Archive for the ‘Collins’ Category

Blow, Kristof and Collins

November 20, 2014

In “The Solid South Will Rise Again” Mr. Blow points out the obvious:  The region has become so Republican, particularly since President Obama was elected, that there isn’t much left there for the Democrats to salvage.  Well, decades of tinkering with gerrymandered districts has helped too…  Mr. Kristof has a question:  “Do Politicians Love Kids?”  He says if American politicians are looking for a genuinely bipartisan issue to work together on, here’s a suggestion: invest in early education.  That’ll likely happen when pigs fly.  Ms. Collins, in “Tough Times for Penguins,” says that new era of bipartisan cooperation in Washington didn’t last long. Still, we’re doing better than the king penguins.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Democrats have abandoned Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who is in a tough runoff election. (Tough is the mild way of putting it. Polls show her down by double digits to her Republican opponent.)

Not only has the Democratic Party pulled its financial support for her campaign, but this week Senate Democrats refused to rally around her push for passage of the Keystone XL pipeline bill.

Maybe Democrats are simply giving up on Landrieu. Or maybe it’s something bigger: They’re giving up on the South, at least in the short term.

This region has become so solidly Republican, particularly since President Obama was elected, that there isn’t much left there for the Democratic Party to defend or salvage. For instance, prior to the 2010 midterms there were 54 Blue Dog Democrats in Congress. In the outgoing Congress, there are only 19 left, including eight from the South.

And Republican gerrymandering has further weakened Democratic power, even when Democrats vote in high numbers. As Lee Fang wrote this month at Republic Report, “Republican gerrymandering means Democratic voters are packed tightly into single districts, while Republicans are spread out in such a way to translate into the most congressional seats for the G.O.P.”

After the midterms, The Associated Press provided this tally:

“In January, the G.O.P. will control every governor’s office, two U.S. Senate seats, nearly every majority-white congressional district and both state legislative chambers in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas.”

It is important and relevant that The Associated Press pointed out the racial dichotomy because, in the South, ideology and racial identity are nearly inseparable.

I’m reminded of the story that one of my brothers told about being transferred along with a white co-worker to Mississippi. He and the co-worker were shopping for homes at the same time. The co-worker was aghast at what he saw as redlining on the part of the real estate agent, who never explicitly mentioned race. When the coworker had inquired about a neighborhood that included black homeowners, the agent responded, “You don’t want to live there. That’s where the Democrats live.” The co-worker was convinced that “Democrats” was code for “black.”

He may well have been right. Mississippi is among the most racially bifurcated states politically, with one of the highest percentage of black voters in the country. In 2012, 96 percent of blacks voted for the Democratic presidential ticket, according to exit polling data, while 89 percent of whites voted for the Republican ticket.

Landrieu’s Louisiana isn’t much different. In 2012, Obama won only 10 of the state’s 64 parishes. Most of the 10 had a majority-black population, and the rest had black populations approaching 50 percent. Earlier this month, Landrieu got 94 percent of the black vote but only 18 percent of the white vote.

Pat Buchanan has echoed The Associated Press in his assessment of the near complete political and racial divide in the South, writing last week, “South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas will not send a single white Democrat to Congress, if Mary Landrieu loses her runoff. The only Democrats in the House from Deep South states will be African-Americans.”

As Gallup pointed out in March, “Whites have become increasingly Republican, moving from an average 4.1-point Republican advantage under Clinton to an average 9.5-point advantage under Obama.”

And this increasingly homogenous Southern delegation is likely to wield increased influence, as The Associated Press points out:

“In Washington, Senate Republicans haven’t parceled out leadership assignments, but Southerners figure prominently among would-be major committee chairmen: Mississippi’s Thad Cochran (Appropriations); Alabama’s Jeff Sessions (Budget) and Richard Shelby of Alabama (Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs); Bob Corker of Tennessee (Foreign Relations); Richard Burr of North Carolina (Intelligence); Lamar Alexander of Tennessee (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions); Johnny Isakson of Georgia (Veterans Affairs).”

Furthermore, many of the likely most talked about Republican presidential candidates are from the South: Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio and Mike Huckabee.

The degree to which the South remains solidly Republican may well depend on the changing racial composition of Southern states, specifically a rise in their non-white population.

According to the Census Bureau, six of the 10 states with the largest “black alone-or-in-combination populations” in 2010 were Southern states: Florida, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia. And the four that experienced substantial growth between 2000 and 2010 in their black alone-or-in-combination populations were all Southern: “Florida grew by 29 percent, Georgia by 28 percent, Texas by 27 percent and North Carolina by 21 percent.”

In addition, as the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project pointed out last year, nine of the 10 states with the fastest-growing Hispanic populations were also in the South: Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, North Carolina, Mississippi, Maryland and Georgia.

This regional hyper-racialization of our politics has many origins, some historical and some current, but it does not bode well for the future of the country as a whole.

We are self-sorting ourselves into hardened, impenetrable citadels of ideological sameness that harks back to the nation’s darker days.

You’ll notice that there’s not a word about Howard Dean and his 50 State Strategy, you know, the strategy that was actually working until Dean was kicked to the curb…  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

We Americans love children.

Indeed, we love them so much that, on average, child care workers earn almost as much per hour ($10.33) as workers who care for animals ($10.82), according to a new study from the University of California, Berkeley.

We love them so much that only 38 percent of American 3-year-olds are enrolled in education programs. The average is 70 percent among the 34 industrialized countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

So if politicians are genuinely looking for a bipartisan issue to break through the Washington gridlock, here’s a suggestion: invest in early education.

A poll over the summer found that 71 percent of voters supported a major federal investment in early education, including huge majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents alike. Leaders in doing this have been tinted both blue (New York City) and red (the State of Oklahoma) — as well as camouflage green (the United States military has an excellent preschool program). Jim Messina, the campaign manager for President Obama in 2012, and Kevin Madden, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s rival campaign that year, this month wrote a joint memo advocating that both parties back investments in early education.

“Perhaps the biggest political opportunity for both parties lies in the nonpartisan issue of early childhood education,” Messina and Madden wrote.

Early education is the low-hanging fruit of public policy. It has the approval in principle of both President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, and abundant research suggests that early help for disadvantaged children could chip away at inequality, save public money and help those children reach the starting line.

I dropped in the other day on James Heckman, an owlish University of Chicago professor and Nobel Prize-winning economist who is the leading scholarly advocate of early interventions. He’s a numbers geek who advocates investing in early childhood programs simply because that is where society gets the most bang for the buck — returns of 7 percent to 10 percent per year, by his calculations.

Heckman argues that the cheapest way to reduce crime is to invest in early childhood programs for at-risk kids. He has crunched the numbers and found that to get the same reduction in crime by adding police officers would cost at least five times as much.

At 70 and showing no signs of slowing down, Heckman co-authored two major studies published in Science this year that underscored that the real question isn’t whether we can afford early education initiatives, but whether we can afford not to provide them:

• One follow-up found that adults who, as disadvantaged children, had been randomly assigned to attend an excellent preschool were much healthier than those who had been randomly assigned to the control group.

Now in their mid-30s, the men who had gone to the preschool had average blood pressure of 126 over 79; the controls were a much more worrisome 143 over 92. Those men who had attended the preschool were less than one-third as likely to be severely obese. Because they were also doing better in life, those preschool graduates were far more likely to have health insurance.

• Another follow-up looked at adults in Jamaica who 20 years earlier had been growth-stunted toddlers. At that time, some had been assigned to a control group and some to get a weekly one-hour visit from a health aide who coached parents on doing more to engage their children. Again, the results were stunning. Those who as children had been in the group getting the weekly visits were less likely to commit violent crimes than those in the control group. They stayed in school longer, and they earned 25 percent more as adults.

“It blew me away,” Heckman said of the Jamaica study. What was remarkable was how simple and low-cost the assistance was — a one-hour weekly visit by a health aide — yet it changed the lives of the children who participated.

“Early education” isn’t just about pre-K but rather an umbrella term for all interventions between pregnancy and age 5. Some of the most effective seem to occur during pregnancy and infancy, counseling at-risk women not to drink, smoke or take drugs while expecting, and then after birth, helping them breast-feed and read to the child, while avoiding lead paint and other toxins.

Why are these early interventions so effective? Apparently because the first few years are the window when the brain is forming and when basic skills like self-control and grit are developed.

Washington will probably be a discouraging gridlocked mess for the next couple of years. But here’s a rare issue where it’s just conceivable that we could make progress and build a stronger and more equitable future for our nation.

If our politicians really do love children, here’s a way to prove it.

The love the IDEA of children, not the messy, needy little creatures themselves.  Here’s Ms. Collins:

Scientists say that fur seals in the Antarctic are having sex with the penguins.

This may have been going on for some time. A South African research team has published a paper on it, “Multiple Occurrences of King Penguin Sexual Harassment by Antarctic Fur Seals.” There’s also a video featuring a rather large seal and a really unhappy looking bird.

“This may be an emergent behavior,” the team wrote ominously.

I am bringing you this disturbing news because it may make you feel better about politics, Congress, and the general state of the nation. True, virtually everything that’s happened since the election suggests things are going to get worse rather than better. But hey, at least we’re not being governed by seals.

All this brings us to Washington, where congressional leaders from both parties have been making copious promises about seeking common ground. Generally, the specifics end with some vague reference to doing “tax reform.”

“Reagan and Tip O’Neill saved Social Security for a generation, did the last comprehensive tax reform. We need to do that again,” said Mitch McConnell, the next Senate majority leader, in his paean to bipartisan cooperation.

Reagan and Tip O’Neill agreed to the largest peacetime tax increase in American history. Do you think that’s what McConnell has in mind? Otherwise, one is forced to consider the possibility that he is making things up. The Democrats and Republicans are definitely in accord about the need for tax reform. However, given the fact that they disagree completely about what that reform should entail, chances of progress do not seem great.

But maybe wishing can make it so. Even as young fur seals are apparently compensating for the shortage of mating partners by looking at a king penguin and imagining that it is a female seal.

On Thursday, President Obama is expected to announce he’s protecting millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation through use of his executive power. And that will probably be the end of the talk of amity. The Republicans feel that if Obama usurps the congressional prerogative to make immigration policy, he will have poisoned the well, waved the red flag and generally ruined all the possibility for a new era of cooperation. They were saying that all this week, as they worked feverishly to pass a bill that would override the executive branch’s power to grant permits for projects that cross the national border.

That would be the Keystone pipeline bill. It failed when Senate supporters fell one vote short of the 60 needed to stop a Democratic filibuster. This happened on the same day that a bill to get the federal government out of the business of collecting citizens’ phone records died in a Republican filibuster.

Yes, people, both parties did it. However, since the Republicans are the ones promising to usher in a new order, we are going to pay special attention to them.

“I thought we had a new day coming, when McConnell said he wanted to go back to the regular order of having votes, and amendments and all,” said Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. This was in a phone interview, so it was hard to determine conclusively whether Leahy was being somewhat wry. “He said the next few weeks would set a positive tone for Congress.”

Leahy’s bill, the USA Freedom Act, was a response to the Edward Snowden leaks, particularly the revelation that the federal government is stockpiling everybody’s phone records. It was the bipartisan product of six public hearings and painful negotiations that attracted the support of über-conservative senators like Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah. One of its major features was a requirement that the call records stay with the phone companies. The National Security Agency could retrieve them, but it would have to be specific about whose calls were being traced and why they were needed.

McConnell led the battle to keep the status quo. (“This is the worst possible time to be tying our hands behind our backs.”) During the debate, after the minority leader finished his remarks, Leahy asked if he would respond to a few questions, but McConnell was already on his way out of the room. “He said: ‘I’m sorry but I don’t have time.’ In 40 years I’d never seen anybody do that,” Leahy said.

Well, McConnell had been through a lot. The run-up to the debate on Leahy’s bill was a preview of what the new Senate will have in store as it attempts to operate with a trio of young presidential hopefuls in its ranks. Ted Cruz liked the bill and mentioned the Bill of Rights repeatedly. Marco Rubio of Florida hated the bill and summoned up the terror of terror. Rand Paul, that celebrated libertarian, attempted to have it all by announcing that he was voting with McConnell against the bill because it wasn’t strong enough. But he did say he felt bad about it.

At least the seals never promised the penguins it’d be a new tomorrow.

Nocera and Collins

November 15, 2014

Mr. Nocera has a question in “Net Neutrality Rules:”  Why is it so hard to achieve a deal when it’s something that everyone wants?  Well, Joey, not everyone wants it.  There are leading lights [well, dim bulbs…] like Ted Cruz who just HATE it.  And I see his name didn’t appear in your piece.  In “Congress Extends Itself” Ms. Collins says lots of temporary tax breaks have expired. Do you want them extended? We have a definitive NO from the Koch brothers.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Is there anybody out there who opposes net neutrality?

Net neutrality, of course, is the principle that calls for the Internet to remain free and open — with no “fast lanes” that would allow some content providers to take priority over others. This week, Washington was buzzing with talk about net neutrality, yet out-and-out critics were hard to find.

President Obama, of course, is in favor of net neutrality; indeed, he started this whole kerfuffle when the White House released a short video on Monday in which the president called on the Federal Communications Commission to “implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality.” Tom Wheeler, the former cable industry lobbyist who is now the chairman of the F.C.C., also wants net neutrality.

So do the big Internet companies like Netflix and Google, the ones that might have to pay Internet service providers, or I.S.P.s, to get on a fast lane if such a thing existed. (That’s called “paid prioritization.”) Net neutrality is favored by lots of small Internet companies — the kind that might not have the means to pay for prioritization — and dozens of public interest groups, too. When the F.C.C. asked for comments on net neutrality, it received an astonishing 3.7 million replies, a vast majority urging the commission to embrace it.

Even some Internet service providers say they agree with the goals of net neutrality. After President Obama’s video was released, Comcast, the biggest of them all, said that it agreed with almost everything the president called for.

Alas, the key word in the previous sentence is “almost.” In his video remarks, President Obama was surprisingly specific about what he hoped Wheeler and the F.C.C. would do: apply Title II of the 1996 Telecommunications Act to the I.S.P.s like Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and Time Warner Cable. Title II would reclassify these companies as akin to public utilities — like the old telephone company — and would regulate them as such.

Although the president insisted that many of the more onerous parts of Title II — like price regulation — could be held in abeyance, the I.S.P.s dread the thought of being regulated under Title II. They would prefer to be regulated under another part of the Telecommunications Act, section 706, which calls for a lighter touch.

Then there is the question of what, exactly, net neutrality entails. Does it include only “the last mile” — that is, the relationship between the I.S.P. and the Internet user? Or does it also include “interconnection” — the point at which a content company like Netflix joins the I.S.P.’s network and begins its journey to the customer? Currently, Netflix pays a fee to four big I.S.P.s to gain uncongested access to their networks. Not surprisingly, Netflix says that net neutrality means it shouldn’t have to pay this fee. Comcast and its I.S.P. brethren disagree.

One reason federal net neutrality rules have been so difficult to achieve is that in the past, when the F.C.C. has tried to regulate the I.S.P.s without using a Title II designation, it has had its head handed to it in the courts. The courts have essentially ruled that without that classification, the F.C.C. lacks the authority to apply rules that would ensure net neutrality.

Thus it was that a few weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal published a story reporting that Wheeler had a compromise idea: use Title II to regulate the back end — the point where Netflix accesses Comcast’s network — and use section 706 for the front end, where the consumer is. It is generally assumed that the F.C.C. leaked Wheeler’s “hybrid” idea as a trial balloon.

The balloon, however, was quickly burst. Net neutrality advocates didn’t think it went far enough, while the I.S.P.s thought it went too far. At which point, the president decided to weigh in. Wheeler may or may not take the president’s suggestion — he doesn’t have to, as the F.C.C. is an independent agency — but, at a minimum, new net neutrality rules, which the agency has been trying to accomplish for a half-dozen years, will be delayed again. And whatever the F.C.C. decides, there will surely be a new round of lawsuits. Sigh

Net neutrality is demonstrably a good thing, and it needs to be enshrined in law, not just done in good faith as it is now. The real problem is with the law itself: It was never meant to regulate broadband. Title II is too blunt an instrument, while section 706 doesn’t give the F.C.C. enough authority. That’s why the agency has seemed to be dancing on the head of a pin as it tries to come up with net neutrality rules that will pass muster.

Of course, there is another way to accomplish net neutrality. Congress could pass a law that allowed the F.C.C. to write net neutrality rules — but went no further.

Yeah, right. Better keep dancing, Chairman Wheeler.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Let’s play: So You Think You Can Make Tax Policy!

Really, it’s going to be exciting. Along the way we will get to discuss the latest exploits of the billionaire Koch brothers, machinations by possible presidential hopeful Paul Ryan, and gossip about at least one entertainment celebrity.

One of the very, very few things the current Congress seems determined to deal with before it vanishes into the night is the problem of “tax extenders.” Extenders are strange but much-loved little financial mutants. Sort of like hobbits or three-legged kittens.

Congress, in its wisdom, has created a raft of temporary tax breaks for everybody from teachers to banks that make money overseas. Most are really intended to be permanent. But calling them short-term measures tricks the Congressional Budget Office into underestimating how much they cost.

“If you pass a new tax cut, you’ve got to find offsetting spending cuts. But these are in a sense free,” said Howard Gleckman of the Tax Policy Center.

It’s just a matter of thinking proactively. Sort of like the much-repeated TMZ report that Britney Spears’s new boyfriend was asked to sign a confidentiality agreement before their first meeting.

So. A pile of these temporary breaks have expired. Do you want them extended?

The Koch brothers say no! At least when it comes to the ones that help alternative energy companies compete with the Koch fossil-fuel energy companies. Particularly tax breaks for wind. The Koch brothers really, really hate wind power. Maybe it’s because they’re from Kansas. Where you and I see a prairie, they see a competitor.

It’s been quite a week for our favorite American oligarchs. Their team won control of the Senate and a raft of state governments. The lame-duck Congress devoted much of the week to a bill encouraging the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Which connects the tar sand oil fields in Canada to the Texas refineries. The Koch brothers happened to be big investors when it comes to tar sands.

Already, we have one argument in favor of extending the tax breaks. Thwart Koches!

This year, members of the Senate Finance Committee made a bipartisan decision to throw up their hands and just extend everything. Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans agreed, they would work together on a grand tax reform package. Hehehehe

Never going to happen. When Republicans think about tax reform, they think of reducing the top rate for individuals and corporations from the current 39.6 percent to 25 percent. This is absolutely impossible, unless you are prepared to see the deficit soar like an over-caffeinated salmon.

Many Republicans believe they can get around this problem with “dynamic scoring.” This is based on a popular idea, much like the one about the tooth fairy, which presumes that tax cuts are going to create an explosion of economic activity that will replace all the lost revenue. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback was following that theory when he cut taxes in his state dramatically, thus ushering in an exciting new era of exploding deficits, plummeting bond ratings and underfunded school systems.

The next leader of the House Ways and Means Committee, which writes tax bills, is probably going to be Paul Ryan. Before the election, Ryan made a speech to the Financial Services Roundtable in which he seemed to suggest that if the Republicans won control of the Senate, it would be a message from the American people that it was time to do dynamic scoring on those tax bills. (“I really prefer to call it reality-based scoring.”)

The current Ways and Means chairman, Dave Camp, is a tragic figure who actually attempted to do tax reform with an ambitious proposal that eliminated some temporary taxes and made the rest permanent. It included a 4 percent reduction in the top tax rate, because no matter how hard Camp struggled, he could not honestly get it lower.

He might just as well have proposed a bill declaring God dead. The committee never even voted on it. John Boehner made fun of it. Camp was the political version of Justin Bieber, without the parties.

After the election, both parties appeared inclined to just extend all the tax cuts for two years while making principled mumbling about reform down the line.

But then the Koch brothers roared into the picture. They feel that it’s wrong for the government to give a special benefit to an industry that’s one of their competitors. Especially a government that they and their associates devoted nearly $60 million to getting into office. Politico reported that their representatives have been meeting with Speaker Boehner’s staff.

And you know, they have a point. If Congress actually wanted to do serious reform, it should get rid of special tax breaks for the wind and solar energy sectors. While, of course, also removing all the tax breaks for drilling oil.

Hehehehe

Blow, Cohen, Kristof and Collins

November 13, 2014

In “Race, to the Finish” Mr. Blow reviews how we got to this point where African-Americans vote so overwhelmingly Democratic and are suspicious of Republican motives.  Mr. Cohen, in “Mere Human Behavior,” says few resist, and that in a time of terror the mass is enthusiastic, compliant, calculating or cowed.  Mr. Kristof considers “Politicians, Teens and Birth Control.”  He says teenagers may be terrible at planning ahead, but politicians and our country are, too, by failing to invest in comprehensive sex education and birth control.  In “The Lame-Duck Dynasty” Ms. Collins says keeping up with Congress these days is almost like watching a reality TV show. What would we name it?  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Last week, the economist and former Richard Nixon speechwriter Ben Stein went on Fox News and delivered a racial tirade completely detached from the the anchor’s line of questioning.

When asked by the anchor about a Fox News poll showing the economy was the No.1 issue for voters, and how that poll result might work for or against Democrats in the midterms, Stein skirted the question altogether and instead spewed an extraordinary string of psychobabble about how “what the White House is trying to do is racialize all politics” by telling lies to African-Americans about how Republican policies would hurt them. He continued: “This president is the most racist president there has ever been in America. He is purposely trying to use race to divide Americans.”

Pat Buchanan, the two-time Republican presidential candidate, assistant to Richard Nixon and White House director of communications for Ronald Reagan, wrote a column this week accusing Democratic strategists of “pushing us to an America where the G.O.P. is predominantly white and the Democratic Party, especially in Dixie, is dominated by persons of color” in their last-minute get-out-the-vote appeals to African-Americans, by invoking Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Jim Crow.

This glosses over a hundred years of history that will be tucked quietly away into some attic of amnesia.

Let’s review how we got to this point where African-Americans vote so overwhelmingly Democratic and are suspicious of Republican motives.

As NPR reported in July, “If you’d walked into a gathering of older black folks 100 years ago, you’d have found that most of them would have been Republican” because it was the “party of Lincoln. Party of the Emancipation. Party that pushed not only black votes but black politicians during that post-bellum period known as Reconstruction.”

As Buchanan, writing in American Conservative, pointed out, “The Democratic Party was the party of slavery, secession and segregation, of ‘Pitchfork Ben’ Tillman and the K.K.K. ‘Bull’ Connor, who turned the dogs loose on black demonstrators in Birmingham, was the Democratic National Committeeman from Alabama.”

But allegiances flipped.

The first wave of defections by African-Americans from Republican to Democrat came with Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal in the 1930s. According to the Roosevelt Institute: “As Mary McLeod Bethune once noted, the Roosevelt era represented ‘the first time in their history’ that African-Americans felt that they could communicate their grievances to their government with the ‘expectancy of sympathetic understanding and interpretation.’”

By the mid 1930s, most blacks were voting Democratic, although a sizable percentage remained Republican. Then came the signing of the Civil Rights Act by the Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson — although he wasn’t perfect on the issue of race, and the bill passed partly because of Republican support.

In response to the bill, Barry Goldwater waged a disastrous campaign built in part on his opposition. As NPR put it: “Goldwater can be seen as the godfather (or maybe the midwife) of the current Tea Party. He wanted the federal government out of the states’ business. He believed the Civil Rights Act was unconstitutional — although he said that once it had been enacted into law, it would be obeyed. But states, he said, should implement the law in their own time.” Whites were reassured by the message, but blacks were shaken by it.

Richard Nixon, for whom both Stein and Buchanan would work, helped to seal the deal. Nixon had got nearly a third of the African-American vote in his unsuccessful 1960 bid for the White House, but when he ran and won in 1968 he received only 15 percent. In 1972, he was re-elected with just 13 percent of the black vote. That was in part because the Republican brand was already tarnished among blacks and in part because the Nixon campaign used the “Southern strategy” to try to capitalize on racist white flight from the Democratic Party as more blacks moved into it.

As Nixon’s political strategist Kevin Phillips told The New York Times Magazine in 1970: “The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans.”

That’s right: Republicans wanted the Democrats’ “Negrophobes.”

The history of party affiliations is obviously littered with racial issues. But now, there is considerable quarreling and consternation about the degree to which racial bias is still a party trait or motivating political factor for support of or opposition to particular politicians or policies.

It is clear that our politics were “racialized” long before this president came along — and that structure persists — but that’s not the same as saying the voters are racist.

To get more directly at the issue of racism in political parties, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight Politics looked at “a variety of questions on racial attitudes in the General Social Survey” and specifically at “the numbers for white Democrats and white Republicans.”

This wasn’t a perfect or complete measure of racial bias, but more a measure of flagrant bias — the opinions of people aware of their biases and willing to confess them on a survey.

That said, they found that:

“So there’s a partisan gap, although not as large of one as some political commentators might assert. There are white racists in both parties. By most questions, they represent a minority of white voters in both parties. They probably represent a slightly larger minority of white Republicans than white Democrats.”

Still, the question is how much of this muck at the bottom of both barrels sullies what’s on top? The best measure many find for this is in the rhetoric and policies of party leaders.

The growing share of the Democratic Party composed of historically marginalized populations — minorities, women, Jews, L.G.B.T.-identified persons — pushes the party toward more inclusive language and stances. The Republican Party, on the other hand, doesn’t have that benefit. They can’t seem to stop the slow drip of offensive remarks, like those of the Republican governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour, who referred to the president’s policies last week as “tar babies” or the obsessive-compulsive need to culturally diagnose and condemn black people, like Stein’s saying this week that “the real problem with race in America is a very, very beaten-down, pathetic, self-defeating black underclass.”

At that rate, Republicans will never attract more minorities, try as they may to skip over portions of the racial past or deny the fullness of the racial present.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

When I was a correspondent in Germany 15 years ago, I attended a ceremony at a military base renamed for a soldier in Hitler’s army who disobeyed orders. His name was Anton Schmid. He was a sergeant whose conscience was moved by the suffering of Jews in the Vilnius ghetto.

Thousands were being shot by the Germans, with help from Lithuanian collaborators, every day. It was the same story throughout Lithuania in the fall of 1941. In my grandmother’s home town of Zagaré, more than 2,200 Jews, by the Nazi count, were shot on a single day, Oct. 2, 1941.

In a letter to his wife, Stefi, Schmid described his horror at the sight of this mass murder and of “children being beaten on the way.” He wrote: “You know how it is with my soft heart. I could not think and had to help them.”

Schmid, forging papers for the Jewish underground and hiding children, managed to save more than 250 Jews before he was arrested in 1942 and summarily executed. In his last letter to his wife he wrote, “I merely behaved as a human being.”

But the human beings had all vanished, swept up in the Nazi death trance. “Merely” had become the wrong adverb; “exceptionally” would have been closer. Schmid’s resistance was almost unknown. It can be singular just to be human. It can be very lonely. It can cost your human life.

I thought of Schmid when I was asked recently to give a talk at Groton School (alma mater of Franklin D. Roosevelt) in Massachusetts honoring Ron Ridenhour. A helicopter gunner in Vietnam, he gathered information that led to the official probe into the 1968 My Lai massacre. He did not do what was easy. He did what was right. He took on entrenched interests within the U.S. military, bureaucratic resistance and personal hostility from fellow G.I.s and from his superiors.

His actions led to the conviction of William Calley for the murder of unarmed South Vietnamese civilians. Ridenhour broke ranks, at considerable personal risk, in the name of truth, decency and justice.

Massacres tend to take place in giddy seasons when passions boil up, judgment is jettisoned, and the herd instinct of the human race rises. Suddenly the stranger is the enemy; suddenly all is permitted; suddenly societal restraints and taboos are lifted; suddenly blood rises and is spilt.

To stand apart, in conscience, at moments like this, is rare. The fact is few resist. In a time of terror, the mass is enthusiastic, compliant, calculating, or cowed.

The righteous few move to an inner compass. Their anonymous acts, however hopeless, constitute a powerful rebuke to perpetrator and bystander. Resistance is never pointless, even if short-lived or doomed. The “Tank Man” of Tiananmen Square, never identified, is still riveting.

Whether to opt for conscience or convenience is a recurrent question. For me, although I did not realize it fully at the time, it was posed very early by exposure to Apartheid in South Africa. The easy thing and the right are seldom the same. In a time of conflict, the stakes are raised because choosing one or the other can be a matter of life and death. To save yourself or save another: It can come down to that.

My parents left South Africa in 1957 because they could not abide the abuse and the waste of apartheid. I was not quite 2 but had already absorbed what racism is, felt it like a microbe in the blood. When I became politically conscious, in my teens, I refused for several years to go back. Among my family, there were those who resisted, an aunt in particular who joined the Black Sash anti-apartheid movement. She was always skirting arrest.

But most of my relatives went along, as did most of the Jews. I heard more than one remark that when you are busy persecuting tens of millions of blacks, you don’t have much time left over for tens of thousands of Jews. The blacks were a buffer against what had happened in Europe. For South African Jews, aware of the corpse-filled ditches and gas chambers of the Europe they had fled, the Sharpeville massacre and the sight of blacks without passes being bundled into the back of police vans were discomfiting. But this was not genocide, after all. With conspicuous exceptions (more proportionately among Jews than any other white South Africans — the lawyers who defended Nelson Mandela were overwhelmingly Jews who took that risk), most Jews preferred to look away.

How, people ask, could the Holocaust happen? How could a civilized nation in the middle of Europe get away with industrialized mass murder? Because the Schmids and Ridenhours of this world are rare; it is easier to avert one’s gaze.

And now here’s Mr. Kristof:

Here’s a story of utter irresponsibility: About one-third of American girls become pregnant as teenagers.

But it’s not just a story of heedless girls and boys who don’t take precautions. This is also a tale of national irresponsibility and political irresponsibility — of us as a country failing our kids by refusing to invest in comprehensive sex education and birth control because we, too, don’t plan ahead.

I kind of understand how a teenage couple stuffed with hormones and enveloped in each other’s arms could get carried away. But I’m just bewildered that American politicians, stuffed with sanctimony and enveloped in self-righteousness, don’t adequately invest at home or abroad in birth-control programs that would save the government money, chip away at poverty, reduce abortions and empower young people.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans seem particularly interested in these investments. The inflation-adjusted sum spent on Title X family planning in the United States has fallen by two-thirds since 1980.

A few depressing facts:

•• American teenagers become pregnant at a rate of about one a minute.

•• Some 82 percent of births to teenagers in the U.S. are unplanned.

•• American and European teenagers seem to be sexually active at roughly similar rates, although Americans may start a bit earlier. But the American teenage birthrate is three times Spain’s rate, five times France’s, and 15 times Switzerland’s.

•• Young Americans show a lack of understanding of where babies come from. Among teenagers who unintentionally became pregnant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the most cited reason for not using contraception was “I didn’t think I could become pregnant.” And 18 percent of young men somehow believed that having sex standing up helps prevent pregnancy, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

Hello?

A teenager who has a baby often derails her own education and puts the child on a troubled trajectory as well. In Oklahoma last year, I met one family where the matriarch had a baby at 13, her daughter had a baby at 15, and that child, in turn, gave birth at 13. That’s how poverty replicates.

Medicaid spends an average of $12,770 for a birth. Yet we spend only $8 per teenage girl on programs to avoid pregnancy. In financial terms, that’s nuts. In human terms, it’s a tragedy.

Internationally, we and other donor countries also underinvest in family planning in poor countries. Globally, 220 million women don’t want to become pregnant but lack access to contraception.

Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution has written an important new book, “Generation Unbound: Drifting Into Sex and Parenthood Without Marriage.” She notes that most young single moms in America don’t intend to become pregnant but drift into it fatalistically, partly because they rely solely on condoms or other less reliable forms of birth control.

Condoms are 82 percent effective in preventing pregnancy in any one year, according to the C.D.C. But that means that after four years of relying only on condoms, most women will have become pregnant at least once.

So Sawhill advocates a move to what she calls “childbearing by design, not by default.” That means providing long-acting reversible contraceptives, or LARCs, to at-risk girls and young women who want them. LARCs are IUDs, or implants that can remain in place for years, and the failure rate is negligible.

Teenage birthrates in America have already dropped by more than half since 1991. But Sawhill calculates that if LARCs became much more widespread, the proportion of children born outside marriage could drop by a quarter, and the proportion of children who are poor would drop sharply as well.

“By turning drifters into planners, we would not only help those women achieve their own goals but also create much stronger starts for their children,” Sawhill writes.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently urged doctors to recommend LARCs for sexually active teenagers. One obstacle is the initial cost — $500 to $1,000 — so that many young people can’t afford them.

A study in St. Louis offered free birth control, including LARCs, to sexually active teenagers and found that pregnancy rates for them plunged by more than three-quarters. Abortions fell by a similar rate. That’s what we need nationwide.

The Affordable Care Act provides free access to all forms of contraception, which helps. But many pediatricians aren’t trained in inserting LARCs.

So we need more women’s health clinics, yet, instead, some are being closed as casualties of abortion wars. Moreover, states and schools should embrace comprehensive sex education, teaching contraception, the benefits of delaying sex and, also, the responsibility of boys.

A starting point for the United States should be to rebuild Title X spending on family planning. Surely we can afford to spend as much in this area as we did back in 1980.

So, of course, let’s ask teenagers to show responsibility toward sex. But let’s demand the same of our politicians.

And now we get to Ms. Collins:

How am I going to get you interested in the lame-duck Congress? Did you even know they came back? Perhaps it’s like reports that Randy Jackson is leaving “American Idol” — the amazing news is that “American Idol” is still on the air.

See? You’re already a little more engaged because I mentioned an old hit television show. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

There actually is an interesting “American Idol” story abroad in the political world these days. Season 2 runner-up Clay Aiken ran as a Democrat for Congress in North Carolina this year. It was an effort so improbable that it inspired little hope even among Democrats who believed their party was going to do very well in the elections. And, indeed, Aiken lost by 18 percentage points. Although he turned out to be a sort of a winner, since he was secretly filming his entire adventure for a four-part reality TV series for the Esquire Network.

Perhaps you did not even know there was an Esquire Network, although its programming, which includes “Brew Dogs,” “Friday Night Tykes” and “White Collar Brawlers” is currently available in more than 74 million American households.

Some of Aiken’s donors demanded that their faces be blotted out of what the creators like to refer to as the “documentary.” Really, you should not drag innocent bystanders into your reality TV show. People should be more considerate, like Senators Martin Heinrich and Jeff Flake, who staged their “Rival Survival” show on a deserted island, where there was absolutely nobody for the camera to film except the two politicians.

The theme of “Rival Survival,” which aired recently on the Discovery Channel (“Naked and Afraid,” “Dude, You’re Screwed,” “Moonshiners”), was whether two lawmakers from opposing parties could get along when left alone on a remote island with no food, water or shelter. And the answer was: Yes! Heinrich and Flake got along great. They also proved incapable of building a proper camp, boiling water or catching any fish. I believe there is an important metaphor in there somewhere.

But about the lame-duck Congress.

The House and Senate are back. Much like “Rival Survival,” the big suspense involves whether the chastened Democrats and empowered Republicans will manage to work together.

On Wednesday, the initial answer was: For sure! “I have been able to strike compromise with my Republican colleagues, and I’m ready to do it again,” said the majority leader, Harry Reid, when the Senate staggered back into session. Reid said Congress should listen to the will of the voters — who, he noted quickly, had voted in four red states to raise the minimum wage.

“Let’s step back and focus on what can be accomplished together,” said the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell. He most definitely made no mention of the minimum wage.

“Let’s begin with trusting each other, moving forward and passing the Keystone pipeline,” said Democrat Mary Landrieu.

Yes! Keystone XL. Landrieu is facing a runoff election Dec. 6, and she wants to send a message to her state that she knows how to help Big Oil.

“Elections have consequences,” she said, calling for a quick vote on a bill authorizing construction of the pipeline. “And this one does. … And one of the consequences is that a clear path for Keystone has been opened up.”

Wow. Who knew that was the message? Many environmentalists are violently against the Keystone project because it would carry oil to the Gulf refineries from the tar sands of Canada, which is particularly bad when it comes to carbon emissions. The pipeline may wind up getting built anyway, but nothing is going to happen until a court case over its route is resolved in Nebraska. A vote right now by Congress would be meaningless, and it’s a terrible moment to take a symbolic stand, since President Obama was just in China, announcing an agreement on fighting global warming.

There’s that. But then, on the other hand, there’s an election in Louisiana. While Landrieu was demanding a vote on her pipeline bill in the Senate, the House was gearing up to pass exactly the same bill, under the sponsorship of Representative Bill Cassidy, who happens to be her opponent in the Senate runoff next month.

There is also going to be a runoff for the House seat in the district Cassidy currently represents. The Democratic candidate is Edwin Edwards, former governor, former incarcerated felon due to a series of political corruption cases and former star of the reality show “The Governor’s Wife,” on A&E (“Storage Wars,” “Duck Dynasty,” “Bad Ink”).

Maybe they could do a series about the Keystone Pipeline (“Tar Sands Tough Guys”) or the Louisiana runoffs. (“Bayou Blowhards”). Or the Lame-Duck Congress! Maybe the nation would get engaged if it could see the behind-the-scenes story of the appropriations process (“Fiscal Cliffhangers”) or the day-to-day achievements of the House of Representatives (“Name That Post Office.”)

All the world’s a stage.

Nocera and Collins

November 8, 2014

In “Big Money Wins Again in a Romp” Mr. Nocera says the $4 billion spent to influence the outcome of the midterms isn’t as big a problem as the post-election purpose of that spending.  Ms. Collins tells us that “Republicans ♥ Pipeline,” and that for the next Congress, the Keystone pipeline gets voted most likely to succeed.  It’ll be interesting to see who howls the loudest when the sumbitch leaks all over farmland…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Two days after the midterm elections, I met up with a man named Ira Glasser, the former longtime head of the American Civil Liberties Union. For days, the media had been full of news about the enormous sums of money likely to be spent by special-interest groups and others to influence the outcome of Senate races, House races, gubernatorial races — even judicial races. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which issued a report just days before the midterms, nearly $4 billion was expected to be spent, in toto, on the midterms. Glasser had no problem with any of this.

As you would expect of someone who once ran the A.C.L.U. — he retired in 2001 — Glasser is a First Amendment absolutist. And to him, that means that he supports the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling on Citizens United because he believes virtually all campaign finance laws violate the First Amendment.

“So money equals speech?” I asked. No, he said. “But nobody speaks very effectively without money. If you limit how much you spend on speech, you are also limiting speech.”

As Glasser talked, I kept finding myself circling back to the same question: But what about what happens after the election? It is not the spending itself that is the problem, but rather the purpose of that spending.

Big contributors want something for their money. At its most benign, they want access, the ability to have their side heard whenever there is the possibility that legislation might affect their industry. Far less benignly, they want more — they want to know that their bidding will be done.

It can be subtle, this influence. “Maybe it’s the amendment that does not get introduced in committee because the congressman knows that it is not in sync with the desires of his money patrons,” said Representative. John Sarbanes, Democrat of Maryland, who has focused much of his legislative effort on campaign finance reform. “The donation is lingering somewhere in the atmosphere. It’s human nature.”

Of course it can be not so subtle, too. “On any given Wednesday night in Washington,” says Nick Penniman, the executive director of Issue One, which is dedicated to reducing the influence of money in politics, “you’ll have a member of, say, the finance committee, standing in the board room of a lobbyist’s office, surrounded by bank lobbyists. At some point, someone will hand a staffer an envelope with the checks in it, and the congressman will have raised $100,000 in 45 minutes. And they know exactly who was responsible for putting it together, and whose phone calls therefore need to be returned.”

Penniman makes a distinction between “ideological givers” — donors like the Koch brothers, motivated by the chance to get like-minded people elected — and “transactional givers,” those who donate because they expect something concrete in return. “These are folks who give just as generously to both sides of the aisle.” Sarbanes agreed: “Big money wins regardless of which party wins the election.”

“In fact,” he added, “the more money that is spent, the greater the dependence that is created.”

There are two other reasons big money is corrosive to our politics. One is that the need to raise money has become close to all-consuming. The current issue of Esquire magazine — which has a nifty package of articles about what is wrong with Congress and some suggestions for how various problems might be fixed — quotes Donna Edwards, Democrat of Maryland: “It’s a never-ending hustle. You get elected to this august body to fix problems, and for the privilege, you find yourself on the phone in a cubicle, dialing for dollars.”

The retiring Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, has said that he believes that the constant need to raise money means that “you don’t have the time for the kind of personal relationships that so many of us built up over time.” When people don’t know each other, it is a lot easier to think the worst of them. Polarization is the result.

Finally, there is the effect of big money on the rest of us. The public, Sarbanes believes, knows full well the insidious influence of money in politics. “The rational voter will say to himself, why should I bother voting if the person I’m voting for is a captive of special interests,” he said. “As a result, people are staying at home.”

And how does Ira Glasser react to these tales of corruption? He doesn’t deny them. “Of course there is corruption,” he says. “Of course there is undue influence of money.” But he doesn’t believe that those problems are as great as they are made out to be, or that they trump his First Amendment concerns. “The question is whether the remedy does more harm than good and violates the constitution,” he says.

Me, I’m not convinced. Are you?

Not in the least.  Here’s Ms. Collins:

The Keystone XL oil pipeline is so popular! Ever since the Republicans won control of the Senate, it’s become the Taylor Swift of political issues.

“We can act on the Keystone pipeline,” said the House speaker, John Boehner, as he launched into his description of the next Congress. The House, which believes strongly in the power of repetition, has already passed a bill authorizing construction of the final phase of the pipeline eight times.

It was also the first thing the future Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, mentioned in his postelection press conference. “When you say energy these days, people think of the Keystone pipeline, but that’s only part of it,” he said. You have to wonder who he’s been hanging around with, since many Americans are actually capable of thinking about energy for quite a long period of time without ever landing on “pipeline from Canada to Nebraska.”

McConnell then went on to describe an energy agenda in which the only specific item he mentioned was you-know-what. (“I mean, the employment figures connected with Keystone are stunning if we would just get going.”)

Actually, employment figures are not that stunning. There’d be a few thousand workers necessary to build it, but if we want construction jobs, we’ve got a ton of roads and bridges that need repair.  “Keystone is certainly overhyped as a job creator, mostly because the vast majority of jobs are temporary,” said Tim Boersma of the Brookings Institution.

It’s hard to figure where all the enthusiasm comes from. The Keystone XL would carry oil from the tar sands of Canada to Nebraska, where it would hook up with an existing pipeline to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. Environmentalists hate it because oil from the tar sands expels more carbon into the atmosphere. If the pipeline isn’t built, the oil will still get to the refineries by train, but at least we wouldn’t appear to be encouraging the energy industry to drill the worst stuff possible.

The only people who would seem to have an intense practical interest in which way this plays out would be Nebraskans who will have to live with the pipeline, and the people who control the tar sands land in Canada. That group happens to include the famous campaign-contributing Koch brothers.

So, question answered.

Keystone opponents were heartened Tuesday by the defeat of Representative Lee Terry, a veteran Omaha Republican and staunch Keystone defender. Some Nebraskans are worried the pipeline would create spills that would threaten the water supply. “When you start to mess with Nebraska water, you definitely have a fight on your hands,” said Jane Kleeb of Bold Nebraska, an anti-pipeline group.

Terry was one of only three Republican members of Congress who lost on Tuesday, so defeating him was quite a coup. Although he was the Nebraska Republicans’ weakest link. During the government shutdown, Terry made news when he dismissed proposals that members of Congress forgo their salaries for the duration of the crisis. (“I’ve got a nice house and a kid in college, and I’ll tell you we cannot handle it.”) Also, some voters disliked Terry’s campaign ads, which linked his opponent to everything from terrorist beheadings to the parole of a serial killer named Nikko Jenkins. And then there was the last-minute surprise that came when Nikko Jenkins announced in court that he was endorsing Lee Terry.

But about the pipeline.

If the Keystone project came up for a vote in the new Senate, it would probably draw enough Democratic support to hit the magic number of 60. Then it would be up to President Obama, who is constantly being criticized by Republicans for standing between America and a jobs-rich energy boom. This would be the same president who’s opened up massive new areas for oil exploration, increased the sale of leases for drilling on federal land and cut back on the processing time for drilling permits.

Story of Obama’s life. He trots down the center, irritating his base, while Republicans scream at him for failing to do something that he’s actually been doing all along.

In the end it’s completely up to the president. But the story is really about the Republicans. They’re about to take over Congress and show us how they can govern. So the first thing they’re going to do is hand a windfall to the energy interests that shoveled nearly $60 million into their campaigns? Terrific.

Let them prove they’re better than that. There’s a nice bipartisan energy efficiency bill that’s been sitting in limbo in the Senate. It would help manufacturers reduce energy costs, promote model building codes and do a bunch of other useful things. If the Republicans would forget about posturing for their campaign contributors, drop Keystone and pass the energy efficiency bill instead, it really would be a new day.

We’d all be incredibly impressed. Honest.

Blow, Cohen, Kristof and Collins

November 6, 2014

In “Looking Back, Looking Forward” Mr. Blow says now Republicans must demonstrate that they are capable of solutions, and not just sullenness. They have to pass actual legislation.  Which means President Obama had better get out the veto pen…  Mr. Cohen, in “The Bear Turns,” says the West needs a new policy to resist, restrain and retain Russia.  Yes, Mr. Cohen, by all means let’s resurrect the Cold War.  That was such fun.  Mr. Kristof considers “America’s Broken Politics” and says we painlessly inherited democracy, but by allowing political dysfunction to set in, we’ve botched it.  Ms. Collins says we should “Always Look on the Bright Side,” and that there are some positive ways to interpret the midterms. You just have to look for them.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The Republicans proved Tuesday that the establishment still knows how to win.

They fielded stronger candidates. They had few gaffes and little going off script. Extreme views were couched in softer language or played down altogether.

Candidates adopted a faux rustic aura, like a strip mall Olive Garden. The campaigns were savvy in their simplicity: anti-Obama, anti-Washington. Republicans damaged the Obama brand as best they could, then attached all Democratic candidates to it.

As the Weekly Standard reported last week:

“According to Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG), Republicans ran nearly 12,000 anti-Obamacare ads in Senate races during the week of October 13-19. That’s almost twice as many ads as they ran on jobs/unemployment, more than twice as many as they ran on international affairs, and more than three times as many as they ran on taxes. In fact, it’s more than they ran on jobs/unemployment, taxes, and social issues combined. It’s also more than they ran on jobs/unemployment and immigration combined.”

Over the same period, but to a far lesser degree, Democrats focused more on issues like education, Social Security, prescription drugs and social issues.

And outside money played a large part in it. As Nicholas Confessore reported in The New York Times, “All told, Republican outside groups spent about $205 million on television advertising, according to a Democrat tracking media purchases, while Democratic groups spent $132 million,” and “the political network overseen by the conservative billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch appeared to be the largest overall source of outside television spending on behalf of Republicans.”

The nearly dimwitted, Goober-esque affectations came together with an ocean of dark money in a midterm where the map and the math already favored them to give Democrats a drubbing.

It didn’t help that the Republican strategy pushed Democrats so far back on their heels that they never found enough footing to trumpet their own successes. Many were so busy running away from an association with the president that they never got around to running on Democratic principle.

This was a huge mistake. When someone from your party occupies the White House, you are shackled to them no matter what you say. Better to move together than chop off your own leg trying to free yourself.

Now the president has to determine if there is common ground to be found with a newly ascendant Republican legislature, and Republicans have to determine if they want to squander their victory on vengeance and if they can quash their own internal civil war.

One could certainly make the argument that the president, with an eye toward legacy and posterity, would want to find some areas of compromise, possibly on tax and energy policies. Part of a presidency is judged by which major bills are passed during it, and the present obstructionist do-nothing Congress has certainly hampered the Obama presidency in that respect.

Taking the next few months, before the 2016 presidential race truly sucks all the air out of Washington, to make some headway might be good for him.

However, during a news conference on Wednesday, the president was not contrite or cowed. He presented as a man hopeful for a little compromise but bracing for a lot of fighting. He didn’t tuck his tail as much as bare his fangs.

This defiant stance could actually stiffen the spines of some staunch progressives who are already looking at a list of promises by Obama, only about half of which have been kept in full, according to PolitiFact (some compromises were made and some efforts were simply blocked), and feeling some commingling of betrayal, buyer’s remorse and battle fatigue.

There may even be a compromise to be had on immigration. The president reiterated Wednesday that he would issue an executive order first but, if Congress could pass comprehensive legislation afterward, the order would be supplanted.

On the Republican side, they have a conundrum. As the saying goes: “Be careful what you set your heart upon — for it will surely be yours.”

Republicans ran against Washington, but now they are Washington. Now that they control both houses of Congress, they must demonstrate that they are capable of solutions, and not just sullenness. They have to pass actual legislation and not just demonstration bills that the president will be sure to veto.

Obama has vetoed only two bills in six years. That’s the fewest since James Garfield, who held the office for only 200 days. Obama’s pen has plenty of ink, and I’m sure he’s itching to use it.

The American people, for their part, are eager to have their faith reaffirmed that Washington is not irreparably broken and that our politicians aren’t implacably insolent.

There is only a small window for politicians in Washington to provide some proof.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

For close to a quarter-century there was a basic assumption in the West about Russia: It would, with zigzags and pauses, after huffs and hesitations, gradually integrate with the Western world. Whatever the misgivings in Moscow about the expansion of NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union, this appeared to be the course set in the Kremlin, more energetically by Dmitri Medvedev, but even by earlier incarnations of Vladimir Putin.

From Berlin to Washington, the idea was that interdependence would grow. Russian membership (now suspended) in the Group of Eight leading industrialized countries was an important sign of the direction set. Modernity would do its work, breeding openness and connectedness. Autocracy and crony capitalism would yield over time (maybe even a long time, but still) to more representative government in Moscow and law-based markets.

This view of Russia, it is now clear, was wrong. Putin has decided on another course. He has opted for confrontation with the West as the basis for Russian development and the consolidation of his own power. Perhaps it was the street protests in Moscow of late 2011. Perhaps it was a perception of Western perfidy in Libya earlier that year. Perhaps it was some inkling about a moment of American weakness. Perhaps it really was the upheaval in Ukraine. Perhaps it was simply his inner K.G.B. officer rising to the surface as the years advanced.

In the end the reasons are secondary to the reality, which is that Putin has changed direction, igniting a wave of Russian nationalism. This is perhaps the greatest strategic volte-face of the 21st century, with huge and as yet scarcely digested implications. It is Putin who has pivoted to Asia, far more than President Obama, as Russia’s $400 billion gas deal with China this year suggests. He has lost interest in the West as the magnet of Russian development, portraying it rather as the flawed and predatory civilization against which a new Russia can define itself.

Did the West lose Russia? Certainly more could have been done to reassure Moscow and knit the fabric of interdependence closer. The Cold War’s peaceful end was, after all, the work of Mikhail Gorbachev, as much as anyone’s; the ending did not have to yield a stark narrative of winner and loser, much less Western triumphalism.

But the attempt at outreach to Russia from Washington and European capitals was real. Putin’s talk of Russian encirclement is baloney. The expansion of NATO was, on balance, a wise call, laying the basis for freedom and rapid development from Poland to the Baltics, as well as paying a Western debt to abandoned and imprisoned Central Europeans that dated from Yalta. Nothing is more certain than that, absent NATO membership, events in Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia would have borne a striking resemblance to those in Georgia and Ukraine in recent years. Putin’s Russia would have bitten back in any Baltic no man’s land. Poland would not be the little miracle of development it is today without its anchor in the Western alliance.

The past, in any event, is gone. What matters now is determining how to deal with the new Russia. Karl Kaiser, an adjunct professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, told me that in recent meetings with Russian foreign policy experts one of the most striking things was their conviction that Western economic sanctions against Moscow for the annexation of Crimea could be a useful stimulus to a more autarchic model of development that would work well for Russia. “It’s actually quite scary,” he said.

In Washington, the mood is one of exasperation. Resets with Russia: been there, done that. In Europe, where Germany played a pivotal role in the imposition of sanctions, the mood is rather different. European trade with Russia dwarfs that of the United States. Russia is a critical supplier of energy. At a deeper level, most Europeans feel long-term security on the Continent can only be assured with Russia, rather than against it. If “limited conflict” with the West, as one senior German diplomat put it to me, is now Putin’s preferred approach, how is that to be managed? Germany is in the midst of an in-depth foreign policy review to be concluded early next year. Answering that question must be one of its priorities.

The Russian annexation of Crimea was an outrage, and Putin’s stirring-up of a bloody little war in eastern Ukraine an act of boundless cynicism. The danger now is that his anti-Western turn could spill over into arms control issues. The last thing the world needs is a new Russian-American arms race.

This is not a second Cold War. It is the end of a Western illusion. Cooperation is still possible; there are signs of Russian helpfulness on Iran. But Europe and the United States have not yet framed a policy that at once resists, restrains and retains Russia. It must, for the new reality is combustible.

And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

Let’s face it: The American political system is broken.

The midterm elections were a stinging repudiation of President Obama, but Republicans should also feel chastened: A poll last year found Congress less popular than cockroaches.

So congratulations to those members celebrating election victories. But our democratic institutions are in trouble when they can’t outpoll cockroaches. Which didn’t even campaign.

“Politics is the noblest of professions,” President Eisenhower said in 1954, and politics in the past often seemed a bright path toward improving our country. President Clinton represented a generation that regarded politics as a tool to craft a better world, and President Obama himself mobilized young voters with his gauzy message of hope. He presented himself as the politician who could break Washington’s gridlock and get things done — and we’ve seen how well that worked.

I’m in the middle of a book tour now, visiting universities and hearing students speak about yearning to make a difference. But they are turning not to politics as their lever but to social enterprise, to nonprofits, to advocacy, to business. They see that Wendy Kopp, who founded Teach for America in her dorm room at Princeton University, has had more impact on the education system than any current senator, and many have given up on political paths to change.

A national exit poll conducted by Edison Research found that a majority of voters disapproved of Republicans and Democrats alike, and only 20 percent trust Washington to do what’s right most or all the time.

President Obama is licking his wounds in the White House, and he doesn’t seem to accept that the election is a judgment on his presidency. I’m sorry. When Democrats lose in Colorado and struggle in Virginia, when voters say they’re sending a message to the White House, it’s time for Obama to shake up his staff, reach out beyond his insular circle of longtime aides, and recalibrate.

Critics are right that he should try harder to schmooze with legislators, although I’m skeptical that Republicans are that charmable. After all, some polls have shown more than a third in the Republican Party said he was born abroad and about one-fifth suspected that he could be the antichrist.

Yet it’s not just Obama who is looking ragged today. The entire political system is. Political scientists Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal have charted the attitudes of the political parties back to 1879, and they found party polarization in recent years to be greater than at any time since their charts began.

That’s partly because Democrats have become more liberal, but mostly because Republicans have become more conservative — indeed, more conservative than at any time since 1879.

Politicians have also figured out what works for their own careers: playing to their base, denouncing the other side, and blocking rivals from getting credit for anything. Since many politicians are more vulnerable in a primary than in a general election, there’s not much incentive for compromise.

After Obama took office, Republicans assiduously tried to block him, even shutting down the federal government. Republican governors prevented their own citizens from getting health insurance through federally financed Medicaid. I see that as obstructionism, but it paid off in these midterms.

Bravo to Obama’s comments Wednesday about trying to cooperate with Republicans on issues including early education. But I’m not holding my breath. Incentives today militate against bipartisan cooperation, and that’s one reason the current Congress is on track to be the least productive in the post-World War II era.

(Maybe we taxpayers could save money by paying members of Congress not by salary but by the piece, so much for each enacted law?)

One bright spot in the midterms was voter action on ballot measures. They did actually break the gridlock. Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia legalized marijuana in some situations. Five states supported an increase in the minimum wage. Washington State approved universal background checks for gun purchases. California reduced prison sentences.

So even if politicians are stalemated, voters managed to get things done. Yet we also get the national government we deserve, and that’s an indictment of all of us.

I find America’s political dysfunction particularly sad because I’ve spent much of my journalistic career covering people risking their lives for democracy, and sometimes dying for it — from Taiwan to Ukraine, Congo to South Korea. It was 25 years ago that I saw people massacred near Tiananmen Square for demanding political change. They risked their lives because they dreamed that democracy would improve their lives and give them greater freedom and dignity.

For those of us in the United States it was easy. We painlessly inherited democracy, yet I’m afraid we’ve botched it.

And last but not least here’s Ms. Collins:

Our topic for today is: looking on the post-election bright side.

The polling places hadn’t even opened before the Senate’s right-wing firebrand, Ted Cruz, was demanding that the majority-leader in-waiting, Mitch McConnell, take a hard line against President Obama or risk losing his new job. Cruz is from Texas, and he wants to recreate the Alamo, if you can imagine Obamacare in disguise as the Mexican Army.

Think of that as a plus. The one thing McConnell and his supporters dislike more than the Democratic agenda is Ted Cruz. It could be an important bonding opportunity. President Obama has never spent much time with the Republican leadership, but now you can sort of imagine them sitting around, sipping drinks and making fun of what Cruz said on Fox News.

Another potential downer: Republicans have fewer veteran women in the Senate, so when they take over there will be fewer women running important committees. But, on the plus side, the overall number of women in Congress will rise, albeit at a rate that would get us to equal representation sometime around 2078. Once all the votes are counted, Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, says the percentage of women in the House and Senate, now 18.2 percent, will, at best, go up to “maybe 19.3” percent.

“We’re calling it Not a Landmark Year,” Walsh said.

This could be a useful exercise in living with lowered expectations. Washington might actually want to embrace “Not a Landmark Year” as a slogan. If Ted Cruz tries to get the House Republicans to run the country off a fiscal cliff, the moderates could start chanting: “NALY! NALY!”

Let’s try one more positive interpretation of what the election has wrought: There’s a school of thought that believes Tuesday was actually a great day for reproductive rights. Let me take you through it.

The front lines of the anti-abortion movement belong to the “personhood” people, who strive to give constitutional rights and protections to the “preborn” from the moment of conception. When Americans are confronted with this idea, they quickly come to hate it. Personhood amendments have been defeated wherever they pop up, including Mississippi. This year, one was rejected in Colorado for the third time, by around 65 percent to 35 percent. A personhood amendment lost in North Dakota, 64 percent to 36 percent. In addition, the state senator who was its major sponsor lost her re-election bid, as did one of the measure’s more outspoken House supporters.

We are only mentioning those last details because the number of state legislators who are defeated for re-election in this country is about as low as the number of state legislators who are endowed with the power of levitation.

This year, not only were the personhood proposals rejected, candidates who had previously supported the movement started madly backing away. The most famous example was in Colorado, where Representative Cory Gardner, the Republican Senate candidate, suddenly realized a state personhood amendment was a “bad idea.” In a move that left debate questioners incredulous, Gardner insisted that a personhood bill he had co-sponsored in Congress would have no effect, but was “simply a statement that I support life.”

Gardner also announced that he believed birth control pills should be available over the counter. He made a TV ad about it and sent out pink mailings.

Gardner’s turnaround was so swift and strange that the incumbent senator, Mark Udall, made it the center of his campaign. A Denver Post editorial claimed it was Udall’s “obnoxious” obsession. Now to me, obnoxious is a candidate who steals his opponent’s yard signs. Or who opposes abortions except for the one he pressured his mistress to get, like that guy in Tennessee. But whatever. Udall lost.

Planned Parenthood sent out a press release describing Colorado as an absolute triumph: “Voters have made clear that you can’t win statewide elections in Colorado by openly opposing women’s health and restricting access to safe and legal abortion.”

The theory here — and I am really going to go with it — is that the real story is not anti-choice Republicans weaseling around their political history, but voters of America forcing anti-choice candidates to change their positions.

“Cory Gardner ran aggressively as a supporter of women’s issues. It was sort of a miraculous conversion. We’ll be happy to hold him to it,” said Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, in a phone interview.

The question is what happens when people like Gardner get into office. McConnell promised that he’d bring up a bill in the Senate banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Would the repentant personhood backers go along? At the very least, they would appear to be obliged to add language vastly expanding women’s access to free birth control.

O.K., it’s not an ideal compromise. But then it’s not a landmark year.

Nocera and Collins

November 1, 2014

Mr. Nocera is unsure.  Mr. Nocera is uncertain.  In “The Guantánamo Tapes” Mr. Nocera is still asking:  Does force-feeding detainees amount to torture?  Gee, Joey, why don’t you volunteer to be fed that way for a week or six and then get back to us with your answer.  Asshole.  Ms. Collins presents us with her “Election Day Pop Quiz.”  Are you ready for the midterms? It’s time to test your political smarts.  Here’s Mr. Dithers Nocera:

Jihad Ahmed Mujstafa Diyab is a Syrian man who has been a detainee at the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, since 2002. In 2009, the Guantánamo Review Task Force ruled that he was not a threat to national security and could be released. Yet here we are five years later, and Diyab is still imprisoned at Guantánamo, having never been tried, or even accused of a crime, and with no idea when — or if — he’ll ever get out. Last year, to protest their continued confinement, he and many other detainees began a hunger strike. Most of the detainees have since given up their hunger strikes. Diyab, however, has never completely stopped his.

One reason many detainees abandoned their hunger strikes is because, twice a day, the government used what is called “enteral feeding” to ensure that they were getting nutrients. A more common term is force-feeding. The ordeal begins with something called “forced cell extraction,” which one of Diyab’s lawyers, Jon Eisenberg, described to me as “a highly orchestrated procedure.”

“A five-man riot squad in complete armor pins the guy to the floor, shackles him, and carries him out,” Eisenberg says. Then the detainee is strapped into a restraint chair — which the prisoners have dubbed the “torture chair.” One soldier holds the detainee’s head, while another feeds a tube into his nose and down to his stomach. It is very painful to endure.

Last year, I wrote several columns about force-feeding, asking whether it could be classified as torture. At the time, I didn’t think there would ever be a way to test that premise in an American court. The federal judge who seemed most sympathetic to the detainees’ plight, Gladys Kessler, had concluded that she simply lacked the authority to rule on the conditions of their confinement, based on a 2006 law intended to prevent the prisoners from petitioning the judiciary and challenging their detention.

Lo and behold, Judge Kessler turned out to be wrong. Earlier this year, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled, 2 to 1, that she did have jurisdiction. There are strict medical protocols for force-feeding hospital patients or prisoners. If the military violated those protocols — especially if detainees were force-fed in an abusive, punitive manner — then she could order them to stop.

Thus began eight months of legal wrangling between Diyab’s lawyers and the government that culminated in a three-day hearing that took place earlier this month. Though no one put it like this, its purpose, at least in part, was to decide whether the military’s methods for force-feeding detainees was a form of torture.

One of those who testified on Diyab’s behalf, Steven Miles, a professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota, said it’s not even a close call. He was first horrified to discover that the government had been lubricating the tube with olive oil instead of a water-soluble lubricant. “When you pass the tube, some of the lubricant can drop into the lungs,” he said. Olive oil in the lungs can cause an inflammatory reaction called lipoid pneumonia. (The government says it stopped using olive oil as a lubricant over the summer.)

After listing a half-dozen other ways the government’s force-feeding violated medical protocols, he concluded: “They turned it from a medical procedure to a penal strategy dressed up to look like a medical procedure. The procedures look nothing like medicine.”

Kessler has not yet issued her ruling, but, in the meantime, another aspect of the case has taken center stage. It turns out that the government has videotapes of Diyab enduring the forced cell extraction and the force-feeding. With some prodding from Kessler, the government was forced to allow the defense to see the videotapes.

On Oct. 8, the last day of the hearing, in a closed courtroom, both Diyab’s lawyers and the government’s lawyers played portions of the tapes, putting them into evidence. When I asked the lawyers what they saw, they told me they were not allowed to say — because the tapes are still classified.

But 16 news media outlets, including The New York Times, have petitioned the court and asked Kessler to allow the public to see the videos. In a ruling she handed down in early October, she agreed that they should be made public. But she then stayed her ruling to give the government time to decide whether to appeal it.

Diyab himself has made it clear that he would like the tapes to be seen by the public. “I want Americans to see what is going on at the prison today,” he said, according to Kessler’s ruling, “so they will understand why we are hunger-striking and why the prison should be closed.”

With any luck, the day may soon be here when we can finally decide for ourselves whether the force-feeding of Guantánamo detainees amounts to torture.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

1.  In Arizona, Scott Fistler will not be on the ballot. He was thrown out of the race for the Democratic congressional nomination in a largely Hispanic district after he employed the innovative technique of:

  • A) Claiming that he spent much of his young adulthood castrating goats.

  • B) Appearing in a campaign ad with his pet python.

  • C) Legally changing his name to Cesar Chavez.

  • D) Attempting to establish his district residency at a local Starbucks.

2.  And Eric Cantor is not on the ballot! After a stunning primary defeat, the House majority leader resigned from Congress in order to serve his country in a new way as an:

  • A) Anti-poverty worker in an Appalachian food bank.

  • B) Assistant principal in a high school for troubled teenagers.

  • C) Volunteer in a West African Ebola clinic.

  • D) Strategic adviser to an investment banking firm.

3.  Republicans who oppose abortion rights have had some success in deflecting the issue by announcing that they favor allowing birth control pills to be sold over the counter. Trying to follow the new script during a debate, Representative Mike Coffman of Colorado got into a bit of trouble when he:

  • A) Couldn’t remember the words “birth control.”

  • B) Claimed he shouldn’t be held responsible for “girl stuff.”

  • C) Suggested the questioner “take it up with my wife.”

  • D) Said he missed the days when campaign issues were “just about wars and money.”

4.  A number of congressional candidates are reality-show stars. Which of the following is not among them:

  • A) The former “Bachelorette” now seeking happiness in Oklahoma politics.

  • B) The former South Carolina state treasurer who appeared on “Southern Charm,” in which he got one of his co-stars pregnant during the first season.

  • C) The 87-year-old former governor of Louisiana who starred in “The Governor’s Wife,” with his own spouse, who is 51 years younger and became pregnant during the first season.

  • D) The “American Idol” runner-up in North Carolina.

5.  Male invitees to an event for the Florida congressman Steve Southerland were told to “tell the misses not to wait up because the after-dinner whiskey and cigars will be smooth & the issues to discuss are many.” When his opponent, Gwen Graham, criticized him, Southerland asked:

  • A) “Would you like to hear my thoughts about Obamacare?”

  • B) “Has Gwen Graham ever been to a lingerie shower?”

  • C) “Have I mentioned my idea about selling birth control over the counter?”

  • D) “Did you know I’m going to be competing next year on ‘Big Brother?’ ”

6.  Citizens in some states will be deciding interesting ballot questions. Alabamians, for instance, will vote on:

  • A) Whether to ban the sale of alcohol and whether to surround the entire state with an electric fence.

  • B) Whether to ban the use of Shariah law and whether to establish a constitutional right to hunt.

  • C) Whether to establish a state holiday honoring the birthday of native son Jim Nabors.

  • D) Whether to change the official state freshwater fish from the largemouth bass to the smallmouth bass.

7.  In the Iowa Senate race, the Democrat Bruce Braley is having an unexpectedly tough time. Which of the following did he not do:

  • A) Get quoted during the government shutdown complaining about the lack of towel service in the congressional gym.

  • B) Get caught on tape warning a group of trial lawyers that if Democrats don’t keep control of the Senate, the Judiciary Committee would be run by “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.”

  • C) Brag that he grew up castrating llamas.

  • D) Get into a fight with a neighbor over the wandering habits of her hens, which turned out to be “therapy chickens” used to calm troubled children.

8.  In Florida, the College Republican National Committee has an ad aimed at young women, in which:

  • A) Mothers-to-be discuss which candidate for governor would provide better early childhood education.

  • B) A graduate student tells her friends what Gov. Rick Scott has done to combat global warming.

  • C) An announcer explains how Gov. Rick Scott has created job opportunities.

  • D) A bride-to-be tries to decide whether to buy a wedding dress named Rick Scott or one named Charlie Crist. (“The Rick Scott is perfect.”)

 

I got 7 out of 8 correct.  Here’s the answer key:  1C, 2D, 3A, 4A (I missed this one), 5B, 6B, 7C, and 8D.  (I’ll confess that I hoped I was wrong about #8, but alas it’s Florida so I went for the weaponized stupid…)

Blow and Collins

October 30, 2014

In “The Ebola Hysteria” Mr. Blow says that amid the nonsense, paladins heeding the clarion call to help treat Ebola abroad are being treated like lepers when they return.  Ms. Collins has questions today in “A Political Crystal Ball:”  What if Republicans become the majority in the Senate after the election next week? Would anything really change much?  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The absolute hysteria surrounding the Ebola crisis underscores what is wrong with our politics and the policies they spawn.

On Ebola, the possible has overtaken the probable, gobbling it up in a high-anxiety, low-information frenzy of frayed nerves and Purell-ed hands.

There have been nine cases of Ebola in this country. All but one, a Liberian immigrant, is alive.

We aren’t battling a virus in this country as much as a mania, one whipped up by reactionary politicians and irresponsible media. We should be following the science in responding to the threat, but instead we are being led by silliness. And that comes at heavy cost.

The best way to prevent Ebola from becoming a pandemic is to stop it at its source — in West Africa, where the disease is truly exacting a heavy toll with thousands dead and thousands more infected. But the countries in that region can’t do it alone. They need help. The president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, said on Tuesday, “We’ll need a steady state of at least 5,000 health workers from outside the region” to fight Ebola in West Africa. That means health care workers from other countries, including ours.

Many of our health care workers are heroically heeding the clarion call. They are volunteering to head into harm’s way, to put their own lives on the line to save others and to prevent the disease from spreading further. But upon returning to this country some now risk “mandatory quarantine” even if they test negative for the disease and are asymptomatic. (Ebola can be spread only when a patient expresses symptoms.)

The public face of the affront to basic science, civil liberties and displays of valor has become the nurse Kaci Hickox. She accepted an assignment with Doctors Without Borders in Ebola-plagued Sierra Leone. But upon returning to the United States, she was quarantined in a plastic tent in a Newark hospital even after testing negative for the virus. She has been transferred to Maine, but there is a state trooper stationed outside the house where she’s staying.

Hickox is a paladin being treated like a leper.

As Hickox wrote in the Dallas Morning News:

“I had spent a month watching children die, alone. I had witnessed human tragedy unfold before my eyes. I had tried to help when much of the world has looked on and done nothing.”

It would be bad enough if there were just a momentary inconvenience or a legally contestable rights infringement. But it may be more than that. It could deter other health care workers like Hickox from volunteering in the first place.

In other words, irrational governors, like Chris Christie of New Jersey, taking ill-advised steps to control the spread of the disease on a local level could help it to spread on a global one.

That is in part why overly aggressive state-level restrictions have been roundly condemned.

A spokesman for the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said this week:

“Returning health workers are exceptional people who are giving of themselves for humanity. They should not be subjected to restrictions that are not based on science. Those who develop infections should be supported, not stigmatized.”

But stigma feels right as rain for some folks.

When Dr. Kent Brantly, a missionary caring for Ebola patients in Liberia, became the first known American Ebola patient, Ann Coulter called him “idiotic” and chastised him for the “Christian narcissism” of deigning to help people in “disease-ridden cesspools” rather than, say, turning “one single Hollywood power-broker to Christ,” which would apparently “have done more good for the entire world than anything he could accomplish in a century spent in Liberia.”

Oh, the irony of Coulter using this flummery to blast Brantly as idiotic.

This that’s-their-problem-we-have-our-own reasoning is foolish and illogical. It somehow neglects the reality that oceans are not perfect buffers and that viruses, unchecked, will find a way to cross them.

And it reveals a certain international elitism that is not only disturbing but dangerous.

As the World Health Organization’s director general, Dr. Margaret Chan, recently pointed out: “The outbreak spotlights the dangers of the world’s growing social and economic inequalities. The rich get the best care. The poor are left to die.”

Chan also pointed out that there is no vaccine or cure for Ebola — some 40 years after it emerged — in part because “Ebola has been, historically, geographically confined to poor African nations.”

Ebola, like many other diseases, preys on the poor — poor countries and poor populations.

And, on the domestic front, it must not go unmentioned that elections are fast approaching and that politicians are acting — directly or not — out of political self-interest.

In that way, the federal response to Ebola becomes just another opportunity to argue that the federal government is ineffectual, incompetent and out of its depth, particularly under this president. And, in an election year, appearing to be more aggressive than the federal government, while riding a wave of fear, is appealing.

According to a report issued last week by the Pew Research Center, a sizable minority is concerned that Ebola will affect their families. The poll found that “41 percent are worried that they themselves or someone in their family will be exposed to the virus, including 17 percent who say they are very worried.”

Fear has become — and to some degree, has always been — a highly exploitable commodity in the political and media marketplaces. Both profit from public anxiety.

Christie, working feverishly to erase the memories of closed bridges and burned ones, has become the face of the politicians with hard head and heavy hands seeking hefty political reward from leveraging that fear.

He says his quarantine policy is just “common sense.” That’s just nonsense.

And a bald faced political ploy.  Now here’s Ms. Collins:

By now, I’m sure you’re asking yourself: If the Republicans take control of the Senate in next week’s elections, what would it mean to me?

Excellent question!

“We’ll get things done, and it means a stop to the Obama agenda,” said the embattled Senator Pat Roberts, Republican of Kansas. Did you notice that “get things done” is immediately followed by “stop?” What do you think that means?

Well, we know that if the Republicans win the majority, all Senate committees would have Republican chairs. The Energy Committee, for instance, might be run by Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a moderate who is in the pocket of oil and gas lobbies. This would be a dramatic change from the current situation in which the Energy Committee is run by Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, a moderate who is in the pocket of oil and gas lobbies.

On a far more exciting note, the Environment Committee could wind up being led by James Inhofe, the author of “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.”

Under the Republicans, the Senate would be an extremely open body, in which the minority party would be permitted — nay, welcomed — to submit clever amendments designed to make the majority take difficult or embarrassing votes that could be used against them in the next election. The minority leader, Mitch McConnell, has complained about the Democrats’ heavy-handedness on this for years and will undoubtedly be eager to change things if he gets in control.

And what about substance? Republican voters would have every reason to expect that the first item on McConnell’s agenda would be repeal of Obamacare. But many Republican senators have positions on the Affordable Care Act that are nuanced in the extreme. Get rid of the program but keep the part about people with pre-existing conditions. Or the bit that lets young adults stay on their parents’ policies. McConnell himself has said that he wants to let his home state of Kentucky keep its extremely popular version of the program, which is known as Kynect. (“The website can continue, but in my view the best interests of the country would be achieved by pulling out Obamacare root and branch.”)

We look forward to seeing that legislation.

Cynical minds might presume that, with a Republican majority, the Senate would simply continue in its current state of dysfunction, working diligently on an agenda (defund Planned Parenthood, strangle the Environmental Protection Agency in its crib) that will die for lack of 60 votes. Democrats, meanwhile, would fall back in love with the filibuster.

Or maybe not. Some people believe that the Republicans would be eager to prove that they really, actually, genuinely can get things done and would work with the White House on matters of common interest, like tax reform.

“Tax reform” would probably mean lowering some rates and making up for the lost revenue by closing tax loopholes elsewhere. The House Ways and Means Committee did some work on that recently, and the committee chairman actually unveiled a plan. Then John Boehner made fun of him. The plan never came up for a vote. The chairman is retiring.

There are a few matters in which a Republican Senate majority would make a critical difference. One is the budget. This is stupendously important, but since we may have to spend the next two years discussing fiscal cliffs and the rules of reconciliation, it doesn’t seem fair to make us start early.

Also, there’s the matter of presidential nominations. “Two words: Supreme Court,” said Chuck Schumer, the third-ranking Senate Democrat. “If they have the majority, they have far more say over who’s the nominee.”

That could have an impact for decades to come. However, it presupposes that there will be a Supreme Court vacancy. On the plus side, the next two years will be a boom time for prayers for the good health of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Presuming the current justices continue in good form, the Republicans could still block other presidential nominations and we would have to get used to government by acting-heads-of. But that’s already pretty close to the norm. One Republican representative recently denounced President Obama for creating an Ebola czar instead of giving the job to the surgeon general, apparently unaware that we have had no surgeon general for more than a year, thanks to the National Rifle Association’s opposition to the administration’s nominee for the job.

Tracked down by The Huffington Post, Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah claimed he really did know the surgeon general’s post was vacant, and that anybody from the office could still do the Ebola job. “I know there’s some confusion there, but I don’t think I was confused,” he said stoutly.

See, Representative Jason Chaffetz is perfectly willing to live with an acting surgeon general. And maybe someone could talk Eric Holder into hanging around for a while longer.

Nocera and Collins

October 25, 2014

In “Carl Icahn’s Bad Advice” Mr. Nocera says Apple should reject an activist shareholder’s suggestion that the company buy back its own stock to raise its share price.  Ms. Collins, in “Once Again, Guns,” says two years after the Sandy Hook tragedy, the top gun-control priority in the United States is still background checks.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Why should Tim Cook care what Carl Icahn thinks?

Earlier this month, Icahn, the famed “activist shareholder,” sent a lengthy letter to the Apple chief executive, which he also posted on the blogging platform Tumblr, so that the rest of us could read it as well. Most of the time, when Icahn takes a stake in a company, it is because the company is having problems; his missives are usually less than pleasant.

But that hardly describes Apple, which continues to churn out record profits and hot products like the recent iPhone 6. According to his letter, Icahn’s investment firm, Icahn Enterprises, owns 53 million shares of the company’s stock. He opens with words of praise for the company and Cook (“you are the ideal C.E.O. for Apple”), and then lays out, at great length, his vision of how Apple will gain market share against its competitors.

There is just one problem, in Icahn’s view. Unlike Icahn, the market is not giving Apple its due; its stock, he writes, is massively undervalued. And how does Icahn propose that Apple solve this problem? By having the company buy back its own shares. Icahn estimates that Apple’s price should be at $203, a little more than double its current price around $100 — and a share repurchase program is the best way to get there. (When a company buys back its own stock, its earnings per share go up because fewer shares are in circulation.)

Icahn has been down this road before with Apple and Cook; indeed it has been something of a theme with him in recent years. A year ago, for instance, Icahn was agitating for a $150 billion buyback (which he later scaled back to $50 billion). He didn’t get it, but in April of this year, Cook and the Apple board approved a $30 billion buyback, which came on top of a $60 billion buyback the year before. Although Apple had more than $100 billion in cash reserves, most of that money was locked up overseas because Apple didn’t want to pay the taxes required to repatriate the money. So instead, it borrowed money to help finance its buybacks.

But to what end? Carl Icahn is hardly the sort of long-term investor who has the best interests of Apple at heart. As William Lazonick, an economist at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, put it in a recent blog post: Massive buybacks reward those “who have contributed the least to Apple’s products and profits.”

“Icahn,” he added, “has contributed absolutely nothing to Apple’s success.”

Lazonick is one of the biggest critics of buybacks in academia. Last month he published an article in Harvard Business Review, titled “Profits Without Prosperity,” in which he made the case that buybacks hurt not only the company that is buying back the stock, but also the country itself. Between 2003 and 2012, he noted, the 449 companies that were publicly listed in the S.&P. 500 index throughout that time spent 54 percent of their earnings buying back their own stock. That cost an astounding $2.4 trillion — money that could have been spent hiring workers or making capital investments.

And why have companies been so willing to buy back their own stock? Companies like to say they are buying their own stock to show faith in the company’s future. Lazonick shreds such justifications, pointing out, for instance, that companies tend to buy stock when it is high, not when it is low.

Rather, he says, the critical incentive for buybacks has been that chief executives are paid primarily in stock. Share buybacks may remove capital from the company, but when they raise the stock price, they enrich the boss.

“The very people we rely on to make investments in the productive capabilities that will increase our shared prosperity are instead devoting most of their companies’ profits to uses that will increase their own prosperity,” he writes.

As for Apple, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when John Sculley was chief executive, the company spent $1.8 billion buying back its own stock. That was money it could have really used when the company then stumbled and needed to issue junk bonds — and issue $150 million in convertible preferred stock to Microsoft — just to survive.

Things are different now, of course. Apple is the king of the hill. Which is why if any company ought to be able to give Carl Icahn the back of its hand, it should be Apple. It should be the one making decisions about how to deploy its capital, rather than bending to the wishes of an activist shareholder.

After Icahn’s letter to Cook was published, the company pointed out that between buybacks and dividends, the company was already in the midst of “the largest capital return program in corporate history.”

Enough already. Let’s hope Tim Cook stops caring what Carl Icahn thinks.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

There’s a TV ad that’s been running in Louisiana:

It’s evening and a mom is tucking in her baby. Getting a nice text from dad, who’s away on a trip. Then suddenly — dark shadow on a window. Somebody’s smashing the front door open! Next thing you know, there’s police tape around the house, blinking lights on emergency vehicles.

“It happens like that,” says a somber narrator. “The police can’t get there in time. How you defend yourself is up to you. It’s your choice. But Mary Landrieu voted to take away your gun rights. Vote like your safety depends on it. Defend your freedom. Defeat Mary Landrieu.”

Guns are a big issue in some of the hottest elections around the country this year, but there hasn’t been much national discussion about it. Perhaps we’ve been too busy worrying whether terrorists are infecting themselves with Ebola and sneaking across the Mexican border.

But now, as usual, we’re returning to the issue because of a terrible school shooting.

The latest — a high school freshman boy with a gun in the school’s cafeteria — occurred in the state of Washington, which also happens to be ground zero for the election-year gun debate. At least that’s the way the movement against gun violence sees it. There’s a voter initiative on the ballot that would require background checks for gun sales at gun shows or online. “We need to be laser focused on getting this policy passed,” said Brian Malte of the Brady Campaign.

Think about this. It’s really remarkable. Two years after the Sandy Hook tragedy, the top gun-control priority in the United States is still background checks. There is nothing controversial about the idea that people who buy guns should be screened to make sure they don’t have a criminal record or serious mental illness. Americans favor it by huge majorities. Even gun owners support it. Yet we’re still struggling with it.

The problem, of course, is the National Rifle Association, which does not actually represent gun owners nearly as ferociously as it represents gun sellers. The background check bill is on the ballot under voter initiative because the Washington State Legislature was too frightened of the N.R.A. to take it up. This in a state that managed to pass a right-to-die law, approve gay marriage and legalize the sale of marijuana.

The N.R.A. has worked hard to cultivate its reputation for terrifying implacability. Let’s return for a minute to Senator Mary Landrieu, who’s in a very tough re-election race. Last year, in the wake of Sandy Hook, she voted for a watered-down background check bill. It failed to get the requisite 60 votes in the Senate, but the N.R.A. is not forgetting.

Nor is it a fan of compromise. Landrieu has tried to straddle the middle on gun issues; she voted last year for the N.R.A.’s own top priority, a bill to create an enormous loophole in concealed weapons laws. As a reward, she got a “D” rating and the murdered-mom ad. In Colorado, the embattled Senator Mark Udall, who has a similar voting record, is getting the same treatment.

The N.R.A.’s vision of the world is purposefully dark and utterly irrational. It’s been running a series of what it regards as positive ads, which are so grim they do suggest that it’s time to grab a rifle and head for the bunker. In one, a mournful-looking woman asks whether there’s still anything worth fighting for in “a world that demands we submit, succumb, and believe in nothing.” It is, she continues, a world full of “cowards who pretend they don’t notice the elderly man fall …”

Now when was the last time you saw people ignore an elderly man who falls down? I live in what is supposed to be a hard-hearted city, but when an old person trips and hits the ground, there is a veritable stampede to get him upright.

The ad running against people like Landrieu makes no sense whatsoever. If that background-check bill had become law, the doomed mother would still have been able to buy a gun for protection unless she happened to be a convicted felon. And while we have many, many, many things to worry about these days, the prospect of an armed stranger breaking through the front door and murdering the family is not high on the list. Unless the intruder was actually a former abusive spouse or boyfriend, in which case a background check would have been extremely helpful in keeping him unarmed.

A shooting like the one in Washington State is so shocking that it seems almost improper to suggest that people respond by passing an extremely mild gun control measure. But there is a kind of moral balance. While we may not be able to stop these tragedies from happening, we can stop thinking of ourselves as a country that lets them happen and then does nothing.

Unless your worldview is as bleak as the N.R.A.’s, you have to believe we’re better than that.

Cohen, Kristof and Collins

October 23, 2014

In “Active Fatalism” Mr. Cohen says we We have heroism all wrong. He thinks we should consider Sisyphus happy: He has a task and it is his own.  In “How to Defeat Ebola” Mr. Kristof says to protect America from Ebola, we should ignore the hysteria and focus on stopping the outbreak at its source.  Ms. Collins, in “What Women Want,” says from personhood to motherhood, women’s issues dominate 2014 campaigns.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

A core problem with the modern world is that we have heroism all wrong. It is not just the conflation of heroes with celebrities as role models, giving rise to the endless magazine lists of ways to be more like Beyoncé. The more serious issue is how, in the rush to elevate the authors of exceptional acts, we forget the ordinary man and woman doing their often menial jobs day after day. I am less interested in the firefighter-hero and the soldier-hero (not to mention the hedge-fund honchos and other quick-killing merchants thrust into the contemporary pantheon) than I am in the myriad doers of everyday good who would shun the description heroic.

A few weeks back I was listening to remarks by the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble. The minister was the target of an assassination attempt in 1990 that left him partially paralyzed, confined to a wheelchair. He brought up Sisyphus, the Greek mythological figure whose devious attempt to defy the gods and even death itself was punished with his condemnation to the task of pushing a boulder up a hill, only for it to roll down again and oblige him to renew the effort through all eternity. No task, it would appear, better captures the meaningless futility of existence. But Schäuble suggested that Sisyphus is a happy man for “he has a task and it is his own.”

The phrase was arresting because the culture of today holds repetitive actions — like working on a production line in a factory — in such contempt. Hundreds of millions may do it, and take care of their families with what they earn, but they are mere specks of dust compared to the Silicon Valley inventor of the killer app or the lean global financiers adept in making money with money. Routine equals drudgery; the worker is a demeaned figure; youths are exhorted to live their dreams rather than make a living wage. Dreams are all very well but are not known to pay the mortgage.

Schäuble was echoing the French writer and philosopher, Albert Camus, who in his book “The Myth of Sisyphus” noted that “there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” In besieged Sarajevo during the Bosnian war of 1992-1995 the freest people in the encircled city were those who, every day, dressed impeccably, went to work and did their jobs, thereby demonstrating “inat,” or scorn, for the barbaric gunners in the hills. It was absurd to work, just as the existence of a European city cut off and surrounded by a dirt trench was absurd, but in the everyday duty fulfilled lay liberation of sorts. Similarly, the labor of Sisyphus may be the embodiment of the absurd, which is the human condition, but he is freed by his lucid knowledge and acceptance of his task. He keeps pushing even if the pushing appears to lead nowhere. Camus’ conclusion is that, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

In Camus’ book, “The Plague,” one of the most powerful moments comes in an exchange between the doctor at the center of the novel, Bernard Rieux, and a journalist named Raymond Rambert. Rieux has been battling the pestilence day after day, more often defeated than not. Rambert has been dreaming of, and plotting, escape from the city to be reunited with his loved one. Rieux suddenly speaks his mind:

“I have to tell you this: this whole thing is not about heroism. It’s about decency. It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.”

“What is decency?” Rambert asked, suddenly serious.

“In general, I can’t say, but in my case I know that it consists of doing my job.”

The next day, Rambert calls the doctor and says he wants to work with him in the emergency teams battling the plague. Later in the novel, Rieux says, “I feel more solidarity with the defeated than with saints. I don’t think I have any taste for heroism and sainthood. What interests me is to be a man.”

These are almost forgotten ideas in an age much taken, on the one hand, with a kind of sentimental or gimmicky “heroism,” and, on the other, with the revealed truth of religion that is held to resolve the absurdity of life, subsuming the individual into some greater pattern of meaning that brings salvation. I prefer the approach to life summed up by Camus as active fatalism. The true hero is the unsung one who does his or her daily shift, puts food on the table for the children, gives them an education and a roof over their heads. I am with Rieux when he says, “Salvation is too big a word for me. I don’t go that far. What interests me is man’s health, his health first of all.”

I have my heroes. We all do. They are the nameless ones.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

An alarming new symptom of Ebola in America: It seems to make brains mushy and hearts hard.

In New Jersey, two students from Rwanda, which has had no Ebola cases and is 2,800 miles from the affected countries in West Africa, are being kept home. Navarro College in Texas rejected applicants from Nigeria, initially stating that it would not accept students from countries with Ebola cases — a bit problematic because that would mean no longer accepting Americans.

The former executive director of the South Carolina Republican Party, Todd Kincannon, suggested (perhaps satirically) one way to control the disease: All people who tested positive for the Ebola virus could be “humanely put down.”

Many Republicans and some Democrats have been calling for a ban on flights from the Ebola-affected West African countries. A Reuters poll indicated that almost three-quarters of Americans favored such a ban on flights.

It’s a superficially attractive idea, but also a reflection of our mixed-up notions of how to protect ourselves. The truth is that Ebola is both less serious and far more serious than we think.

It’s less serious here because, in the end, the United States and other countries with advanced health systems can suppress Ebola outbreaks. Granted, the Dallas hospital bungled its response. Still, if Nigeria and Senegal can manage Ebola successfully, so can the United States. We won’t have an epidemic here.

Yet Ebola is more serious because there is a significant risk that it will become endemic in West Africa and spin off to other countries in the region or to India, Bangladesh or China. Ebola in India would be a catastrophe.

Oxfam rightly warns that more resources are needed to prevent Ebola from becoming the “definitive humanitarian disaster of our generation.” And if the virus lingers or spreads among poor countries, it will periodically travel to America. In a globalized world, Ebola anywhere is a threat to people everywhere.

There are also security risks. Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese terrorist group, tried to collect Ebola samples in Congo in 1992 for bioterror weapons but failed. Today, it would be easy to collect the virus, and a few suicide operatives could deliberately contract Ebola and then travel to the United States to spread the virus. (However, if the aim is mass murder, it would be simpler and probably more effective just to set off bombs.)

In any case, the point is that global health is not just a warm and fuzzy kind of aid. It’s also self-interest. It’s also national security. The best way to protect ourselves is to eradicate Ebola at its source.

A flight ban would hamper that effort by making it more difficult to get health workers and supplies to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Dr. Peter Piot, who helped identify Ebola in 1976, tells me that flight bans would be counterproductive because they would “make aid really more difficult and expensive.”

Likewise, Dr. Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health, tells me bluntly: “A ban would be worse than ineffective, and would certainly hamper the efforts of groups like ours — and worsen the epidemic.”

Even airport screenings may be a feel-good distraction. An editorial in BMJ, a medical journal, noted that Canada used questionnaires and thermal scanners to screen hundreds of thousands of people for SARS, spent $15 million, and didn’t find a single case. The editorial suggests that airport screening “will have no meaningful effect” and that resources would be better used fighting Ebola in West Africa.

For all the fuss about our own borders, not nearly enough is being done where it counts most: in West Africa. Bravo to President Obama for pledging up to 4,000 troops to fight the disease there, but the United States and other countries must do far more — and quickly! — if Ebola is to be defeated.

The number of Ebola cases is still doubling every two to four weeks, and these countries can’t defeat the outbreak on their own. Liberia is said to have only 50 practicing doctors, according to Reuters, and there appear to be more Liberian doctors practicing in the United States than in Liberia. That brain drain means that Liberia, in effect, is providing medical foreign aid to the United States.

These are lovely countries with friendly people and some heroic health workers, but roads, electricity and other infrastructure are desperately weak. All of Liberia can produce less than one-third as much electricity as the Dallas Cowboys football stadium consumes at peak times.

That’s why the American military’s help in West Africa is crucial, and why it’s a disgrace that less than half of a Sept. 16 United Nations target for Ebola response funds has been raised.

Our values and interests coincide here. So let’s calm down and get to work protecting America from Ebola by stopping this disaster at its source.

And last but not least here’s Ms. Collins:

Women are big this election season. No group is more courted. It’s great! The issues are important. Plus, we all enjoy the occasional pander.

Candidates are re-interpreting their old arguments in a new, woman-centric way. In Michigan, the Democratic Senate candidate defines his opponent’s opposition to Obamacare as a plan to “cut women’s access to … mammograms.” In Kentucky, Republican Mitch McConnell has female surrogates claiming that his opponent, Alison Grimes, is trying to convince women that they “can’t graduate from college without raising your taxes.” This appears to be an oblique reference to Grimes’s call for reduced rates on student loans.

The College Republican National Committee has been investing heavily in online ads aimed at fans of the TV show “Say Yes to the Dress,” in which the dresses are named after gubernatorial candidates. If you are in, say, Florida, you’ll see a happy young woman trying on wedding gowns, twirling around and announcing that “The Rick Scott is perfect,” while her irritating mother demands that she take the Charlie Crist dress, even though it’s unflattering and costs more money. As a writer in Jezebel noted, it seems to have been made by people who felt the best way to communicate with female voters is “to explain things in terms of bridal wear.”

In Colorado, some commentators have given Democrat Mark Udall the nickname “Mark Uterus” because Udall has run so hard on women’s reproductive rights. It is definitely true that Udall has devoted a prodigious amount of ad-time to the fact that his opponent, Representative Cory Gardner, is a longtime supporter of the personhood movement, which declares all fertilized eggs are human beings. Voters find this idea so unnerving that a personhood amendment to the Constitution was soundly defeated in Mississippi. As well as Colorado, twice. Where it is on the ballot in November, yet again.

Gardner said he had changed his mind about the state constitutional amendment after it was overwhelmingly rejected in 2010 and he suddenly realized that it would have an effect on contraceptives. He is still a co-sponsor of a federal personhood bill, which he claims is merely “a statement that I support life.” Personally, I can see why Udall might feel that this matter deserves more inquiry.

To rise to the level of hard-core pandering, a candidate has to float free of issues and waft into the ether of personal feelings. Consider Michigan, where Terri Lynn Land, the Republican candidate for Senate, has been running as a person who’s been victimized for being a mother.

The issue here is that Land has developed a tendency to deflect questions by mentioning that she’s a parent. Local columnists have begun to make jokes about it, and there were suggestions that the mom-mentions might make a good drinking game. A spokesperson for Land’s opponent, Gary Peters, said that being a mom was a good thing, but a strange point to bring up when the issue at hand was, say, ISIS.

“Well, I’m a mom, and I tell you, moms look at things from their perspective,” said Land in a comment that her staff mass-mailed under the headline “ ‘Well, I’m a Mom,’ Terri Lynn Land Fires Back.” Soon, prominent female Republicans were dropping hints that Michelle Obama might want to intervene on behalf of motherhood.

What do you think? How much mom-mentioning is too much? Here in New York, we have a candidate for Congress who’s running under the slogan “Doctor. Mother. Neighbor.” Does that sound a little … vague?

One thing we know: male candidates who get in trouble over issues of sexism are not allowed to get out of it by marshaling all the women in their family to pose for a campaign ad. Really, that’s just one step short of dragging your wife into the press conference where you announce you’re resigning due to those sexting charges.

We are thinking here about Representative Steve Southerland, a Florida Republican who sent out invitations to a male-only campaign event that suggested his guests “tell the misses not to wait up” because “the after dinner whiskey and cigars will be smooth & the issues to discuss are many.”

Southerland is running against Democrat Gwen Graham, and doing such a swell job of it that in a year that House Republicans are expecting a big sweep, he’s in trouble. Possibly more endangered than the guy in Staten Island who was indicted for perjury and tax fraud shortly after threatening to throw a TV reporter over a Capitol balcony.

When The Tampa Bay Times asked him about the male-only event, Southerland laughed and said: “I live with five women. That’s all I’m saying. I live with five women. Listen: Has Gwen Graham ever been to a lingerie shower? Ask her. And how many men were there?”

Now he’s up with a new ad in which he stands surrounded by his sister, mother, daughters and his wife, who announces: “Steve’s heart is in the right place.”

But his brain (which I wonder if he has) is right up his ass.

Kristof and Collins

October 9, 2014

In “The Diversity of Islam” Mr. Kristof says we should beware generalizations of Islam or any faith, which sometimes are the religious equivalent of racial profiling.  Ms. Collins has some “Rules to Vote By” and says it’s time for some major-league soul-searching as we look at the candidates running in the midterm elections.  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

A few days ago, I was on a panel on Bill Maher’s television show on HBO that became a religious war.

Whether or not Islam itself inspires conflict, debates about it certainly do. Our conversation degenerated into something close to a shouting match and went viral on the web. Maher and a guest, Sam Harris, argued that Islam is dangerous yet gets a pass from politically correct liberals, while the actor Ben Affleck denounced their comments as “gross” and “racist.” I sided with Affleck.

After the show ended, we panelists continued to wrangle on the topic for another hour with the cameras off. Maher ignited a debate that is rippling onward, so let me offer three points of nuance.

First, historically, Islam was not particularly intolerant, and it initially elevated the status of women. Anybody looking at the history even of the 20th century would not single out Islam as the bloodthirsty religion; it was Christian/Nazi/Communist Europe and Buddhist/Taoist/Hindu/atheist Asia that set records for mass slaughter.

Likewise, it is true that the Quran has passages hailing violence, but so does the Bible, which recounts God ordering genocides, such as the one against the Amalekites.

Second, today the Islamic world includes a strain that truly is disproportionately intolerant and oppressive. Barbarians in the Islamic State cite their faith as the reason for their monstrous behavior — most recently beheading a British aid worker devoted to saving Muslim lives — and give all Islam a bad name. Moreover, of the 10 bottom-ranking countries in the World Economic Forum’s report on women’s rights, nine are majority Muslim. In Afghanistan, Jordan and Egypt, more than three-quarters of Muslims favor the death penalty for Muslims who renounce their faith, according to a Pew survey.

The persecution of Christians, Ahmadis, Yazidis, Bahai — and Shiites — is far too common in the Islamic world. We should speak up about it.

Third, the Islamic world contains multitudes: It is vast and varied. Yes, almost four out of five Afghans favor the death penalty for apostasy, but most Muslims say that that is nuts. In Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, only 16 percent of Muslims favor such a penalty. In Albania, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan, only 2 percent or fewer Muslims favor it, according to the Pew survey.

Beware of generalizations about any faith because they sometimes amount to the religious equivalent of racial profiling. Hinduism contained both Gandhi and the fanatic who assassinated him. The Dalai Lama today is an extraordinary humanitarian, but the fifth Dalai Lama in 1660 ordered children massacred “like eggs smashed against rocks.”

Christianity encompassed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and also the 13th century papal legate who in France ordered the massacre of 20,000 Cathar men, women and children for heresy, reportedly saying: Kill them all; God will know his own.

One of my scariest encounters was with mobs of Javanese Muslims who were beheading people they accused of sorcery and carrying their heads on pikes. But equally repugnant was the Congo warlord who styled himself a Pentecostal pastor; while facing charges of war crimes, he invited me to dinner and said a most pious grace.

The caricature of Islam as a violent and intolerant religion is horrendously incomplete. Remember that those standing up to Muslim fanatics are mostly Muslims. In Pakistan, a gang of Muslim men raped a young Muslim woman named Mukhtar Mai as punishment for a case involving her brother; after testifying against her attackers and winning in the courts, she selflessly used the compensation money she received from the government to start a school for girls in her village. The Taliban gunmen who shot Malala Yousafzai for advocating for education were Muslims; so was Malala.

Iran has persecuted Christians and Bahais, but a Muslim lawyer, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, showed enormous courage by challenging the repression and winning release of a pastor. Dadkhah is now serving a nine-year prison sentence.

A lawyer friend of mine in Pakistan, Rashid Rehman, was a great champion of human rights and religious tolerance — and was assassinated this year by fundamentalists who stormed his office.

Sure, denounce the brutality, sexism and intolerance that animate the Islamic State and constitute a significant strain within Islam. But don’t confuse that with all Islam: Heroes like Mukhtar, Malala, Dadkhah and Rehman also represent an important element.

Let’s not feed Islamophobic bigotry by highlighting only the horrors while neglecting the diversity of a religion with 1.6 billion adherents — including many who are champions of tolerance, modernity and human rights. The great divide is not between faiths, but one between intolerant zealots of any tradition and the large numbers of decent, peaceful believers likewise found in each tradition.

Maybe that is too complicated to convey in a TV brawl. But it’s the reality.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Right now you are probably asking yourself: What should I be looking for in a candidate this election year? Excellent attendance at committee hearings? The ability to write an economic plan from scratch? An affinity for poultry?

It’s time for some major-league soul-searching.

Cribbing

Good news! Many candidates have been serious enough to release their own plans for critical issues like economic development or health care.

Bad news! Some of them seem to have been plagiarized. Monica Wehby, the physician running for the U.S. Senate as a Republican in Oregon, issued a health care plan that BuzzFeed News reported had been taken from work done by Karl Rove’s “super PAC,” and, in another incident, copied from a former primary opponent.

Mary Burke, a candidate for governor of Wisconsin, got caught lifting pieces of her jobs plan from various sources. She came back with an ad saying: “As governor, I’m going to take the best ideas wherever I can find them.” In Georgia, it turns out that the Republican Senate candidate David Perdue’s “five precepts of economic development” were borrowed from Lee Kuan Yew, the ex-prime minister of Singapore.

Generally, this sort of thing is less about ethics than failure to supervise staffers who were supposed to steal ideas and then rewrite them with different words. However, in Perdue’s case, it’s sort of weird when you adopt precepts from a guy who used to have citizens beaten with canes for vandalism.

Bad Behavior

If a candidate gets caught with his pants down, metaphorically or literally, voters should ask:

A) Is this likely to happen again?

B) Will his colleagues think he’s ridiculous?

C) What choice do I have?

We recently learned that Paul Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor in Kansas, was once at a strip club when it was raided by police. Alone with a topless dancer wearing only a G-string. This is kind of embarrassing, but the incident happened 16 years ago. And it’s unlikely voters need to worry a whole lot about waking up to a repetition.

On the other hand, there’s Representative Mark Sanford, the former South Carolina “Love Guv” who recently announced his breakup with his fiancée in a wildly egotistical and embarrassing 2,346-word Facebook posting. In Sanford’s case, the answer to the three questions are: A) Absolutely; B) Yes; and C) None whatsoever, since he is running unopposed.

Animal-Related Bad Behavior

In Iowa, Democrat Bruce Braley’s Senate campaign ran into trouble when Republicans discovered he had once complained to a neighborhood association about the woman next door keeping chickens in her backyard. Birds that were, it turned out, “therapy chickens” used in work with troubled children.

Braley is running against Republican Joni Ernst, who became famous for bragging about her youthful experience castrating pigs. But Chickengate provided Republicans with another opportunity to recall that during the federal government shutdown, Representative Braley was quoted complaining about tough times in the Capitol gym. (“There’s no towel service.”)

Attendance

What if your senator misses committee meetings? This has come up in North Carolina, Kentucky and New Hampshire, where Republicans denounced Senator Jeanne Shaheen for failing to show up for public hearings of the Foreign Relations Committee.

You can pick up useful information at some public hearings. At others, there’s Kevin Costner explaining how to clean up oil spills. Or Elmo from “Sesame Street” urging support for musical education and trying to eat the microphone. Or a member of a boy band expressing his concerns about mountaintop mining.

If your lawmaker seems to be doing something constructive with his or her time, I wouldn’t worry about the committees. “I was on four committees, two subcommittees, a bunch of caucuses,” said a former senator recently. “And plus I was doing my National Guard duty, so I don’t think there’s ever an expectation to have 100 percent attendance.”

That would be the Republican Scott Brown, Senator Shaheen’s opponent, who Democrats claim attended only 44 percent of the meetings of the Homeland Security Committee while he was in the Senate from 2010-12.

Security

Ignore anybody who claims his or her opponent is a threat to national security.

For instance, there’s the Arizona Republican congressional candidate Wendy Rogers, who ran an ad showing the prelude to the beheading of an American journalist as a narrator warned: “Terrorist threats are growing. Are we secure? Are we protected? […] Kyrsten Sinema allowed her liberal agenda to get in the way of our safety.”

Representative Sinema’s sins were matters like supporting efforts to give Guantánamo Bay detainees trials in U.S. courts.

Also, the ad misspelled “safety.” Really, when you’re warning people that we have to be very, very careful, you ought to check the details.


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