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Mario Cuomo R.I.P.

Mario Cuomo at Democratic Convention

[update below]

I’m in the US right now so have been hearing and watching the remembrances of Mario Cuomo, mainly on NPR and PBS. I respected Cuomo during his years on the national scene (1982-94) but wasn’t a huge fan of his. I wasn’t bowled over by his speech at the 1984 DNC (I thought Jesse Jackson’s was superior) and didn’t see him as the Dems’ messiah for the ’88 and ’92 elections (I supported Dukakis and Clinton, respectively, from the outset in those). But in seeing excerpts from that ’84 speech, plus clips from other speeches and interviews Cuomo gave over the years, I have to say that I’m impressed. What a good man he was. And on all the issues. A good, decent liberal. The best that the Democrats had to offer, then and since. That’s as much as I have to say. R.I.P.

UPDATE: Progressive journalist Al Giordano has a nice personal remembrance of Mario Cuomo, posted on social media (h/t Stephen Zunes)

I first shook Mario Cuomo’s (1932-2015) hand at the age of 14, after he had given a speech at the candidates’ debate of the New Democratic Coalition (NDC), a group trying to bring the New York State Democratic Party to the left. He was 42, the son of immigrants from southern Italy and a native of New York. His mother had been born on the Amalfi Coast, Immaculata Giordano. Cuomo was a candidate for Secretary of State in New York, and curiously devoted most of his speech to making a powerful argument against the death penalty, an unpopular position at the time (he lost the primary election). He had been a community organizer in Queens, first stopping the seizure of people’s homes to build a high school, then halting a gigantic housing project. Although still a young man, he carried himself with the gravitas of the “old school” Italian-Americans of New York. Most of his generation were what we called “juniors,” first- and second-generation immigrants who had assimilated so thoroughly into American culture that their inner compasses didn’t quite know in what direction to point (see Giuliani, Rudy, or even Cuomo, Andrew, for examples of what I mean by “juniors”). But not Mario: he was a “don,” emanating the stigmata of rock-solid leadership of the old ways while applying that archetype to a very liberal, almost dreamy, and very poetic idealism. It’s a combination of substance and style that one rarely sees today.

In 1988 and 1992, millions of Americans hoped he would run for president. I believe to this day that he would have defeated Michael Dukakis or Bill Clinton for the nomination. And US history might have been very different – read: better – as a result. I also believe that, in each of those cycles, Cuomo declined to run because the same ethnicity that was his strength, in a national election, would have led to accusations of “mafia connections” based on the sort of thin gruel that almost every Italian-American New Yorker of his generation had grown up with, or was related to, somebody in the so-called “five families.” Still, his impact on me and countless other Italian-Americans was permanent. He taught by example that one did not have to, that indeed it was undesirable to, follow the dominant paradigm of the era and become a “junior,” which essentially defines a man who goes for the money, or for the easy path, instead of going for broke toward destiny; one who ignores the minutia of detail and principle whenever it does not serve ambition. Juniors do not make good history. They do not leave legacies. Cuomo did both. Ciao, Don Mario…

As for why Cuomo didn’t run for president, it was apparent to me at the time that he wasn’t really interested in the job. He just wasn’t interested in leaving New York to live in Washington.

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obama immigration address november 20 2014

I’ve been reading about the speech today and just watched it on YouTube. This is President Obama’s best action of his second term. It was such an obvious thing to do, particularly as he has the authority to issue an executive order on the question. One only regrets that he waited until after the midterms to do it. On the politics of the decision—to regularize the status of undocumented immigrants with children who have been living and working in the US for at least five years—, I couldn’t care less about it, of whether it will help the Democrats or hurt them, cause problems for the Republicans, or whatever. The partisan political calculations do not interest me. And public opinion polls interest me even less. If large numbers of individuals oppose legalizing undocumented immigrants, that’s their personal opinion. What interests me is that it was the right thing to do. It is quite simply unconscionable—indeed immoral—for a state to seek to deport persons who have been living and working within its borders for many years—invariably in precarious, poorly paid jobs and with no health insurance or other benefits—, and in a state of permanent insecurity and fear for the future. And particularly if they have children, who have grown up in the country and are often citizens and native speakers of the language, but who likewise lack legal status and what this means for their lives—and who could see their parents suddenly deported, leaving them stranded. If a state is unable and/or lacks the will to deport undocumented foreigners—who have been working, paying taxes, and not been involved in criminal activity—within a relatively short period of time—up to, say, five years—, then that state has a moral obligation to allow them to stay. Period. The only thing I regret with Obama’s new policy is that it does not also include longtime undocumented immigrants without children.

As for those who are critical of Obama’s announced measure, they have no good arguments. The notion that the immigrants in question have unfairly jumped to the head of a metaphorical line—which is how it’s put—is silly and just plain ignorant, as if an actual line exists in which all potential immigrants out there take a number and patiently wait their turn. International migration does not work this way, nor does US immigration policy (or the immigration policy of any country). As for the immigrants lowering wages and taking jobs from nationals, I came across this reaction to Obama’s speech by the anti-immigration, pro-trade protectionist publicist Alan Tonelson—who’s a sort of American Nicolas Dupont-Aignan-style souverainiste—on a social media comments thread

Hooray! Working and middle class Americans will face much more low-wage competition! The Party of the Common Man serves the plutocrats’ agenda once again!

This is ignorant demagoguery, as cross-border migrants in their great majority do not compete with nationals for the same jobs. They do not operate in the same labor markets. Immigrants invariably invest sectors, or niches, of the economy that are low paying, necessitate a high degree of flexibility, and are perceived as low status in the immigrant-receiving country, having thus been deserted by nationals. And once this situation pertains, it cannot be reversed by administrative fiat. It is beyond the capacity of governments or state functionaries to administer labor markets in a complex capitalist economy. Anyone with the slightest familiarity with the literature on international migration knows this. As for immigrants lowering overall wage levels of nationals, this has not been conclusively demonstrated by economists (e.g. see this NBER paper that Paul Krugman linked to today). In any case, if undocumented immigrants are being exploited by employers, paid below the minimum or normally going wage, and are bringing about localized downward pressure on the wages of nationals, then the solution is obvious: legalize them! Which is precisely what President Obama has announced he will do. Should President Hollande be so inspired…

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Why the Republicans won

www.usnews.com photo Mark Wilson Getty Images

That’s the title of a good analysis by Elizabeth Drew posted yesterday on the NYR blog. Apart from following the polls I paid minimal attention to the midterm campaign but have read numerous analyses and commentaries since last Wednesday morning. I have some things to say about the outcome—of the Democrats’ debacle, the GOP victory, and what it all means (nothing good)—but haven’t had the time of late—nor, admittedly, a burning desire—to write it all out. I’ll get around to it at some point. In the meantime, one may take a look at my Twitter feed, notably the pieces—sober and not too optimistic for the future—by Jonathan Chait and Michael Tomasky, whose analyses I check out first when it comes to American politics.

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Obama is a Republican…

070613_CI_Obamacare_640

That’s what Bruce Bartlett says, in an essay on The American Conservative website, specifying that Barack Obama is “the heir to Richard Nixon, not Saul Alinsky.” Bartlett, pour mémoire, is a former GOP leading light who has become disillusioned with the party (which, on Twitter, he refers to as “the wanker party”). He explains

In my opinion, Obama has governed as a moderate conservative—essentially as what used to be called a liberal Republican before all such people disappeared from the GOP. He has been conservative to exactly the same degree that Richard Nixon basically governed as a moderate liberal, something no conservative would deny today. (Ultra-leftist Noam Chomsky recently called Nixon “the last liberal president.”)

Bartlett then sets out to prove his argument. Here’s what he has to say on the subject of health care reform

Contrary to rants that Obama’s 2010 health reform, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), is the most socialistic legislation in American history, the reality is that it is virtually textbook Republican health policy, with a pedigree from the Heritage Foundation and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, among others.

It’s important to remember that historically the left-Democratic approach to healthcare reform was always based on a fully government-run system such as Medicare or Medicaid. During debate on health reform in 2009, this approach was called “single payer,” with the government being the single payer. One benefit of this approach is cost control: the government could use its monopsony buying power to force down prices just as Walmart does with its suppliers.

Conservatives wanted to avoid too much government control and were adamantly opposed to single-payer. But they recognized that certain problems required more than a pure free-market solution. One problem in particular is covering people with pre-existing conditions, one of the most popular provisions in ACA. The difficulty is that people may wait until they get sick before buying insurance and then expect full coverage for their conditions. Obviously, this free-rider problem would bankrupt the health-insurance system unless there was a fix.

The conservative solution was the individual mandate—forcing people to buy private health insurance, with subsidies for the poor. This approach was first put forward by Heritage Foundation economist Stuart Butler in a 1989 paper, “A Framework for Reform,” published in a Heritage Foundation book, A National Health System for America. In it, Butler said the number one element of a conservative health system was this: “Every resident of the U.S. must, by law, be enrolled in an adequate health care plan to cover major health costs.” He went on to say:

Under this arrangement, all households would be required to protect themselves from major medical costs by purchasing health insurance or enrolling in a prepaid health plan. The degree of financial protection can be debated, but the principle of mandatory family protection is central to a universal health care system in America.

In 1991, prominent conservative health economist Mark V. Pauley also endorsed the individual mandate as central to healthcare reform. In an article in the journal Health Affairs, Pauley said:

All citizens should be required to obtain a basic level of health insurance. Not having health insurance imposes a risk of delaying medical care; it also may impose costs on others, because we as a society provide care to the uninsured. … Permitting individuals to remain uninsured results in inefficient use of medical care, inequity in the incidence of costs of uncompensated care, and tax-related distortions.

In 2004, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) endorsed an individual mandate in a speech to the National Press Club. “I believe higher-income Americans today do have a societal and personal responsibility to cover in some way themselves and their children,” he said. Even libertarian Ron Bailey, writing in Reason, conceded the necessity of a mandate in a November 2004 article titled, “Mandatory Health Insurance Now!” Said Bailey: “Why shouldn’t we require people who now get health care at the expense of the rest of us pay for their coverage themselves? … Mandatory health insurance would not be unlike the laws that require drivers to purchase auto insurance or pay into state-run risk pools.”

Among those enamored with the emerging conservative health reform based on an individual mandate was Mitt Romney, who was elected governor of Massachusetts in 2002. In 2004, he put forward a state health reform plan to which he later added an individual mandate. As Romney explained in June 2005, “No more ‘free riding,’ if you will, where an individual says: ‘I’m not going to pay, even though I can afford it. I’m not going to get insurance, even though I can afford it. I’m instead going to just show up and make the taxpayers pay for me’.”

The following month, Romney emphasized his point: “We can’t have as a nation 40 million people—or, in my state, half a million—saying, ‘I don’t have insurance, and if I get sick, I want someone else to pay’.”

In 2006, Governor Romney signed the Massachusetts health reform into law, including the individual mandate. Defending his legislation in a Wall Street Journal article, he said:

I proposed that everyone must either purchase a product of their choice or demonstrate that they can pay for their own health care. It’s a personal responsibility principle.

Some of my libertarian friends balk at what looks like an individual mandate. But remember, someone has to pay for the health care that must, by law, be provided: Either the individual pays or the taxpayers pay. A free ride on government is not libertarian.

As late as 2008, Robert Moffitt of the Heritage Foundation was still defending the individual mandate as reasonable, non-ideological and nonpartisan in an article for the Harvard Health Policy Review.

So what changed just a year later, when Obama put forward a health-reform plan that was almost a carbon copy of those previously endorsed by the Heritage Foundation, Mitt Romney, and other Republicans? The only thing is that it was now supported by a Democratic president that Republicans vowed to fight on every single issue, according to Robert Draper’s book Do Not Ask What Good We Do.

Senior Obama adviser David Axelrod later admitted that Romney’s Massachusetts plan was the “template” for Obama’s plan. “That work inspired our own health plan,” he said in 2011. But no one in the White House said so back in 2009. I once asked a senior Obama aide why. His answer was that once Republicans refused to negotiate on health reform and Obama had to win only with Democratic votes, it would have been counterproductive, politically, to point out the Obama plan’s Republican roots.

The left wing of the House Democratic caucus was dubious enough about Obama’s plan as it was, preferring a single-payer plan. Thus it was necessary for Obama to portray his plan as more liberal than it really was to get the Democratic votes needed for passage, which of course played right into the Republicans’ hands. But the reality is that ACA remains a very modest reform based on Republican and conservative ideas.

If any Republicans are reading this and disagree with Bartlett on the health care issue, I’d like to hear their objections.

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In Defense of Obama

US President Barack Obama gives a thumbs

Paul Krugman thus makes the case in the latest issue of Rolling Stone, in which he explains how “Obama has emerged as one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history.” No less. And Krugman, pour mémoire, has spent a good part of the past seven years critiquing Obama, when not beating up on him. But being a smart and fair person, he gives credit where credit is due. And, as usual, Krugman convinces.

One little thing. Krugman speaks about “polls showing that Obama does, indeed, have an approval rating that is very low by historical standards.” Obama’s current job approval rating, according to RCP’s aggregate, is 42.9%. At no point in his presidency has it dropped below 40%. I’m sorry but that’s not bad at all. By contrast, Bush 43 spent almost all of the last three years of his presidency below 40% and by the end of it was in the mid 20s. Bush lost part of his base. Obama has not lost his. If François Hollande had Obama’s current poll numbers—which he can only dream of—, his presidency would likely be deemed a smashing success…

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Hillary Clinton in Jerusalem October 31 2009 Xinhua Reuters Photo

[update below]

It looks like I have a new series going here. I just came across a commentary by Philip Weiss, founder and co-editor of Mondoweiss—the go to site for the stateside Israel-bashing one-stater crowd—, explaining how “Hillary Clinton just lost the White House in Gaza — [the] same way she lost it in Iraq the last time.” Weiss asserts that Hillary’s pro-Israel pronouncements during the latest Gaza war—notably expressed in her recent “famous interview” with Jeffrey Goldberg—and her striving “to please neoconservatives” have put paid to her ambitions for 2016, as the liberal-left primary and caucus-voting Democratic party base will turn away from her on account of her rhetoric on Israel/Palestine (my emphasis) and support en bloc the candidate who runs to her left—and that it is a certainty that such a candidate will emerge and “exploit this sentiment [on Israel/Palestine] for political gain.” Weiss acknowledges that “he’s going out on a limb” with his prediction but he’s pretty sure of it, as he sees a sea change underway on the liberal-left side of American politics in regard to Israel, with younger, progressive, and disaffected ex-liberal Zionist voters increasingly rejecting the Democratic party’s uncritical pro-Israel stance and slavishness to AIPAC. And that this sea change will manifest itself in the ’16 election.

Weiss is, as we say over here, à côté de la plaque, i.e. he’s out to lunch. His understanding of American electoral politics is clearly deficient or/and he believes his gauchiste Israel/Palestine-obsessed Mondoweiss milieu to be more consequential in the Democratic party base than it is. Now it is incontestable that liberals—including Jews—have become more critical of Israel in recent years, which any liberal-lefty in the US can attest to (e.g. I am continually struck by the number of American Jewish friends who speak harshly of Israel these days, which they never did in the 1970s-80s or the post-Oslo 1990s). And these personal observations are supported by polling data, e.g. last year’s Gallup poll showing 24% of self-identified liberals sympathizing with the Palestinians over Israel, with 51% for Israel, i.e. a mere 2 to 1 ratio, which, in the US, is not bad for the Pals. With Israeli governments now indistinguishable from US Republicans—and Tea Party Repubs at that—, liberal/Jewish disaffection toward Israel is only normal. But the disaffection is toward the current Israeli government and its leading personalities—Netanyahu, Lieberman, Bennett et al—and Israeli policy, not toward the State of Israel itself—or to Zionism (as defined here). If the Likud and its far right allies were defeated in a general election and replaced by a center-left government—such as center-left is understood in Israel—, and there were a serious return to the “peace process,” a lot of the disaffection among liberal Jews would dissipate. But even if this doesn’t happen in the next election or two—and I’m not holding my breath—there is not a snowball’s chance in hell that American Jews outside Weiss’s New York-New Jersey gauchiste milieu will become one-staters and endorse Palestinian narratives.

Or that Israel/Palestine will drive voting behavior. Weiss is deluding himself if he thinks I/P will be an issue during the 2016 primary season and cause even a minuscule number of voters not to vote for Hillary should she run. Why on earth would Israel suddenly become a major issue in a Democratic presidential nomination race when it never has in the past (except maybe in New York state, and even then)? Except when American soldiers are fighting and dying in a war, foreign affairs never figure in American presidential primaries. As for a candidate to Hillary’s left, the only potential one who would have any credibility—at least as it looks today—is Elizabeth Warren, though who says she’s not running. But if Warren changes her mind and throws her hat in the ring, she will definitely attract a lot of support (including from me, BTW; pour l’info, I am a registered voter in Cook County, Illinois, and faithfully vote absentee in all national elections and primaries), but it will be for all sorts of reasons and policy stands, and that will have nothing to do with the Middle East. Unless Hillary tacks sharply left on domestic policy, she will definitely be vulnerable to an eventual Warren candidacy. Mais on n’en est pas là…

But if Warren does run, pro-Pal liberal-lefties are likely to be disappointed, as it is a certainty that her rhetoric will be decidedly pro-Israel, perhaps even as much so as Hillary’s. Warren is a politician and will not take positions that will cause her to lose more than she will gain. As I explained during the last Gaza war, there is a reason US congresspeople and presidential candidates are 100% pro-Israel—even more pro-Israel than Israelis are themselves—, which is because they have absolutely nothing to gain by being otherwise. And on this, they have nothing to worry about vis-à-vis public opinion, as the American public remains overwhelmingly pro-Israel (the numbers on this are clear; and if Democrats have become less pro-Israel, Republicans have become more so, the latter thus cancelling out the former). This may evolve in the future but one shouldn’t count on it, as with the Middle East going to hell in a handbasket—with ISIS, bloodbaths in Syria and Iraq, brutal dictatorship in Egypt, state collapse in Libya, unsympathetic socio-cultural-political orders in the Arabian peninsula, Hizbullah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, et j’en passe—Israel will continue to look relatively good to most Americans. Désolée mais c’est comme ça.

UPDATE: M.J. Rosenberg, on his new blog (August 24th), explains “Why Democrats will never change their tune on Israel.” Money quote

Progressive Democrats are not single issue. If a candidate (think of former Congressman Barney Frank) is good on health care, jobs, GLBT issues, fracking, taxes, abortion, etc. but supports the slaughter in Gaza, progressives vote for him anyway.

That is why even Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown are down-the-line Netanyahu supporters. There is no downside in offending progressives but there is one in offending Israel Firsters.

Obviously. And, lo and behold, Philip Weiss has expressed disappointment with Elizabeth Warren in her Senate vote to give Israel an extra $225 million in military aid and for “mouth[ing] Israeli talking points” in a public meeting with constituents (August 28th). Hey, Phil, what did you expect?

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101018-obama-shades-hmed-2a.grid-6x2

New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait has an article, dated April 6th, of this title, which is one of the more interesting examinations I’ve read on the exasperating, poisonous liberal-left vs. conservative-right polemic over Obama’s presidency and the issue of race. The lede: “Optimists hoped Obama would usher in a new age of racial harmony. Pessimists feared a surge in racial strife. Neither was right. But what happened instead has been even more invidious.”

There are lots of good passages in the article, in particular this one

…the truth is almost too brutal to be acknowledged. A few months ago, three University of Rochester political scientists—Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen—published an astonishing study. They discovered that a strong link exists between the proportion of slaves residing in a southern county in 1860 and the racial conservatism (and voting habits) of its white residents today. The more slave-intensive a southern county was 150 years ago, the more conservative and Republican its contemporary white residents. The authors tested their findings against every plausible control factor—for instance, whether the results could be explained simply by population density—but the correlation held. Higher levels of slave ownership in 1860 made white Southerners more opposed to affirmative action, score higher on the anti-black-affect scale, and more hostile to Democrats.

The authors suggest that the economic shock of emancipation, which suddenly raised wages among the black labor pool, caused whites in the most slave-intensive counties to “promote local anti-black sentiment by encouraging violence towards blacks, racist norms and cultural beliefs,” which “produced racially hostile attitudes that have been passed down from parents to children.” The scale of the effect they found is staggering. Whites from southern areas with very low rates of slave ownership exhibit attitudes similar to whites in the North—an enormous difference, given that Obama won only 27 percent of the white vote in the South in 2012, as opposed to 46 percent of the white vote outside the South.

The Rochester study should, among other things, settle a very old and deep argument about the roots of America’s unique hostility to the welfare state. Few industrialized economies provide as stingy aid to the poor as the United States; in none of them is the principle of universal health insurance even contested by a major conservative party. Conservatives have long celebrated America’s unique strand of anti-statism as the product of our religiosity, or the tradition of English liberty, or the searing experience of the tea tax. But the factor that stands above all the rest is slavery.

The article is lengthy but well worth the read.

Chait, who is one of the best political journalists in America these days, also has a piece in NY Mag, dated April 23rd, asking “Is the rising Democratic majority doomed?” The short answer: no, but the Repubs are not totally down and out.

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