there is plenty to say -- but this sort of thing never happened to them. If the administration wanted something done, it gathered up everyone within the party and hammered it home. There were no conflicting messages from within the White House, and Republicans within both houses of Congress didn't argue over what to do about the bill -- they just drafted it and passed it.

The Democrats? Not so much.

While Obama isn't wrong when he says the public option isn't the entirety of reform, I happen to agree with Howard Dean when he said it's likely impossible to do true health care reform without a public option. To Dean, the public option is the entirety, because there's really no way to keep costs down among the insurance company without the public option to keep them honest.

Sure, the President can make it illegal for insurance companies to rescind policies and deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions -- and while those are good things and worth adding to the bill, without the public option there's really no way to keep down costs. Without the public option, insurance companies could accept people with pre-existing conditions, but they could also charge higher premiums. Without the public option, insurance companies wouldn't drop breast cancer patients, but they could theoretically raise that person's premiums.

Unless the administration figures out a way to intensely regulate these companies -- and considering how many of them are funneling money to the White House and members of Congress, that's doubtful -- there can be no cost-cutting and true consumer choice without the public option.

Maybe Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) put it best on Monday, when he said, "Leaving private insurance companies the job of controlling the costs of health care is like making a pyromaniac the fire chief."

Will there still be a public option if and when health care reform is passed? It remains to be seen, but it seems Obama still supports one. Seem isn't good enough, though; Obama needs to be more forceful in his beliefs. If he wants a public option, he needs to say so in no uncertain terms. The time for compromise and bipartisanship is over; the Republicans have made it clear time and again they want no part of this, so stop coddling them.

Fact is, without the public option, health care reform will amount to nothing more than a bandaid applied to a severed arm. Without that option to keep insurance companies honest and help bring down costs, reform will do little for those already with insurance and even less for the 47 million without.

Taking single-payer off the table was a mistake, and so would removing the public option. Even if the White House doesn't, though, the mistake of perception has already been made. If there's one way in which Obama needs to mirror Bush, it's in the consistency of the message and ensuring everyone within the administration is on the same page.

If Sunday proves nothing else, we now see the Obama White House is sorely lacking cohesion.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Sen. Grassley = FAIL

Remember how Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley has made a big stink the past couple days regarding the so-called "death panels" in health care reform? The day after President Obama singled him out in a New Hampshire town hall meeting because Grassley wanted to work on a bipartisan resolution, the Senator went back to his constiuents in Iowa and proceeded to toss a big ol' keg of lighter fluid on the "death panel" fire, telling senior citizens they "have every right to fear."

On Thursday, Grassley announced the end-of-life consultation provision -- the source of the completely-bonkers "They're gonna kill granny!" rumors -- would no longer be a part of whatever bill comes out of the Senate Finance Committee. It is worth noting, though, that Grassley is the only member of that committee to say such a thing ... making this intrepid blogger wonder if he was just saying something to make his constituents happy.

Besides, even if there are no provisions in the Finance Committee bill, that doesn't mean it's not in the other bills, and it doesn't mean it won't ultimately wind up in the final bill that's put up for a vote in both chambers of Congress.

Then, on Thursday night, Amy Sullivan of TIME Magazine revealed this nugget: when Congress passed a Medicare prescription drug bill in 2003 -- with a combined 246 Republicans in both houses voting for it -- the bill included a provision for end-of-life counseling and care. It included the same provision that people like Grassley, Sarah Palin, Michael Steele and Rush Limbaugh are railing against now with their scare tactics.

From the Medicare bill: "The covered services are: evaluating the beneficiary's need for pain and symptom management, including the individual's need for hospice care; counseling the beneficiary with respect to end-of-life issues and care options, and advising the beneficiary regarding advanced care planning."

The 2003 provision would only take effect when a patient was terminally ill, while the provision under controversy now (Section 1233 of HR 3200) would extend the coverage of an end-of-life counseling session to those who are not yet ill.

Care to guess who voted for the provision back in 2003?

If you guessed Sen. Grassley, you just won yourself a cookie!

That's all I've got for now. There's really no need for me to once again point out the blantant hypocrisy within the GOP. They just make it so easy. We can now add Grassley to the list of end-of-life hypocrits, along with Palin and others (see video below).

Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa = EPIC FAIL.

The Odd Couple

So Newt Gingrich and Al Sharpton walk into a bar ...

No, in all seriousness -- those two men, operating about as far on the opposite ends of the political spectrum as two people can, are teaming up in an effort to tackle one of President Obama's most important policy initiatives:

Education reform.

Gingrich, the former Republican Speaker of the House, and Sharpton, a liberal Democrat and community activist, will be teaming up with Education Secretary Arne Duncan to work on getting cities to fix failing schools. The trio will make stops in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Baltimore later this year, with more tour stops in the works should the first few be deemed a success.

Obama has made education a priority so far during his first term, using a large portion of the stimulus package to save or create education-related jobs (my mother, who works in the Hampton City Schools system as a kindergarten teacher's assistant, saw the stimulus package save her job). He also passed $12 billion in July directed toward community college reform in an effort to help re-train unemployed workers and make a college education more accessible for students who may not be able to start off at a four-year institution.

On Sept. 8, with most students on their way back to school or just starting, Obama will give a major speech about the importance of going to school, staying in school and why it is so important for his administration to achieve education reform.

While much of the President's message -- as well as that of various other politicians -- has focused on teachers and administrators, Sharpton said he wanted to place some of the focus on the parents.

"The parents need to be challenged with the message of 'no excuses,'" Sharpton said.

I happen to agree with this stance; teachers and administrators can be invaluable, but the parents also play a vital role in a child's education. I can't tell you how many times I've heard my mother mention a student whose parents were being uncooperative or even beligirent, treating the school not as a place for education, but as a glorified babysitting service. Parents such as these do their children no favors, and it's little surprise that students whose parents have that destructive attitude are less successful academically.

On the flip side, if parents take an active and interested role in their child's education, that child will benefit. Whether it's helping a child with their homework or engaging in parent-teacher conferences or even something as simple as reading to a child ... if the parents are more involved, the student will benefit, both in the short term and long term.

Gingrich, who has come under fire recently for his stances on Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and health care reform, managed to find common ground with Obama and Sharpton on the issue of education. Though I've had deep philosophical differences with Gingrich's opinions over the years -- and am terribly disappointed that he chooses not to debunk the health care rumors his party is perpetuating -- he deserves credit for realizing the importance of education and understanding this cannot be a partisan issue.

"I think that he has it exactly right, that education has to be the No. 1 civil right of the 21st century and I've been passionate about reforming education," Gingrich said. "And we can't get it done as a partisan issue."

Sharpton added, "If there's anything Americans should be mature enough about to have a decent conversation, it's the education of their children."

What an amazing concept. Now, wouldn't it be nice if we had a decent conversation about health care, too?

Information from The Associated Press was used in this entry.

Washington Rep. Slams FOX's Beck

For any Democrats in Congress holding town hall meetings this month who aren't quite sure how to deal with the disruptive, angry protestors -- those who believe President Obama wants to kill your grandmother and that the public option (option, as in you have a choice) is a way for the government to take over your life -- I offer you Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.).

When faced with an asanine question from one of the members of the audience, Larsen reiterated that the public option would not force anyone to do anything, that anyone happy with their insurance would be free to stick with that plan. He then got off this parting shot:

"Now folks will say that's not true, but I've got facts on my side and you've got Glenn Beck on your side. It's just not going to play out that way."

Link to the video below (for some reason, the embed feature won't give me the full link):

Something tells me the blowhards over at FOX Noise will have their particular brand of fun with this one tonight. Still, isn't it nice to see a Democrat stand up and fight for once? First Howard Dean, then Bill Clinton, now Larsen.

Are you taking notes, Mr. President?

"Death Panels" = GOP Panic?

Could all this talk of "death panels" and secret plots for health care reform to kill the elderly really just be a side effect of right-wing panic? Are the Republicans and health insurance lobbyists encouraging these town hall disruptions and scare tactics not to derail legislation, but because they know they have no chance to defeat it?

An interesting theory, one that has received little play in the mainstream media.

But Bill Clinton, the last President to attempt health care reform, seems to think that way. Speaking Thursday at the Netroots Nation convention in Pittsburgh, Pa., Clinton spoke of his own failed attempts at reform, before ultimately offering his theory.

"Right now the Republicans are sitting around rooting for the President to fail," he said. "And one of the reasons people are so hysterical at all these health care town-hall meetings ... is they know they have no chance to beat health care this time, unless they can mortify with rigid fears some moderate conservative Democrats. Why do I know? Because they don't have the filibuster this time."

With Democrats holding 60 seats in the Senate -- thus blocking any Republican filibuster -- the GOP has to find other outlets to oppose the bill. That includes scare tactics, talk of death panels and how something as noble as a living will can suddenly become code for "the government wants to pull the plug on Grandma." Sarah Palin, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the advocacy group 60plus and right-wing talk show hosts have practically salivated over the notion, treating an incindiary and false claim as legitimate concerns over the bill.

Funny how the Republicans don't want the government to interfere with end-of-life counseling, when that's exactly what they did back in 2005 when they tried to interfere with the end-of-life decisions surrounding Terry Schiavo.

Rachel Maddow discussed the parallel on her TV show Thursday night, along with the hypocrisy of those like Palin and Rush Limbaugh in stoking the fires of fear with their "death panel" talk.

So which is it? Political opportunism, covert racism or panic at the realization that health care reform might actually succeed this time? As is so often the case, the truth most likely encompasses all three theories; there are those in the GOP who would view the failure of health care reform as a political victory, leading to more seats in Congress in 2010 and 2012 (as happened in 1994 when Clinton's plan fell through). There are also those who, even if they won't admit it, can't fathom a black man living in the White House.

So much so, words like "socialist" and "Nazi" are becoming code for another word that begins with 'N'.

Then there's the panic of failure. With 72 percent of the American people in favor of a public option, with sizeable Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress and with health care costs rising exponentially by the day with almost no increase in the quality and frequency of care, most sensible Americans are finally starting to see a broken system in dire need of fixing.

All these scare tactics do, aside from give the mainstream media more than its share of video to drool and panic over, is serve as a reminder of how needless and pointless the pursuit for bipartisanship is. One would think President Obama would've learned that lesson when he passed his $787 billion stimulus package -- with a whopping three Republican votes in both chambers.

The Republicans are not going to vote for health care reform -- they won't even put forth their own plan. So why is the President trying to get them on board, even after Grassley played the "death panel" card and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) spoke of making health care reform "his Waterloo"? Why bother? Why try to appease a shrinking subset of this country's population when they obviously don't want to cooperate?

All bipartisanship will do is weaken this bill, and the President is wasting his time trying to gain Republican support. This is the same party that's tacitly supporting comparisons of Obama to Adolf Hitler, this is the same party that wanted Obama to apologize over the Gates incident and this is the same party that, for whatever reason, still wants to believe the President wasn't born in this country.

So why are you trying to appease them, Mr. President? You're wasting your, and our, time by doing so. You're close to winning, you have sizeable majorities in the House and Senate. The right-wingers are panicking, so it's time to force the issue, hammer this thing home and give us what we all so desperately need:

Health care reform, with a strong public option. The Republicans who keep fighting you? They're the ones who support the death panels -- they're called insurance companies.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Dean Warns Blue Dogs

Former Democtratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean gave one of the clearest warnings yet to Blue Dog Democrats on Thursday, saying in an interview with The Huffington Post that any Democrat who voted against health care reform -- and more specifically, a public option -- would likely face a Democratic primary if they were to run for re-election.

"I do think there will be primaries as the result of all this, if the bill doesn't pass with a public option," he told the site's Sam Stein.

Dean, who was once the governor of Vermont and a presidential candidate in 2004, has been vocal in recent weeks in support of a strong public option, even going so far as to devote nearly two hours to the cause when he filled in for Keith Olbermann on MSNBC's Countdown. Dean has made the argument that since the government can run such programs as Medicare and VA health care, a public option would be highly possible.

If nothing else, Dean's warning is among the clearest language we've seen thus far from the progressive side of the aisle. The media has made a lot of noise about the Blue Dog Democrats, and while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said repeatedly she wants a bill with a public option, no one has said anything about what would happen if a few of the more conservative Democrats derail what many see as an essential part of reform.

The White House hasn't been forceful enough in its insistence on a public option -- it really bugs me when President Obama now refers to this whole issue as "health insurance reform," not "health care reform" -- and we know we can't trust Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to stand up and have a backbone.

Dean's threat is a long time coming, and we honestly need more of them. I wish Tim Kaine, the current DNC head and governor of Virginia, would step up and make a similar proclamation -- though I wonder if he's keeping quiet knowing his colleague, former Virginia Governor and Sen. Mark Warner, hasn't yet voiced his support for a public option.

The Blue Dogs need to know they will not escape repricussions should a bill pass without a public option. Republican opposition isn't unexpected, and with the numbers the Democrats have in the Senate, they shouldn't be paying the Republicans any mind. The Republicans are not the problem (even if their tacit approval of "health care protestors" is bordering on dangerous) -- the Blue Dogs are, and someone needs to let them know obstruction will not go unnoticed.

Obama won in November on the premise of health care reform, among other things. If this initiative fails, because of his own party, the rest of his agenda will be seriously compromised -- and 2012 will become more interesting.

Dean might've fired the first shot, but we need even more progressives to take a stand like this. The fate of this bill might depend on it.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Special Comment: Health Care and Civic Discourse

Forgive me for stealing one of Keith Olbermann's television staples, the Special Comment. In fact, before I get into my own with regards to the not-so-gradual eroding of our civic discourse when it comes to the health care reform debate, allow me to share with you his Special Comment from Monday night's show -- his second in as many weeks.

This time, the Republican leaders, insurance lobbyists and right-wing pundits were in Olbermann's proverbial crosshairs, as he took them to task for their stoking of irrational fears and turning what should be an honest debate into a contest of who can shout the loudest.

It's like an episode of SportsCenter, but with more violence.

Anyway, here's the video from Monday night's Countdown:

Unfortunately, those who would likely benefit most from Olbermann's words -- those who would likely change their ways if they allowed thought and reason to permeate their minds for even five seconds -- will probably never see this. Olbermann was, in essence, preaching to the choir.

He often does, since those he calls out rarely, if ever, take the time to watch his show -- or anything else on MSNBC. For a lot of those Olbermann was talking to get their information from FOX News, which is anything but fair and balanced and has been granted legal permission to mislead its audience. On the off-chance they saw Olbermann and heard his words, it's likely they would just shrug and toss them aside, waiting instead for the latest nugget of "insight" to spew from the piehole of Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity.

Those Olbermann directed his Special Comment toward have already eroded our public discourse, because they let the likes of Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin and insurance lobbyists overwhelm the opposition side of the conversation. Some of the "ordinary Americans" we see disrupting these town halls are likely people with legitimate concerns with regards to cost and availability, but rather than engage their elected representatives in vigorous yet polite debate, they've been encouraged to be loud, obnoxious, rude and at times borderline violent.

The GOP mindset? Yell loud enough, and you'll be right by default.

Palin's assertion on Facebook on Friday that her parents and her child with Down's Syndrome would be subject to "Obama's death panel" is not just misleading and irresponsible; her assertion that President Obama's health care plan is "downright evil" is not just misguided -- it is, in point of fact, just as evil as what she claims health care reform would be.

You cannot stuff the proverbial cat back in the bag either, Governor. Your Facebook post on Monday asking for civility is nothing more than a pathetic backpedal, and no one with a brain is fooled. We see through your veiled hate, just like we saw through it last week when Limbaugh likened Obama to Nazis (only to this week claim he never did), just like we saw through it last week when Beck, who grows more mentally unstable by the second, joked of poisoning Nancy Pelosi.

You might be able to scare the fringe that is either too simple-minded or scared to think, but you can't fool the rest of us. We know there is no death panel -- just as we know that if there were, everyone from the staunchest liberal to the biggest God-fearing conservative would stand in line to oppose such a travesty. The portion of the bill you "claim" to refer to actually talks about end-of-life consulting ... you know, living wills and deciding what to do should your mother or grandfather become so sick they can't make the decision themselves. This bill would allow Medicare to reimburse you for that conversation with your doctor.

That's it. No death panels. No euthanasia. No secret plot by the government to kill Grandma.

I wish the ordinary Americans who have honest concerns about health care reform would heed Olbermann's words, as well as mine. I'll be the first to admit the bills working their way through Congress aren't perfect -- HR 3200 has several inherent flaws with regard to the public option, and the bill stuck in the Senate Finance Committee might not even have one -- so I welcome honest questions and debate. That's one of the staples of this great country we call America.

If you have a concern about how much reform will cost, say so. If you want to know how a public option would affect the private insurance you currently get through an employer, speak up. But be polite and sensible about it. This is a bill that, if done right, will not only make us a stronger, healthier nation, but will also help get our economy back on track. Health care costs make up 17 percent of our national economy -- yet we're 37th in the world in quality of care, according to the World Health Organization.

This issue is far too important to let the right-wing fringe derail everything. We must stand up to their fear-mongering and their hate and their disguised racism -- but let us not match their anger with our own. That will serve no one and might ultimately get someone hurt or killed. We must bring logic and reason to a discussion that has been decidedly lacking in both, and when we see a middle-aged woman in tears begging for her America back, let us see that for what it is: someone who still can't handle having a black man in the White House.

We must look at the man standing at a health care rally in Connecticut wearing his Anthem Blue Cross-Blue Shield shirt -- a man so concerned with his own corporate interests, he didn't even attempt to hide his true nature. We must look at the Republican officials who not only condone this sort of behavior, but encourage it; when "Astroturf" protestors threaten union organizers with "the Second Amendment," our nation's discourse and the democratic process have suffered more than anything else.

Our national health care debate is no longer about health care -- which is the way the opponents want it. They prefer to focus on Kenyan birth certificates, corporate interests and attempting to mask their contempt for a President they don't view as their own. I'm often hesitant to play the race card, but in this instance, I believe it is warranted. All this vigor -- not to mention the teabag protests earlier this year, and the hatred spewing from McCain/Palin rallies last year -- has one root cause:

A black man is in the White House.

We cannot accept this. We must stand up for what we believe, we must put the right-wing fringe in their place. We must point out when they're wrong, take action when they present a danger. The fringe and the corporate interests tugging on their puppet strings have steered the conversation away from the facts, and it's up to us to bring the conversation back. If we want health care reform -- true health care reform -- we have to fight and desmonstrate the same vigor and passion we had back in November, when we made Barack Obama our new President.

He needed us then, and he needs us now.

Given Olbermann's recent penchant for quoting Abraham Lincoln, I offer another quote from our great President that might be appropriate under given circumstances:

"The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew."

It is up to us, ladies and gentlemen, to not only take the health care debate back, but the country as well. Yes, we have a Democrat in the White House, as well as sizeable majorities in both chambers of Congress, but the right-wing fringe still has such a hold on this nation and its debates -- our fight did not end Jan. 20, 2009.

If anything, it just began.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Grassroots, You Say? Hardly ...

While most of the mainstream media has done a good job of recognizing that the outrage in health care town hall protests is faked on the part of right-wing supporters and health care companies, no one has tackled the issue quite like MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, who has devoted significant time to her last three shows on the subject.

And yes, I do cite her show and offer clips in this blog a lot. Her show is one of the most informative on cable news right now, and her intelligence, matched with her wit and keen eye for the truth, makes it a must-watch for anyone who wants to go a little further than watching guys in suits yell at each other for an hour.

Chris Mathews, I'm looking at you ...

Anyway, Maddow devoted a large chunk of her show Thursday night to the topic of health care town hall protests, hammering home the point once again that these are not actual concerned citizens staging these protests. Between jokes of lynching to a Maryland Congressman being hung in effigy, between Congressmen being shouted down as they try to talk to their constituents to Washington Rep. Brian Baird canceling all town hall meetings during his recess, this is a serious issue.

Not just in terms of personal safety for the Congressmen and other involved, but for the safety of democracy itself. Town halls are a hallmark of the democratic process (lowercase d, and yes, there is a difference) -- Thomas Jefferson was a fan of them, as is John McCain today.

Aside: Props to John McCain for denouncing the protestors and their tactics. But ... over Twitter? Really? I'm impressed the Senator from Arizona even knows what Twitter is.

Anyway, to become so loud and beligerent that you refuse a concerned citizen the right to share his or her concerns harms our democractic process. These meetings were designed for everyday Americans to share their questions and concerns with their Congressmen, and for these "grassroots" protestors to shout all that down with their hatred and their outrageous rhetoric ... it's a wonder we haven't yet seen more episodes like Thursday in Tampa.

Anyway, here's Rep. Baird talking to Maddow Thursday night about the protestors.

Her coverage didn't stop there, though. She also spent a segment talking about Rick Scott, a former ally of George W. Bush and head of Conservatives for Patients' Rights. Scott, as you may know, got blasted on-air earlier Thursday by CNN's Rick Sanchez. I wonder if FOX News will twitter about it ...

Video of Maddow talking about Scott:

After taking on Scott, Maddow was (surprisingly) joined by Tim Phillips, the National President of Americans For Prosperity, yet another group against health care reform. Phillips tried to convince Maddow -- and her viewers -- that the disruptions and protests were genuine, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Even more amazingly, Phillips asked, on-air, for corporate donors (cause that really helps the cause of sticking up for the common man). He also asked Maddow to join him at one of the rallies in the future, despite the obvious conflict of interest that would be for her, considering Americans for Prosperity's connections.

Watch for yourself. I do so enjoy watching slime wriggle in discomfort.

For the most part, I've avoided talking about the protestors and their fake outrage for much the same reasons I've ignored the birther conspiracy and the Crowley-Gates incident. They were horribly off-message for one thing; with health care reform of such importance right now, spending significant amounts of time on the birthers or the Gates controversy did no one any good -- except for reform opponents.

It's far less important to me that health insurance advocates are shouting at Congressmen than it is to know exactly how much money these elected officials are receiving from the industry. Right-wingers screaming about Kenya and birth certificates matter far less than whatever bill comes out of the Senate Finance Committee. Rush Limbaugh comparing President Obama and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to Hitler adds nothing substantive to a very important discussion.

Which is exactly what the Republicans and insurance advocates want. They want to change the subject, because they know they'll lose if they don't. A recent poll suggested 39 percent of Republicans wanted more coverage of the birthers on the news -- because more time spent talking about Obama's birth certificate is less time talking about health care reform.

The longer we stare at the angry mobs disrupting town hall meetings, the less time we spend discussing potential bills and what happens to this debate once the August recess is over. I've tried over the past few weeks to stay on-message when it comes to health care reform, and it appears that I'm one of few doing so.

In the age of the Internet and 24-hour cable news, it's easy to get distracted. Health care reform opponents know that, and they're trying to do everything they can to distract us. It's up to us to fight back with facts; we have to refuse to back down from the "angry" protestors and we have to ignore the wacky conspiracy theories.

Forged Kenyan birth certficates are not important. Ensuring quality, affordable health care for all is.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Sotomayor Confirmed

This just in ...

With a vote of 68-to-31 in the Senate, Sonia Sotomayor has been confirmed as the next Justice of the Supreme Court.

Sotomayor is the first Hispanic to ever serve on the nation's highest court, and she is the first nominee by a Democratic President since Bill Clinton nominated Stephen Breyer in 1994. Sotmayor replaces retiring Justice David Souter, a liberal, and is not expected to change the court's ideological balance.

The Supreme Court has grown more conservative thanks to recent Republican appointees under George W. Bush, and several Republicans in the Senate were worried about Sotomayor's stance on gun rights and discrimination against whites -- referencing several times her "wise Latina" comments and pointing to a Connecticut case in which Sotomayor ruled against white firefighters.

Still, with an anonymous show of support from the Bar Association and a large Democratic majority in the Senate, Sotomayor's confimation was virtually assured even before her hearings began. Republicans, probably realizing they had no real shot at turning down her nomination on the basis of her record, chose to focus on out-of-context comments and their own racial concerns in expressing dissent.

Still, nine Republicans -- including Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee -- voted for Sotomayor. John McCain of Arizona, who just last week said his party needed to do a better job of courting Hispanic voters, voted against Sotomayor.

While Sotomayor's confirmation will likely not shift the ideological balance of the Supreme Court -- did I already say that? -- her confirmation process could be a portent of things to come should President Obama face having to name another Supreme Court nominee. He does face such a possibility, particularly if he serves two terms.

How he -- and the Republicans -- handle that could be influenced by how Sotomayor's confirmation played out.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this entry.

Fannie-Freddie Divorce?

According to a story by The Washington Post on Thursday, the Obama administration is considering an overhaul of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that would likely split the mortgage finance giants and strip them of billions of dollars in bad loans.

I'll leave the details to the article itself (because frankly, there are parts of it that I still don't understand), but on the surface this seems like a good move. The mortgage crisis is but one of the factors that led to this recession, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were a large part of that. Of course, the connections between those two firms and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Donn.) are impossible to ignore, which makes them partly to blame for the financial downfall, even though these companies now have private shareholders.

Still, splitting up these two mortgage giants makes sense. It does beg the question, though ... why not do the same to banks and other financial institutions? Why are they deemed "too big to fail," while the administration can toss around the notion of splitting up Fannie and Freddie? I happen to think that if a company is "too big to fail," then it's probably too big period.

Then again, given the Wall Street contacts within the administration -- I'm looking at you, Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers -- I guess it should come as no surprise that the White House would look to bail out those firms.

Still, such a split occurred with AIG, a move that should provide benefits in the long term. Applying that to the banks deemed "too big to fail" might be a smart move ... but like I said, those in the White House who could authorize such a thing would never hear of it. Which is a shame, because breaking up huge corporations that have been poisoning Wall Street is one of the best ways to help those of us on Main Street.

Still, breaking up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is a positive step.

Middle Class Voice in Health Care Battle

With members of Congress, the mainstream media and the health "care" industry debating on television, radio, in newspapers and on the Internet, it's easy to lose sight of those who could be most affected by a possible reform bill -- the middle class.

Senator Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), one of the so-called Blue Dogs, came under attack in a recent TV ad in his home state. The ad, featuring a small business owner named Michael Snider, made a strong case for a public option. Snider mentioned in the commercial that he had to cancel the private insurance he had for himself and his family because his premiums went up 42 percent. He also mentioned the more than $2 million Nelson had received from the health insurance industry and asked ... just whose side is Nelson on?

The ad was all well and good, promtping the apparently thin-skinned Nelson to claim such attack ads would result in killing reform. The organization running the ad responded by tripling it air time.

Nelson then called Snider, who owns a restaurant called The Syzzlyn' Skillet. Details of the conversation were scarce ... until Snider appeared on The Rachel Maddow Show Wednesday night.

Video of that interview, complete with the commercial itself, is below:

The most important part of this segment isn't necessarily the ad itself -- it's the fact that someone in the mainstream media actually took the time to sit down with an average American citizen and ask them what they thought about health care reform and the public option. With all the right-wing bluster about how health care reform would hurt small business owners, Snider's appearance on Maddow's show on Wednesday did a great job of showing how false those claims are.

Also of importance was the fact that Maddow led off the segment showing video of a pro-health care reform rally. With all the video in recent days of "grassroots" right-wing opponents overtaking Congressional town halls by sheer volume, the mainstream media was making it easy to think there wasn't anyone out there on the side of reform.

I only wish she'd focused more on the pro-reform rallies.

Still, having Snider on her show, giving him a national platform to express his concerns as a constituent of Nelson's, has the chance to give the pro-reform side some momentum. If the rest of the mainstream media can get over itself long enough to actually report on how reform might affect people, we might see more of Snider and others like him.

Then again, considering most cable news channels feature countless ads from insurance companies and Big Pharma -- not to mention CNN refuses to air a pro-reform ad because it singles out an insurance executive -- that's not likely. Which makes the efforts of those like Maddow and Keith Olbermann (watch his Special Comment from Monday night's show, further down on this page) even more impressive.

If health care reform -- true health care reform -- is going to pass, we're going to need more stories like Snider's to counter the needless bluster of the "outraged elderly constituents" ... who are actually minions of the insurance companies and lobbies who oppose reform because it would hurt their bottom line.

Kudos to Snider for speaking up, and even bigger kudos to Maddow for talking to him.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Family: The Avant-Garde of American Fundamentalism

With the August recess just underway -- resulting in a relatively slow news cycle when it comes to most things politics -- I figured I'd use this blog to talk about another issue boiling under the surface in Washington. Not the birthers, whom I refuse to give the time of day, and not the health care town halls supposedly being overtaken by pawns of the insurance industry. No, I'm talking of an issue that almost no one in the mainstream media -- aside from MSNBC's Rachel Maddow -- is touching.

I'm talking about C Street, the house in Washington where several members of Congress have lived over the years under the guise of spiritual and religious assistance to those Congressmen. More specifically, the Family.

While the Family seems well-intentioned on the surface -- who would really take issue with a Tuesday morning prayer breakfast or a Bible study session? -- this secretive organization is much more. If it wasn't, almost every Senator and Representative tied to it wouldn't suddenly be sewing his lips shut.

The Family, while doing everything it can covertly to bring back a sense of fundamentalism to all aspects of American life, has been linked to, among other things, the extramarital affairs of several politicians -- namely Nevada Senator John Ensign and even South Carolina governor Mark Sanford.

Insert Argentina and/or Appalachian Trail joke here.

In 2008, Jeff Sharlet (he of, Harper's and Rolling Stone) wrote a book called The Family: the Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. Sharlet has been a guest on Maddow's television program in recent weeks, giving shocking and at-times disturbing accounts of what goes on within the walls of the house on C Street, called Ivanwald.

It saddens me that Maddow is the only member of the mainstream media who seems willing to take on this story, because it not only describes an underground political movement that I think would scare most sane American's, but because it threatens the separation of church and state that our Founding Fathers felt was so critical to our nation's survival.

I happen to firmly believe in the separation of church and state. Not just because I'm not Christian -- I don't want any faith leaking its way into government, even my own -- but because I realize how vast and diverse this country is. Not every Christian is the same, nor is every Jew, or Buddhist, or Muslim or pagan or atheist.

To have government lean toward one faith is to exclude -- on purpose or otherwise -- those who do not follow that spiritual path. It's one of the many reasons I abandoned the Republican Party; by embracing the evangelicals and painting the picture that all good Americans are God-fearing Christians, the party excluded and alienated those like me who did not believe as such.

While that was a minor annoyance, the Family and C Street have the potential to be much more. As Sharlet -- who spent several months at C Street undercover to write this book, puts it, this is the avant-garde of American fundamentalism.

From the introduction to Sharlet's book:

"Avant-garde is a term usually reserved for innovators, artists who live strange and dangerous lives and translate their strange and dangerous thoughts into pictures or poetry or fantastical buildings. The term has a political ancestry as well; Lenin used it to describe the elite cadres he believed could spark a revolution. It is in this sense that the men to whom my brothers apprenticed themselves, a seventy-year-old self-described invisible network of followers of Christ in government, business and the military, use the term avant-garde. They call themselves the Family, or the Fellowship, and they consider themselves a core of men responsible for changing the world." (page 3)

Also from the introduction:

"I have lived with these men for close to a month, not as a Christian -- a term they deride as too narrow for the world they are building in Jesus' honor -- but as a follower of Christ, the phrase they use to emphasize what matters most to their savior. Not faith or kindness, but obedience. I don't share their faith, in fact, but that does not concern them; I've obeyed, and that's enough." (page 2)

That sound very Christian to you? I could be wrong -- it's been quite a while since I read the Bible or attended church services -- but I remember Jesus as a loving sort of fellow, teaching the world to respect and love their fellow man. Unless we're talking Old Testament here, I don't remember much of anything about obeying.

That's not a religion. That's a cult (though I realize there are those who view religion and cults as one in the same). This is the underlying philosophy of a group of men (yes, men ... the Family is quite misogynistic) -- that these men have been chosen by God to rebuild the world in their image of Jesus. By using their positions of influence within Washington's political structure, the members of the Family are covertly blurring the line of separation between church and state.

Again, from Sharlet's introduction:

"I offer these explanations not as excuses for the consequences of American fundamentalism, an expansionist ideology of control better suited to empire than democracy, but to point to the defining tension of a creed that is both fearful and proud even as it proclaims itself joyous and humble. It is a martyr's faith in the hands of the powerful, its cross planted in the blood-soaked soil of manifest destiny. It is the strange and dangerous offspring of two intensely fertile sets of stories, 'America' and 'Christianity.'" (page 5)

This, I feel, examines the latent hypocrisy within the Family and its teachings. The members of C Street claim this to be a Christian place, thus implying everything that is good and admirable about the faith and those who practice it. However, given the thirst for power innate within the house's members and center of power, there's a conflict.

How can a Christian be at once joyous and humble, as well as fearful and proud? How can a Christian talk of loving his fellow man and extole the virtues of helping the less fortunate, only to turn around and call those who do not follow the teachings of Christ un-American? We saw plenty of that in the previous administration -- particularly in the 2004 elections, when George W. Bush wanted to place an amendment in the Constitution that would outlaw same-sex marriages.

I don't think Bush is a member of C Street, but you get the idea.

Another excerpt:

"Before moving to Ivanwald, I spent several months on the road, researching God in America for an earlier book. My quarry soon became the gods of America: a pantheon. Not Vishnu or Buddha or the Goddess, though they reside here too, but a heaven crowded with the many different Christs believed in by Americans. There's a Jesus in Miami's Cuban churches, for instance, who seems to do nothing but wrestle Castro; a Jesus in Heartland, Kansas, who dances around a fire with witches who also consider themselves Christians; a Jesus in Manhattan who dresses in drag; a baby Jesus in New Mexico who pulls cow tails and heals the lame or simply the sad by giving them earth to eat; a muscle-bound Jesus in South Central L.A. emblazoned across the chest of a man with a gun in his hand; a Jesus in an Orlando megachurch who wants you to own a black Beamer.

"So many Jesuses. And yet there has always been a certain order to America's Christs, a certain heirarchy. For centuries, the Christ of power was high church, distant and well-mannered. The austere, severe god of Cotton Mather, the Lord of the Ivy League and country club dinners." (page 5)

I've long held the belief that religion, regardless of the path one follows, is a deeply personal journey. Whether one is Christian or Jewish or pagan, your relationship with your deities is your business and your business alone. As such, our personal relationships with our deities are formed by our ideals and life experiences. My view of the Goddess may not resemble another pagan's, just as one Christian's view of Christ might not necessarily be the same as the person sitting next to him in church.

That's the beauty of spirituality -- that people can take over-reaching ideals and apply them to their own lives in ways that make sense to them. Religion isn't about who's right or wrong, and it's not about who's in power -- despite what the members of C Street might have you believe. Religion is a way for humanity to explain the often unexplainable, to find hope and love in what would otherwise be a bleak situation.

Jesus Christ means different things to different people; as long as the overall messages of love and tolerance get through, that's really all there is to it. The members of C Street view Jesus and Christianity not as a spiritual path of love and acceptance, but as an ideal with which to sharpen their swords and brandish their shields heading into what they believe is a moral battle for the fate of America.

If that strikes you as a scary thought, that's because it is.

One last thing; I'm not reading this book or writing these blog posts to decry Christianity. At its core, Christianity is a beautiful faith. Those who truly adhere to the teachings of Jesus Christ are excellent, caring people, and they understand that the way of the Lord is not to force their beliefs on others. To force your belief on someone else, or insinuate they are lesser than you because they disagree with your ideologies ... that's not only un-American, it's not very Christian.

It also appears to be one of the most frequent practices at C Street. We need to shine the light of truth on this group, expose it for what it is so we have a better idea of what's going on with our elected officials in Washington. We didn't elect these people to join secretive Christian cults; we elected them to do the will of the people. I think Sharlet's book is a must-read, even though I've just started it, and I think everyone needs to know what goes on in that house.

I leave you with these parting words, taken from page 9 of Sharlet's book:

"This is not a book about the Bible thumpers portrayed in Hollywood, pinched little hypocrits and broad-browed lunatics, representatives of that subset of American fundamentalism that declares itself a bitter nation within a nation. Rather, it's a story that begins on (C Street's) suburban lawn, with a group of men gripping each other's shoulders in prayer. It is the story of how they got there, where they are going and where the movement they joined came from; the story of an American fundamentalism, gentle and militant, conservative and revolutionary, that has been hiding in plain sight all along."

Monday, August 3, 2009

Keith Olbermann's Special Comment, Aug. 3

In his (triumphant) return to MSNBC's Countdown Monday night, Keith Olbermann took on the right again, killed his supposed truce with Bill O'Reilly and brought back such show staples as Worst Person in the World.

But the highlight, without a doubt, was his Special Comment, regarding the health care debate. Watch it below.