Blow, Cohen, Kristof and Collins

In “The Rise of Social Liberalism and G.O.P. Resistance” Mr. Blow says as the nation’s views evolve, Republican presidential candidates remain stuck trying to out-conservative one another for the sake of primary voters.  Mr. Cohen, in “Sepp Blatter’s FIFA Reign of Shame,” says that to conclude Blatter should quit feels so obvious it’s not worth saying. But he’s so thick-skinned it’s worth saying twice.  Mr. Kristof considers “Polluted Political Games” and says here’s what can be done to bring the dark money of politics into the sunlight in time for the 2016 elections.  Ms. Collins says “Let’s Do Some Railing” and that one person’s waste is another person’s ride home.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

There is a fascinating phenomenon taking shape in America: As the country becomes less religious, it is also becoming more socially liberal.

It makes sense that these two variables should closely track each other, but the sheer scale and speed of the change is astonishing.

After a Pew Research Center report earlier this month found that “the Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing,” this week Gallup released a report that found that “more Americans now rate themselves as socially liberal than at any point in Gallup’s 16-year trend, and for the first time, as many say they are liberal on social issues as say they are conservative.”

Gallup has tested the moral acceptability of 19 variables since the early 2000s.

And, as Gallup found this week:

“The upward progression in the percentage of Americans seeing these issues as morally acceptable has varied from year to year, but the overall trend clearly points toward a higher level of acceptance of a number of behaviors. In fact, the moral acceptability ratings for 10 of the issues measured since the early 2000s are at record highs.”

Acceptance of gay or lesbian relations is up 23 percentage points over that time. Having a baby outside of marriage is up 16 points. Premarital sex is up 15 points. Divorce and research using stem cells obtained from human embryos are both up 12 points.

At the same time, the death penalty is down three points (within the four-point margin of error) and medical testing on animals is down nine points.

We as a country may still be engaged in a vigorous debate about the proper size and function of government, and about which parties and candidates could best steer America in the right direction, but one thing is less and less debatable: We are rapidly becoming a more socially liberal country.

This change poses a particular challenge for the Republican Party and its national aspirations, not so much at the congressional seats, many of which are safe, but for presidential candidates.

Part of the issue, as the likely candidate Jeb Bush put it last year, is that for a Republican to become president, he or she would have to be willing to “lose the primary to win the general” election.

It was a catchy phrase and everyone understood what he was saying: Don’t allow the Republican debates and primaries to drag you so far right that you will never be able to recover in the general election. But the problem is that there is no way to compete in the general without first winning the primaries securing the nomination.

And so, Republicans are now involved in another election season that feels like the movie “Groundhog Day”: trying to out-conservative one another to be in the good graces of Republican primary voters, who in many states can be disproportionately religious and socially conservative.

Take Iowa, for instance, whose February caucuses will be the first contests of the 2016 presidential cycle. As the Public Religion Research Institute pointed out earlier this month:

“Iowa Republicans are notably more socially conservative than Republicans nationally. Compared to Republicans overall, Iowa Republicans are more likely to oppose legalizing same-sex marriage (64 percent vs. 58 percent, respectively), and are more likely to say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases (68 percent vs. 58 percent, respectively). The social conservatism evident among Iowa Republicans is based in part on the large presence of white evangelical Protestants. More than four in ten (42 percent) Iowa Republicans are white evangelical Protestant.”

How do you win Iowa, or at least survive it? Some candidates may not focus their attentions there at all. They may skip it, as John McCain did in 2000, and instead focus on the slightly more moderate Republican primary voters in New Hampshire to deliver their first strong showing shortly after the Iowa caucuses.

For example, a March poll conducted by the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston found that more likely New Hampshire Republican primary voters are pro-choice than pro-life on abortion and more favor same-sex marriage than oppose it.

But New Hampshire is somewhat anomalous. It is the most conservative state in a very liberal northeast. Nationally, only 27 percent of Republicans are pro-choice, while 67 percent are pro-life, and nationally only 37 percent of Republicans support same-sex marriage, according to polls by Gallup in 2014 and 2015. At the same time, New Hampshire is the second most nonreligious state in the country — nonreligious being defined by Gallup as people “saying religion is not an important part of their daily lives and that they seldom or never attend religious services” — second only to Vermont. The nonreligious population of New Hampshire is 51 percent; for Vermont, it’s 56 percent.

But Iowa and New Hampshire would be only the first two of a 50-state slog through a Republican electorate that is not necessarily where the rest of the country is — or is going — on religiosity and social liberalism.

There is only so much skipping one can do. At some point, the candidates must face the most conservative voters and one voice must emerge.

This process has not been kind or general-election-friendly for the Republican candidates in the last couple of cycles. But there is no indication that most Republicans — either candidates or voters — have drawn the necessary lessons from those defeats.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

I was living in Paris in 1998 and had tickets for the World Cup Final but instead had to rush off to cover upheaval in Nigeria and ended up in a Lagos hotel watching France beat Brazil 3-0. The commentators were Nigerian, of course. After a couple of first-half French goals against a listless Brazilian side, they pretty much gave up describing the match. Instead they focused on how much money they thought had changed hands to secure France’s triumph. I laughed as the numbers spiraled upward.

The speculation — unfounded in this instance — seemed to me more a reflection of the Nigeria of Sani Abacha, the ruthless and massively corrupt leader who had just died, than of the state of global soccer. In Nigeria back then, nothing moved without payment of a bribe. Now, however, I am not so sure. Those commentators were onto something larger than the match itself. Sepp Blatter, once described by The Guardian as “the most successful non-homicidal dictator of the past century,” had been elected the month before as president of FIFA, soccer’s governing body, in a ballot marked by allegations of cash handouts of $50,000 to African delegates in a Paris hotel. It was the start of Blatter’s 17-year (and counting) reign of shame over the world’s most popular game. He is a man without conscience.

Another unrelated soccer memory stirred at the news of the arrest in Zurich of several top FIFA officials on bribery, fraud and money laundering charges brought by the United States Justice Department. It was of standing 30 years ago at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels with my friends Patrick Wintour of The Guardian and Ed Vulliamy of The Observer. We watched as Liverpool fans charged Juventus fans gathered in the Z-block of the ground. There was a sickening inevitability about what happened as the Juventus supporters were crushed against terrace barriers that collapsed and then a concrete wall.

Later Wintour and Vulliamy filed a report: “We heard a muted but ghastly thud, like quarry dynamited at a distance. It was the sound of tons of concrete and scores of bodies plunging over the edge of the terracing.” You knew. People were dying. There were, in the end, 39 dead, most of them Juventus fans. The match went ahead, a ghastly farce.

It is not true that everything has gotten worse in global soccer under Blatter. Safety has improved and, yes, the World Cup has been held in Africa. But just about everything has. To conclude that Blatter should quit rather than embark on a fifth term as FIFA president (assuming his seemingly inevitable election to a fifth term on Friday) feels so blindingly obvious that it’s not worth saying. But then the FIFA president is so thick-skinned it’s actually worth saying twice: Mr. Blatter, your time is up.

Why? Because the corruption charges against current and former FIFA vice presidents and others reflect an organization rotten to its core, operating in the absence of any meaningful oversight, without term limits for a president whose salary is of course unknown (but estimated by Bloomberg to be “in the low double-digit” millions), overseeing $5.72 billion in partially unaccounted revenue for the four years to December 2014, governing a sport in which matches and World Cup venues and in fact just about everything appears to have been up for sale, burying a report it commissioned by a former United States attorney into the bidding process for the next two World Cups, and generally operating in a culture of cavalier disdain personified by Blatter, whose big cash awards to soccer federations in poorer countries have turned the delegates from many of FIFA’s 209 member associations into his fawning acolytes.

Among those charged is Jeffrey Webb, the successor to Jack Warner as the head of the North and Central American and Caribbean regional confederation within FIFA. Warner was also charged. When Warner’s corruption became so outlandish that he was forced to step down a few years ago, Blatter’s FIFA maintained a presumption of innocence. Enough said.

Bribery occurred “over and over, year after year, tournament after tournament,” said Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, who has supervised the investigation from the days when she was the United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York. That sounds about right. The Office of the attorney general of Switzerland has opened a separate criminal investigation into the selection of Russia to host the 2018 World Cup and Qatar the 2022 World Cup.

Just because Russia and Qatar are gas-rich (and back in 1998 a Qatari businessman provided Blatter with a private jet for his first FIFA election campaign) does not mean the process was corrupt. Of course it does not. But that Swiss criminal investigation is thoroughly warranted — and the first requisite for making it thorough, transparent and credible is Blatter’s immediate departure.

Now we get to Mr. Kristof:

I’ve admired the Clintons’ foundation for years for its fine work on AIDS and global poverty, and I’ve moderated many panels at the annual Clinton Global Initiative. Yet with each revelation of failed disclosures or the appearance of a conflict of interest from speaking fees of $500,000 for the former president, I have wondered: What were they thinking?

But the problem is not precisely the Clintons. It’s our entire disgraceful money-based political system. Look around:

• Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey accepted flights and playoff tickets from the Dallas Cowboys owner, Jerry Jones, who has business interests Christie can affect.

• Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has received financial assistance from a billionaire, Norman Braman, and has channeled public money to Braman’s causes.

• Jeb Bush likely has delayed his formal candidacy because then he would have to stop coordinating with his “super PAC” and raising money for it. He is breaching at least the spirit of the law.

When problems are this widespread, the problem is not crooked individuals but perverse incentives from a rotten structure.

“There is a systemic corruption here,” says Sheila Krumholz of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign money. “It’s kind of baked in.”

Most politicians are good people. Then they discover that money is the only fuel that makes the system work and sometimes step into the bog themselves.

Money isn’t a new problem, of course. John F. Kennedy was accused of using his father’s wealth to buy elections. In response, he joked that he had received the following telegram from his dad: “Don’t buy another vote. I won’t pay for a landslide!”

Yet Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s labor secretary and now chairman of the national governing board of Common Cause, a nonpartisan watchdog group,notes that inequality has hugely exacerbated the problem. Billionaires adopt presidential candidates as if they were prize racehorses. Yet for them, it’s only a hobby expense.

For example, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson donated $92 million to super PACs in the 2012 election cycle; as a share of their net worth, that was equivalent to $300 from the median American family. So a multibillionaire can influence a national election for the same sacrifice an average family bears in, say, a weekend driving getaway.

Money doesn’t always succeed, of course, and billionaires often end up wasting money on campaigns. According to The San Jose Mercury News, Meg Whitman spent $43 per vote in her failed campaign for governor of California in 2010, mostly from her own pocket. But Michael Bloomberg won his 2009 re-election campaign for mayor of New York City after,according to the New York Daily News, spending $185 of his own money per vote.

The real bargain is lobbying — and that’s why corporations spend 13 times as much lobbying as they do contributing to campaigns, by the calculations of Lee Drutman, author of a recent book on lobbying.

The health care industry hires about five times as many lobbyists as there are members of Congress. That’s a shrewd investment. Drug company lobbyists have prevented Medicare from getting bulk discounts, amounting to perhaps $50 billion a year in extra profits for the sector.

Likewise, lobbying has carved out the egregious carried interest tax loophole, allowing many financiers to pay vastly reduced tax rates. In that respect, money in politics both reflects inequality and amplifies it.

Lobbyists exert influence because they bring a potent combination of expertise and money to the game. They gain access, offer a well-informed take on obscure issues — and, for a member of Congress, you think twice before biting the hand that feeds you.

The Supreme Court is partly to blame for the present money game, for its misguided rulings that struck down limits in campaign spending by corporations and unions and the overall political donation cap for individuals.

Still, President Obama could take one step that would help: an executive order requiring federal contractors to disclose all political contributions.

“President Obama could bring the dark money into the sunlight in time for the 2016 election,” notes Michael Waldman of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. “It’s the single most tangible thing anyone could do to expose the dark money that is now polluting politics.”

I’ve covered corrupt regimes all over the world, and I find it ineffably sad to come home and behold institutionalized sleaze in the United States.

Reich told me that for meaningful change to arrive, “voters need to reach a point of revulsion.” Hey, folks, that time has come.

And last but not least we have Ms. Collins:

Just before Congress slunk away for the three-day weekend — which it was, of course, planning to stretch into a week — senators from the Northeast held a press conference to denounce Republicans for underfunding Amtrak passenger rail service.

“Amtrak has some infrastructure that is so old it was built and put into service when Jesse James and Butch Cassidy were still alive and robbing trains,” said Senator Charles Schumer of New York.

“In Connecticut we have a bridge that was built when Grover Cleveland was president,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.

Now you have to admit, this is pretty compelling. Especially if you merge them together and envision Butch Cassidy and Grover Cleveland robbing commuters on the Acela Express.

The Northeast corridor from Boston to Washington is the centerpiece of the nation’s commuter rail system. It carries more people than the airlines, makes a profit, and takes an ungodly number of cars off extremely crowded highways. However, it needs $21 billion of work on its bridges, tunnels, tracks and equipment.

We’ve all been thinking about it since the terrible derailment in Philadelphia earlier this month. In a moment of stupendously bad timing, House Republicans chose the day after the accident to cut more than $1 billion from the $2.45 billion the Obama administration had requested for Amtrak.

Speaker John Boehner said any attempt to link the two things was “stupid.” As only he can.

Let’s take a middle road, people, and assume that while the Philadelphia crash might not be directly related to any funding cut, it’s a good reminder that running packed trains through 19th century tunnels and bridges is asking for trouble.

Amtrak is a managerial mishmash, trapped under the thumb of Congress, and also responsible for long-distance service across the country, touching cities from Chicago to New Orleans to Grand Rapids to Salt Lake City on a series of routes that are never going to make money. Conservative groups that call for the privatization of Amtrak are basically envisioning a system where the Northeast Corridor is left to fend for itself while the money-losing routes fade into history.

“Ideally, we would like to see all transportation spending and taxing devolve to the states,” said Michael Sargent of The Heritage Foundation.

None of the Northeastern senators at the press conference complained about the cross-country money-losers. Perhaps that was out of deference to their colleague, Dick Durbin of Chicago. Perhaps they instinctively understood that no matter what the drain, Amtrak has a better chance of political survival running through 46 states. It’s a theory that works great for the Defense Department.

Maybe the senators just had a national vision of what national rail service is supposed to be.

“It’s worth reminding our colleagues the Northeast Corridor is the only part that makes money,” said Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut in a phone interview. “But that doesn’t mean I want to get rid of the rest of the system. If we only kept the portions of government that made money, there wouldn’t be any point to the State of Connecticut running a Department of Children and Families anymore.”

What’s your off-the-cuff verdict, people?

A) Save the railroad!

B) Prioritize! Every train for itself!

C) They can do anything they want if they’ll just get together and fix the pothole on my corner.

Wow, I believe I see a majority for the pothole. Remind me to tell you about how members of Congress just passed the 33rd super-short-term highway bill because they haven’t been able to come up with any normal road repair funding since 2008.

Transportation unites the country, but the crowded parts and the empty parts have different needs. Cities require mass transit, which is something that tends to irritate many rural conservatives. (It’s that vision of a whole bunch of strangers stuck together, stripped of even the illusion of control.) Remote towns and cities need connections to survive, even though the price tag seems way out of proportion to those of us who don’t live on, say, an Alaskan island.

Amtrak’s operating budget is about the same as the Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes commercial air service to remote communities. Most of the flights are at least two-thirds empty. CBS News, in a report earlier this year, found one flight between Kansas City, Mo., and Great Bend, Kan., that generally carried only a single passenger.

Everybody knows that the government can waste money. (If you have any doubts, I will refer you to a recent report by Pro Publica about a glorious new $25 million, 64,000-square-foot headquarters the military constructed for American troops in Afghanistan even though said troops were going home.) But making money-losing links between different parts of the theoretically United States doesn’t seem to be in that category.

Fix Amtrak. Connect the country.

Won’t happen as long as the mole people rule.

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