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.