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It's the Mobility, Stupid

Obama, Clinton, and Inequality

So Obama wades back into the inequality debate today with a speech in Anacostia. He's been gunshy about this subject over these last five years. He'll give the occasional big speech, like the one in Kansas two years ago, and then he'll just sort of drop it.

Why? I see some combination of three reasons. It makes Wall Street jittery, this talk, and he seems pretty jittery about making Wall Street jittery, because the instant he does they start whining about being made into pariahs. Second, one can't help but suspect that race plays a factor here; he may fear that talking about inequality and poverty, as a black man, would sound to white middle America "too black," so to speak.

And third, there remains in the Democratic Party this intra-party fight about economic populism and growth. What used to be called, and I guess can still be called for want of anything better, the Rubin Wing of the party (the Third Way Wing?) wants the Democrats to play ball on entitlement cuts and deficit reduction, while what can already be called the Warren Wing, even though she's a pretty junior senator, but such is her outsized influence, wants more dramatic efforts in behalf of mobility for the middle class and the poor, which requires public investment that does not cut the deficit.

Talking about poverty, alas, doesn't pay many political dividends. But I don't see how it's a political loser to emphasize mobility. In a big poll that came out in September, more than half of those surveyed said they didn't think they'd move up the social ladder in their lifetimes. Not the usual American optimism. That has to include a lot of white people--indeed, a lot of white people who vote Republican because of social issues. Some portion of them could be won back by Democrats if those voters really feel the Democrats are on their side economically.

Past Present

The RNC’s Latest Race Gaffe

A tweet about Rosa Parks ‘ending racism’ reveals a shameful truth about the GOP: Equality has never been the party’s fight and likely never will be.

Yeah, it was probably a junior social-media staffer who threw up that Twitter post about Rosa Parks “ending racism” in 1955. And it was just a little slip.

But it’s a story because it reveals two painful and quite shameful truths about the GOP, in this year of the “autopsy” that wasn’t, this year when the Republican-appointed Supreme Court majority essentially made racially discriminatory gerrymandering legal again after nearly 50 years, and when Republican state parties all over the country are redoubling their efforts to make it as difficult as possible for black people to cast a vote.

The first truth is that this staffer, whoever it was, in all likelihood made this slip for a reason. She or he has been schooled to believe that racism did end, and that all present-day discussion of the problem is just whining from society’s takers. We might call this a central tenet of the right, although the word tenet dignifies it too much. It’s more like a fact-free conviction, held by people who are never capable of imagining walking a hundred yards, let alone a mile, in another person’s shoes.

Whoever this tweeter was, s/he has been hearing the refrain since the day s/he got into the game. Yes, there was racism, and it was wrong. But racism, she’d have been tutored to believe, was a Democratic problem (check that; a Democrat problem, her tutors would undoubtedly have said). She’d have heard all about how it was really Republican Sen. Everett Dirksen who passed the civil-rights bill (which is like saying the Serbs defeated the Nazis—they were on the right side, but they hardly carried the heavy artillery). She’d have been instructed to repeat “Party of Lincoln!” at the necessary intervals, and she’d have been coached in the phony, euphemistic language that Republicans use to acknowledge certain past sins but to press forward, sunnily noting that all of that is “behind us.”

Rename the NFL

The Tennessee…Crackers?

No one would have dreamed of giving an NFL team a name insulting to white people, Catholics, or Jews. So why is ‘Redskins’ okay? One reason: Native Americans’ lack of political power.

WARNING: This column contains racially and ethnically offensive words and phrases. A lot of them. That’s the point, as you’ll see. I don’t go around using these words and phrases in real life and don’t think you should, either.

washington redskins

Rob Tringali/Sportschrome via Getty

The other night I was settling in to watch a bit of the Washington football club versus the San Francisco 49ers. A thought occurred to me that I tweeted: If the Niners had been named in the same spirit in which the Redskins were named, they might be the San Francisco _____s.

In came the replies, some very witty ones. But while witty, they were also mostly pretty offensive. Fags, or some variant thereof, came up a lot. And this in turn got me thinking: What if every NFL team had been named in the spirit in which the Redskins were named? They were named, if you don’t know, by George Preston Marshall, the full-throttle racist who owned the team from the 1930s through the 1960s. He changed the name from Braves to Redskins because Braves wasn’t racist enough, and he moved the team from Boston to Washington because Boston wasn’t racist enough. He wanted to be the football lord of Dixie.

Let History Judge

Obama and the Munich Katrinas

It may sound otherwise, given the decibel level of the Munich Katrinas, but the opposition to the Iran deal is in fact fairly limited. Joe Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund makes the point in a calm and level-headed and nicely straightforward description of the details of the deal, which I commend to you. He writes:

The Iran Project headed by Amb. Tom Pickering and Amb. Bill Luers earlier released a letter from 79 former officials and security experts, including Ryan Croker, Wendy Chamberlin, Joseph Nye, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Frank Wisner, in support of the negotiated deal.

Opposition to the deal is confined to the leaders of Israel, Saudi Arabia, some other Gulf states and a small minority of politicians and experts in the United States. There are no senior voices opposed to the deal that compare to the stature or experience of those favoring the process.

Who are the Munich Katrinas? The usual suspects—the people who howl about Munich every time an American (that is, Democratic) administration does something that suggests he seeks any course of action other than the one most likely to bring young men and women home in body bags, or with body parts left somewhere halfway across the earth, and the one most likely to kill thousands of innocent children (who, as far as the Munich Katrinas are concerned, are just the next generation of terrorists anyway).

Nuke-Free Future

Obama Crushes the Neocons

The agreement signed with Iran on Sunday is a momentous step forward. Yet Republicans will try to subvert the success by playing to their Obama-hating base.

Well, the ayatollah appears to have lent his provisional support to the historic U.S.-Iran accord announced Saturday night. In a letter to President Hassan Rouhani, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said the deal “can be the basis for further intelligent actions.” Now we just need sign-off from our American ayatollahs. But the early indications are that the Republicans, eager to perform Bibi Netanyahu’s bidding—not that they needed a second reason to oppose something Barack Obama did—will do everything within their power to stop the thing going forward.


U.S. President Barack Obama speaks from the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013. (Bloomberg/Getty)

We shouldn’t get too carried away in praising this accord just yet. It’s only a six-month arrangement while the longer-term one is worked out. Those talks are going to be harder than these were, and it’s not at all a stretch to envision them collapsing at some point. Iran is going to have to agree to a regular, more-or-less constant inspection regime that would make it awfully hard for Tehran to be undertaking weapons-grade enrichment. It’s easy to see why they agreed to this deal, to buy time and get that $4.2 billion in frozen oil revenues. But whether Iran is going to agree to inspections like that is another question.

Still, it is indeed a historic step. Thirty-four years of not speaking is a long time. So it’s impressive that this got done at all, and even more impressive are some of the inner details, like the fact that Americans and Iranians have been in direct and very secret negotiations for a year. Rouhani’s election does seem to have made a huge positive difference—four of five secret meetings centered in Oman have been held since Rouhani took office, which seems to be a pretty clear indication that he wants a long-term deal to happen.

James Madison Would Approve

Going Nuclear

I actually think it's sad and regrettable that it's come to this. My ideal United States Senate is basically no different from David Broder's--I'd like a chamber filled with reasonable men and women who understood that they held in their hands the responsibility to govern the republic with cool heads and with respect for the range of point of views represented among them.

That may sound like a bunch of high-flown hooey, but really, this is, or is supposed to be, democracy, and what some people call high-flown hooey is what other people call our founding principles. At its best moments, of which we haven't seen any in recent years, the Senate has functioned as I described above. The Voting Rights Act is one of the more sterling examples, but there are more recent ones, too, up to Reagan's time. After that the rot set in.

It's amazing to look at the list of senators in the 98th Congress, to pick one at (almost) random--it's the year I worked on the House side as a youngster. It sat from 1983 to 1985. You can look down this list for yourself, noting the number of Republicans from blue states and Democrats from today's red states (fewer, but still a decent number). This meant that the moderate Democrats of Tennessee and such places and the moderate Republicans of Illinois and such places had a voice in the Senate. That's been wiped out. I don't care if it sounds like High Broderism. I do regret it. We all should.(Where I depart from High Broderism, of course, is in his insistent claim when he was around that both sides were equally to blame for the toxicity.)

So I sort of lament that Harry Reid did what he did yesterday, but the problem has just gotten ridiculous, and don't let anybody tell you it's not a problem specifically of Republican obstruction. Yes, Democrats have done it too, but the historical pattern since the 1970s has essentially been that Republicans started blocking, taking the use of the filibuster up to threat level A; then Democrats, when it was their turn, also increased to level A. Then Republicans took it to threat level B, and the Democrats responded in kind. Then level C.

Food Drives?

Corporate Scrooges, Out and Proud

Holiday food drives for ‘associates in need’? Tips on ‘digging out of holiday debt,’ like selling items on eBay? Far from raising wages, Walmart and McDonald’s have a reached a new low.

What are future historians going to call this age? Probably not the Era of Good Feelings, which is what we still call the Monroe-era embrace of small-r republicanism. (It was awfully brief.) The Gilded Age has been taken, although we’ve often heard that we’re living in a New Gilded Age.


A Walmart store in Canton, Ohio, has been getting some unwanted attention because an employee surreptitiously publicized a store food drive. (The Daily Beast)

Lately, I’m wondering if we’ve morphed even beyond that. We know the 1 percent have been partying in contemporary America as never before. And we know the workers at the bottom have been getting hammered. But this week we seem to have entered a phase when it’s OK for the corporations doing the hammering to drop any pretense that they’re supposed to be doing the opposite. It’s quite a moment.

A Walmart store in Canton, Ohio, has been getting some unwanted attention because an employee surreptitiously publicized a store food drive. But this isn’t your run-of-the-mill holiday-season food drive. It is not intended for Canton’s destitute. It’s for the store’s own employees. Signs attached to storage containers in an employee-only area of the store, photographed by the employee, ask other employees to “donate food items here so associates in need can enjoy Thanksgiving dinner.” “Associates in need.” Wow.


Why Was Gus Deeds Rejected?

Why couldn't they find a psych bed anywhere in southwestern Virginia for Gus Deeds?

It’s quite rare that a public tragedy allows us to connect dots this clearly, but the horrifying case of Gus Deeds stabbing his father, Virginia politician Creigh Deeds, is one such case. We begin with this sentence, from the Richmond Times-Dispatch account of the incident:

The son was evaluated Monday at Bath Community Hospital, Cropper said, but was released because no psychiatric bed could be located across a wide area of western Virginia.

Hmmm. And why would that be so? Just one of those things? The usual pre-Thanksgiving rush? Not really. As Think Progress notes, the likely culprit here is that Virginia cut funding for psychiatric beds by 15 percent between 2005 and 2010. Certainly, 2005 would mean the cuts started under Democratic governors—first Mark Warner, and then Tim Kaine. They continued under current GOP Governor Bob “Rolex” McDonnell, who then proposed even deeper cuts last year.

What’s going on in Virginia is going on nationally. Try this statistic on for a shocker. The per capita state psychiatric bed population in 2010 in the United States was identical to the figure for 1850. Yes, 1850, around when the very idea of caring for mentally ill people first started! Then and now, the number 14.1 beds per 100,000 population.

Fight Back

Time to Play Offense, Obama

His apology for the disastrous Obamacare rollout was nice, but the public needs daily updates and vivid examples to break through the media-manufactured panic.

I try to limit myself to no more than four sports analogies a year, just to keep the clubby-male-pundit thing to a minimum. But this is unavoidably one of those times. Right now in the Obamacare Bowl, it’s like one of those points early in a football game where the other team has scored three quick touchdowns via some unusual circumstances, the old blocked punt and such. So boom, it’s 21-0. But it’s still the first quarter—say, 3:32 left in the first quarter. That’s where we are.

President Barack Obama

President Barack Obama speaks about his signature health care law, on Nov. 14, 2013, in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Politicians might panic. But winning football teams just buckle down, slowly take control,  and—above all else—fight. And that’s what the White House needs to do starting right now; not to save its own political neck, but for the millions of people the Affordable Care Act will help and the other millions who have spent years in their various ways organizing for health-care reform.

The current situation is a crisis. But it isn’t a catastrophe. A catastrophe is more or less hopeless. Despite right-wing chortling, this isn’t even close to that yet. The website can be fixed. The cancellations are affecting only a few million people. A few million people is a lot of people, but there are 150 million other Americans with private-sector insurance. Besides which, there’s every reason to think that a lot of these few million are going to better off with new ACA-style plans, as Jonathan Cohn notes in this column. It’s entirely possible, for example, that people paying more now in premiums (which is the only measure these recent news stories have been taking into account) will pay less in the future if they or their families need care beyond the basics. At that point—around halftime in the Obamacare Bowl—they’ll look up and realize that this wasn’t so terrible after all, although the media won’t be around to cover it.


In Defense of the House 39

Most liberals have been denouncing the 39 House Democrats who voted for the Fred Upton Obamacare bill on Friday on the grounds that they voted for a bill that would clearly gut the law. That they did, not much use in denying that. But they're from districts where the law isn't exactly going down so well. And if the Democratic Party ever wants a House majority again, the only way it's going to get that is by electing more people from districts like these.

Besides which, the vote was academic. The Upton bill isn't getting a vote in the Senate, so it was academic. And even if somehow it were to get a vote it would certainly fail--I can see five or six Democrats who might join the 45 Republicans to back it, but not 15, as would be needed. If Upton had a real chance of becoming law, I'd bet a number of those 39 would have voted no.

But the bottom line here is this. If you're a liberal, you want as many Democrats as possible in the House, right? Ideally, 218 or more. Well, the safe Democratic districts number 175, according to Stuart Rothenberg (while there are 208 safe Republican seats). That's 43 short of a majority, so, to get to a majority, the Democrats are going to need a lot of people from swing districts. Would you rather have a Democrat from such a district vote against Upton and lose, giving the seat to a Republican?

Yes, I know, it's not axiomatic that a vote against Upton means a loss. Fight fight fight stand up for your vote etc. But the fact is that not a lot of these people have the fortitude and skill required to do that. It's a hard thing to do. It's not simply a matter of courage, it's a matter of skill, and a matter of a number of factors outside the pol's control. Saying "vote no and go out and defend it" is like saying to a running back "just go out and gain 150 yards." It's just not a thought that can be translated into real-world results very easily.

Dishonest Line

Trash-Talking Obamacare

The GOP idea that Obamacare is flailing because he pushed through a ‘partisan’ bill beyond Kafkaesque—and Republicans only believe it because they assume everything is about politics.

Here’s one thing I absolutely cannot stand hearing: that President Obama is getting what he deserves now because he passed such a “partisan” health-care bill. The suggestion is truly beyond belief and, quite literally, totalitarian in spirit, in the way it flips the truth so perversely on its head, turning the perpetrated-upon into the perpetrator and the aggressor into the victim. As Obamacare flails, one hears the “partisan” line frequently these days on television and radio. More maddeningly still, the alleged liberals and fact-based reporters on various panels often permit it to go unchallenged. Let’s set the record straight.


Max Whittaker/Getty

Obama came into office trying to reach out to Republicans and their voters. Remember Pastor Rick Warren at the inaugural? Remember how the president met with pro-abortion rights and anti-abortion rights groups early on? (You may not, but he did.) He also tried to horse-trade with them on the stimulus. True, he would not compromise on a tax credit for low-wage workers that Republicans opposed. (Interesting to read this article in retrospect; Obama was trying to help here the later-famous 47 percent.) But he did offer movement on tax cuts, and the Senate did pass a Charles Grassley amendment about the alternative minimum tax. And, at the White House’s request, certain expenditures the White House thought would repel Republicans were stripped out in the hopes of winning GOP support. But that, of course, did not happen in any meaningful way.

In the late spring of 2009, Obama started talking health care. He sat down with Republicans over the summer. He invited a group of Republicans into his office and told them he’d put tort reform in the bill if it would get him Republican votes. They stared at him. Other administration officials met with Republicans a number of times to see if anything could be put in the bill to appease them. The answer was always no. Remember here that the Affordable Care Act is basically a Republican plan to begin with, as the individual mandate idea came from the Heritage Foundation. So you might have thought that some Republicans would be OK with that.

Chamberlain or Churchill

Can Obama Change?

Critics are calling the botched health-care reform rollout Obama’s Katrina. The truth is he has one year to save his presidency. Will he be the Chamberlain or the Churchill?

Ron Brownstein pretty well nails it today:

For decades, Democratic strategists have viewed universal health care as their best opportunity to reverse the doubt among many voters, especially whites, that government programs can tangibly benefit their families. Now the catastrophic rollout of the health law threatens instead to reinforce those doubts. That outcome could threaten Democratic priorities for years.

He points to exit polls from Virginia last week, when 52 percent of white voters said they opposed the law. He then notes that the odds have just gone way up that the 2016 election will be a referendum on the health-care law and on the efficacy of government in general. Well, 2016 is a long way away--I mean, remember: Just three weeks ago, it was the Republicans, post-shutdown, who were in total disarray! But Brownstein might end up being right. Now you know why Bill Clinton said what he said.

Churchill Obama Chamberlain

Winston Churchill, Barack Obama and Neville Chamberlain. (Topical Press Agency/Getty; Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty)


The Dems’ Obamacare Freakout

Well, here we are again—the Democrats are ‘in disarray,’ flailing on Obamacare. It’s a potent story line, but this time Obama must crack the whip, stop the panicking, and make it work.

The dawn of the 24-7 news cycle about 15 or so years ago brought with it a few new ways for the media to talk about and cover politics. With all that air time to fill, politics, and certain big news events like your major murders, became part soap opera. Soap operas, to keep the ratings steady, need running themes. What used to be called “Democrats in disarray,” known today in our hurried-up age as #demsindisarray, proved to be a compelling and durable one.


Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) speaks to members of the media after a hearing. (Alex Wong/Getty)

It developed, in part, because that dawn of cable happened to be the era of Clinton “scandals,” real and (mostly) imagined. Remember Craig Livingstone? If you don’t, Google him. If you do, you’re chuckling already, I know, because for about four days there on cable TV in 1996, Livingstone was supposed to be the ruination of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Democrats in disarray!

Yes, Republicans have been in disarray, too, from time to time—the low points of the Iraq War, Katrina, and just last month during the government shutdown. But for a variety of reasons, the 24-7 news cycle era has found Dems in disarray to be a far more potent story line than Republicans in disarray. It’s alliterative, for starters. And it has been, I readily concede, legitimately true at times. Plus, Fox, for many years, drove the agenda that the other cable nets swallowed hook, line, and sinker. MSNBC has been a liberal pushback channel only for five years or so, or less than half the life span of the 24-7 cycle. (Remember when Tucker Carlson was an MSNBC host?) And Republicans have tended to have tougher game faces, march more in lockstep, and not concede those crucial rhetorical inches that Democrats so often feel compelled to grant.

I was on a panel yesterday at a conference of Economists for Peace and Security, and one of my panel mates was Ron Unz, the contrarian conservative who has had quite an interesting and varied career. His big passion these days is the minimum wage, which he has written about with some regularity. On yesterday’s panel, he spent some time on the substantive case, on which I don’t need to be sold. But he also made a very interesting political argument: that a really big increase might be more likely to pass than a more modest one, because it would potentially have a larger and more bipartisan constituency behind it.

On the surface it seems totally counterintuitive that a minimum wage increase to $12 an hour (Unz’s position) could possibly win more support than an increase to $9 an hour, which is what the White House proposes. And maybe it couldn’t. It would probably be such sticker shock to the overclass that they’d dig in their heels. And anyway all this is academic, alas, as long as Congress is filled with these pseudo-populist yahoos who wave Bibles at $25,000-a-year earners while they do the bidding of $25,000-a-day earners.

But Unz says this. An increase to $9 an hour will help only those at the very bottom of the wage scale, and those at the very bottom of the wage scale tend to be Democratic voters, because they’re more likely to be black or Latino (or maybe single white women). So naturally, only Democrats will support it.

Instead, he argues that a bigger increase will have a much greater likelihood of having a positive impact on wages up the scale. There are loads of jobs, jobs that can’t be outsourced—home health care, food services, sales, office and administrative support, non-construction laborers, and more—that he said yesterday could be positively impacted by as much as $5,000 a year, which for a $25,000-a-year job is a pretty hefty increase.

GOP Fail

The High-Stakes VA Recount

The Democratic candidate for attorney general in Virginia is poised to win by less than 1 percent, giving Democrats the run of the state for the first time in more than 40 years.

Now this is very interesting indeed: It suddenly looks as if the Democrat may win the attorney general election in Virginia. It seems they found a missing ballot box from Richmond on Monday afternoon, and Mark Herring vaulted to a 115-vote lead over Mark Obenshain, out of 2.2 million cast. The counting of the provisional ballots is supposed to end Tuesday, and then there will be a recount, if the tally is within 1 percent (it is) and if the loser requests it. But as of Monday afternoon, those following the proceedings closely said it seems highly unlikely that Obenshain can make up the difference, narrow as it is.

VA Governor

Cliff Owen

Is this a big deal? You bet it is. If Herring wins, the Democrats will have the run of Virginia. The governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and both senators will be Democrats. In Virginia! That hasn’t happened since 1969, which was a completely different political universe. One of those senators, Harry F. Byrd Jr., was a thoroughgoing segregationist. So that’s good news for the Democratic side.

And likewise it’s terrible news for the Tea Party. The Virginia GOP went ultra-hard right this year—instead of primaries, it held a nominating convention over-attended by ideologues who chose the medieval Ken Cuccinelli, about whom we know; the Bronze Age lieutenant governor candidate E.W. Jackson, who made a series of outlandish and reactionary comments and got mopped up by double digits; and Obenshain. He of course underwent far less national observation and scrutiny than Cuccinelli did, and he drew far fewer cameras than the bombastic Jackson, but his views are essentially indistinguishable from the gubernatorial candidate’s—transvaginal probes, criminalization of any failure by a woman to report a miscarriage to the police, hating on gay people, the whole ball of fetid, intolerant wax.

About the Author

Author headshot

Michael Tomasky

The Daily Beast special correspondent Michael Tomasky is also editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

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