Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Live from America, it's Protest Night!

SIMILAR TO the way the Occupy movement took over the national center stage, outrage over the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the grand-jury exonerations of the police officers responsible, have focused the media (especially television) on the thorny issue of police-minority relations in an unprecedented way. The daily real-time census of protests around the country, combined with compelling profiles and interviews, has led to a groundswell of examination of the racial divide in America.

The result: a nonstop focus on something that the media has been historically inclined to ignore, or certainly underreport. We're used to flood-the-zone TV coverage of major domestic events; what's happening now is a remarkable breadth of attention being paid to our national blind spot. “Flood-the-zone” coverage takes on a new meaning when the nation itself is the zone in flood.

Network reaction to the Garner and Brown decisions, and their aftermath, has been deservedly panoramic. Reporters from the networks and many local affiliates hit the streets and stayed there as nationwide protests consumed the popular attention. The broadcast and cable networks are still devoting top-of-show segments to the Brown-Garner fallout, some of them with the kind of sub-branded content (ABC's “Race and Justice in America” segment of “World News With David Muir”  is one example) that tells the viewing public the topic's escalated in importance, and more than a one-and-done event. ...

Read the rest at BuzzFeed

Image credit: CNN screengrab

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Trying to breathe in Ferguson, New York

I CAN’T BREATHE.” If you’re the one using this statement of pulmonary distress, you’re a party to sudden, existential fear. If you’re in the company of someone saying those words, you are, or should be, a captive of nothing less than your own humanity. What’s wrong? What can I do? Do you have an inhaler? How can I help you?

A Staten Island grand jury on Wednesday exempted one monster of a police officer from this basic clause of the social contract, deciding on Wednesday that Eric Garner had no rights to physical relief that a cop is bound to respect — and by extension, that African Americans in the city of New York have no rights that the New York City Police Department is bound to respect.

The grand jury decided there was “no true bill” in the case of NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who killed Garner, 43, a Staten Island resident and father of six children, with an unauthorized choke hold on July 17 in the Tompkinsville section of Staten Island, as recorded in a cell-phone video from start to finish.

In the desperate moments before he died, Garner told the officers “I can’t breathe.” Told them 11 times.

“I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.”

The medical examiner's office determined that the cause of Garner's death was "compression of neck (chokehold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police," has said. Garner’s death was ruled a homicide.

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Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York told us what was obvious. “The decision not to indict ... is a miscarriage of justice, it’s an outrage, it’s a disgrace, it’s a blow to our democracy, and it should shock the conscience of every single American who cares about justice and fair play.” Rev. Al Sharpton said “we are dealing with a national crisis ... This is not an illusion, this is a reality that America has got to come to terms with.”

Their indignation was no partisan exercise. They’re Democrats, but condemnations of the grand jury’s action came from across the ideological spectrum. Judge Andrew Napolitano, a longtime fixture on Fox News and a reliable water carrier for the conservative agenda, called Garner’s death “clearly a case [of] criminally negligent homicide.”

He was joined by Fox News syndicated columnist and contributor Charles Krauthammer, who called the grand jury’s decision “totally incomprehensible.”

Over at Red State, Leon H. Wolf called the decision “really and truly baffling to me, and infuriating besides. I understand the vast majority of cops are good at their jobs and conscientious about protecting the civil rights of citizens. But there are without a doubt bad cops who make bad decisions and when they do so from a position of authority the damage they can do is exponentially worse.”

The bipartisan disgust at the grand jury’s abdication of moral responsibility, and the growing furor among protesters across the country (already inflamed over the Ferguson grand jury’s decision a week before) suggests, like nothing else could, that the United States has hit the tipping point, finally reaching the high-water mark after which nothing stays the same. Nothing.

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THE long unwillingness to pursue indictments in such egregious cases of police misconduct points to many things in our society, first among them a willingness to turn the blind eye to such injustices, and an implicit acceptance of such state-sanctioned murders as so much collateral damage — the uncivilized “price we pay” for living in a presumably civilized society.

But the refusal to hold police accountable when they should be also stems from a simple but rarely-explored fact: No one wants to be the one to do it.

The longstanding line against indicting police officers for such actions is the result of a reluctance on the part of prosecutors and the grand juries that work on their behalf to be the one to bring an indictment against such officers. There’s an unspoken fear that, if such an indictment comes, a wave of others will follow. No city or state wants the distinction of making that kind of history. They’d rather not take the chance. To one degree or another, that cowardly, cynical calculus lies behind the exoneration of every criminal wearing a badge in this country.

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It’s also entirely possible that local grand juries may be making their decisions on indictment of criminal cops in part with the expectation that the federal government will jump in with a federal review of the cases in question — thereby freeing them to make findings that dovetail with past practice, secure in having “done right” by the police and in knowing that the burden of indicting criminal cops will be something they don’t ever have to deal with.

Ferguson: The St. Louis Rams 5

FIVE MEMBERS of the St. Louis Rams formed another team on Sunday. But the team that Jared Cook, Tavon Austin, Kenny Britt, Stedman Bailey and Chris Givens joined over the weekend had more than touchdowns in mind. As the nation grapples again with race and police practice — components of the Gordian knot that defines and cripples America — their action on Sunday raises questions of where the line between professional athletics and personal expression about a social wrong is really drawn, or whether that line should even exist.

Before the Rams flattened the hapless Oakland Raiders 52-0, the five Rams players sprinted from the tunnel during pregame introductions at Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis with their hands in the air in the posture of surrender, a nod to the “hands up, don't shoot” meme employed across the country by those protesting the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager, by former Ferguson, Mo. police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9.

"We kind of came collectively together and decided we wanted to do something," tight end Jared Cook told ESPN later. “We haven't been able to go down to Ferguson to do anything because we have been busy. Secondly, it's kind of dangerous down there and none of us want to get caught up in anything. So we wanted to come out and show our respect to the protests and the people who have been doing a heck of a job around the world.”

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Protests over the protests started right away. Interviewed by the Chicago Sun-Times, Mike Ditka, that leading light of social commentary, said he was said “embarrassed for the players more than anything, They want to take a political stand on this? Well, there are a lot of other things that have happened in our society that people have not stood up and disagreed about.”

The Time Out Sports Bat & Grill, in St. Louis, took the unusual step of disavowing the Rams team completely. In a tweet on Monday, the bar management announced it would now pledge allegiance to the Kansas City Chiefs, a cross-border NFL rival, “due to the bone headed ‘hands up, don't shoot’ act by the number of Rams players.”

On Wednesday, in a tweet that dialed back the position of the first one, the bar management tried to explain itself, using the CAPS LOCK mode common to online hysterics. “We are NOT TAKING SIDES ON THE FERGUSON TRAGEDY. We DISAGREE WITH BRINGING THE PROTEST TO A NATIONWIDE PROFESSIONAL SPORTING EVENT,” it read, drawing a tidy but nonexistent dividing line between sports and society.

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THE OUTRAGE against the Rams players who had the nerve to exercise their constitutional rights of free expression has an underlying assumption that, because they work for the quasi-monopoly of the National Football League, they’ve somehow vacated those rights, that they’re no more than slave labor in football uniforms.

The counter-argument will be that, as employees of the NFL, the Rams players should be barred from making such personal commentaries as a condition of their personal services contracts — an exception to the blanket civic protections of the First Amendment. Except ... there isn’t such an NFL prohibition against this kind of commentary. Nowhere in the NFL Personal Conduct Policy is there anything that outlaws the actions taken by the Rams players on Sunday. The policy generally states that NFL personnel must avoid “conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the National Football League.”

The policy then goes on at length to specifically bar players from engaging in obviously criminal behaviors from fraud to racketeering, from domestic violence to violence against other employees, from possessing a firearm in a workplace setting to conduct that “imposes inherent danger to the safety and well being of another person.”

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There’s nothing in that three-page policy that expressly forbids an NFL player from speaking his mind, verbally or otherwise, about anything under the sun. The squishiest part of the policy — the one that might apply to the five Rams players — prohibits action “that undermines or puts at risk the integrity and reputation of the NFL, NFL clubs, or NFL players.”

But after the Ray Rice domestic-violence incident, the numerous domestic-violence incidents that preceded that one, and especially after the clearing of Rice to play professional football earlier this week, it’s an open question as to how bad any NFL player has to be to undermine the “integrity and reputation” of a league that’s gone to great lengths to do just that on its own. A gesture of solidarity with beleaguered citizens of the team’s home state — citizens that are part of that team’s fan base — would hardly seem to hit that behavioral threshold.

Unless, of course, that part of the policy was intended to be imprecise and situational and a judgment call according to the NFL leadership and any people the NFL thinks it has common cause with. Like police officers.

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JEFF ROORDA, a spokesman for the St. Louis Police Officers Association and apparently no student of the First Amendment or the league’s personal conduct policy, lit into the Rams with an inane, tone-deaf statement that called for the Rams hands-up players to be disciplined or punished.

Pissing in the wind from a great height, Roorda wrote this on Sunday: “[N]ow that the evidence is in and Officer Wilson's account has been verified by physical and ballistic evidence as well as eye-witness testimony, which led the grand jury to conclude that no probable cause existed that Wilson engaged in any wrongdoing, it is unthinkable that hometown athletes would so publicly perpetuate a narrative that has been disproven over-and-over again.”

Monday, December 1, 2014

Ferguson: Outrage, while supplies last

BLACK FRIDAY, the day of the locusts that descend on Walmarts and targets across our bargain-besotted country immediately after Thanksgiving, was not particularly too good this year.

A survey released Sunday by the National Retail Federation found that consumer spending dipped from last year’s levels. The survey came out Sunday and so didn’t include that day’s totals, but expectation-based estimates determined that sales would be down about 3.5 percent.

The foundation blamed it on a lot of things, including consumer exhaustion with the hand-to-hand combat of store shopping on the busiest retail business day of the year.

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“A strengthening economy that changes consumers' reliance on deep discounts, a highly competitive environment, early promotions, and the ability to shop 24/7 online all contributed to the shift witnessed this weekend,” NRF president and CEO Matthew Shay said in a statement, as reported by AFP and in Business Insider.

There may be other reasons, as hard-wired in the national experience as economics. Partly because of panoramic weekend protests over a grand jury’s exoneration of Darren Dean Wilson, the white Ferguson, Mo., police officer who shot Michael Brown Jr. to death on Aug. 9, the American attention span has changed about race, the media and our values.

Over the weekend, the union of commerce and civic concern made sure the phrase “Black Friday” will never mean the same thing again. On Monday, a White House initiative and its counterpart in Ferguson made sure that, one way or another, the country will never be the same again.

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SO MUCH has happened in the last 72 hours, it’s hard to keep everything straight. On Friday, shoppers in malls and shopping districts across the country encountered protesters, by the hundreds or the thousands, who voiced outrage at the Ferguson grand jury’s pass on any punishment for Wilson, who killed the unarmed Brown in an encounter whose specifics remain in dispute.

You could say it started near the epicenter. Malls in Richmond Heights, Des Peres, Chesterfield and St. Louis, Mo., were the targets of protesters who crowded escalators, conducted die-ins and carried signs announcing the fact that BLACK LIVES MATTER.

Protesters snarled traffic in Oakland; at the West Oakland BART station, protesters took the novel tack of linking themselves together with bicycle locks and duct tape, forming a chain of protest that was stronger than just holding hands. In San Francisco they took to the streets near Union Square, the city’s glitziest shopping district.

In Seattle, the tree-lighting ceremony at Westlake Center had to contend with Ferguson protesters who made their way through the ceremony and into the Westlake Center mall, then moved down the street and onto the upper floors of the vast Pacific Place shopping mall nearby.

Similar protests took place in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Miami and other U.S. cities, with some even calling for boycotts of stores, appealing to the better angels of consumer nature. The same thing happened on Sunday, and again on Monday, almost certainly at a shopping mall near you.

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But for governments state and federal, Monday was a Rubicon-crossing day on all matters Ferguson. That’s when President Obama announced he would sign an executive order meant to connect federal government largesse — hundreds of millions worth of military-grade equipment and technology sent to law enforcement agencies — with enhanced training for law enforcement officers.

The president proposed a sweeping $263-million program that would include emphasis on police-community relations, and $75 million intended to cover half the cost of 50,000 body cameras, for use by cops around the country — the better to prevent the next Michael Brown/Darren Wilson incident.

And in Missouri on Monday, the Ferguson Commission (the panel put together by Gov. Jay Nixon for the purpose of preventing the same thing), began its work ... facing the protesters that matter, the ones who live in the belly of the beast.

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YOU’RE forgiven if your eyes glazed over slightly when you saw the word “Ferguson” in direct apposition to the word “Commission.” As a nation, we’ve been down this official road before, with varying degrees of success.

The Warren Commission investigated the assassination of President Kennedy, yielding results that many have doubts about today. The Kerner Commission examined the cause of race riots in 1967, ylelding results that were hopeful at first but ultimately challenged by political pushback, changes in the economy, and the inherent contradiction of the commission’s support of more police surveillance and informants — a version of the same antagonistic police culture that would give us ... the Ferguson Police Department.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Ferguson: The hammer and the nail

ON THE same day Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman were posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation for which that medal stands took a giant lurch backward, into the era of feverishly fabricated, desperately rationalized darkness that made their sacrifice what it is today.

Darren Wilson, a white police officer for the city of Ferguson, Mo., was cleared late Monday of any and all charges for the August 9 killing of Michael Brown, Jr., by a grand jury manipulated by a prosecutor’s personal and political mission, and a governor’s own invertebrate inclinations. Despite numerous eyewitness reports that suggest Wilson’s actions may well have been a murder in everything but name, the Ferguson cop walked on charges of first and second-degree murder, voluntary and involuntary manslaughter.

Wilson now joins George Zimmerman, the slayer of Trayvon Martin, in that dim outback pariah zone of the American consciousness, a space inhabited by our national cyphers and trivia-question answers, people of rash action and weak judgment.

And the cynicism that ran through the legal process of a sad episode yielded something apparently inescapable: the continuing devaluation of African American lives. As former prosecutor Paul Butler told MSNBC, “it does seem as though an unarmed African American man or woman has no rights that a white cop is bound to respect.”

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We knew something heavy was coming when the drum roll started. Seven or eight minutes before St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch went into a room at the Buzz Westfall Justice Center in Clayton, the county seat and 11 miles south of Ferguson, someone in the crowd outside — somebody with a nice sense of drama and American military tradition — began a prolonged drum roll, the kind before a ceremony, or an execution, maybe, in the era of the Civil War.

It may well have been a flourish before the summary execution of proper prosecutorial conduct. McCulloch launched into a bizarre 25-minute disquisition by turns rationalization and incident report, praisesong for the grand jurors and indictment of the media.

Some of the problem with McCulloch’s soliloquy wasn’t what he said, it was the way he said it. Mostly with his head down, buried in his prepared statement, McCulloch might as well have been reading from an actuarial table or documenting the fine points of an insurance policy. He made the obligatory acknowledgement to the Brown family of the pain and heartache of their son’s death, but it was pro forma. There was very little heart behind it.

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NOT NEAR as much heart as he put into his shots at the media. “The most significant challenge encountered in this investigation has been the 24-hour news cycle and its insatiable appetite for something, for anything to talk about, following closely behind with the non-stop rumors on social media,” McCulloch said, completely overlooking his role in giving the media, and everyone else, exactly that — in a number of targeted leaks of information intended to smear Michael Brown’s character and reputation.

From the beginning, McCulloch embarked on a strategy breathtaking for its manipulation of legal practice. McCulloch, with a generosity uncommon to prosecutors, decided to give the grand jurors all the available evidence in the Michael Brown case — to effectively flood the zone with evidence, both that consistent with what a prosecutor requires, and information commonly used at trial by a defense attorney.

A number of exhibits — Brown’s toxicology workup, an unrelated video of Brown minutes before the fatal encounter with Wilson — were introduced by McCulloch’s staff, in what amounted to character assassination by way of an unusually generous prosecutorial largesse.. The county prosecutor was doing the work of a defense attorney. Wilson’s defense attorney. Maybe at no other time in the history of American jurisprudence has a lawyer worked both sides of the street, as prosecutor and defense counsel, at the same time.

“This prosecutor bent over backwards to insure that there would not be charges filed,” said legal analyst Lisa Bloom on MSNBC. “He rigged the system to get the results he wanted.”

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Some of what McCulloch said Monday night (much of it already on the record), left open challenges by the Justice Department, which we can almost certainly expect as the closing statement of Eric Holder’s career as U.S. attorney general.

At one point Monday, McCullouch said: “A nearby tenant, during a video chat, inadvertently captured the final 10 shots on tape. There was a string of several shots, followed by a brief pause, following by another string of several shots.”

Transcript of the grand jury proceedings

Considering the low threshold for an indictment on a charge of voluntary manslaughter — probably the one and only charge Wilson was really facing — the question is, how could a sequence of several shots, followed by a brief pause, followed by another string of several shots not rise to the level of at least voluntary manslaughter?

Wilson’s pause in the slaughter — that break for reflection, for thinking — will almost certainly be an issue in any follow-on actions by the Justice Department, which, thanks to groups like CREDO and ColorOfChange, is being pressured to make a top priority in the sunset of Holder’s Justice Department career.

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THE EVENTS of Monday night throw shadow on the sunset of another political career: President Obama. Presiding over yet another teachable moment in the national history, Obama made an impromptu address to the country from the White House Briefing Room not long after McCulloch’s statement.

“First and foremost, we are a nation built on the rule of law,” the president said. “And so we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make. There are Americans who agree with it, and there are Americans who are deeply disappointed, even angry. It’s an understandable reaction. But I join Michael’s parents in asking anyone who protests this decision to do so peacefully.”

The president’s speech was perfectly necessary. But in some ways its timing, and television’s use of that timing, were perfectly awful. On MSNBC, and probably other networks, viewers were witness to an arresting real-life coincidence that split-screen technology made the most of.

On one side of the screen, Obama spoke with force and clarity about the need for calm in the wake of the Ferguson grand jury proceedings. On the other side of the screen — in a surreal, tragically ironic real-time juxtaposition, were images from the streets of Ferguson: tear gas aloft, police cruisers rocked by protesters, cops advancing.

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That juxtaposition — not before and after, but now and also-now, distilled everything of the national dynamic about race; it explained, like no words could, the schizoid comfort/discomfort zone we live in as a nation. How on racial issues we’ve gotten comfortable with a perverse balance of the anodyne and the anarchic.

The president got this himself, made it clear later in the speech that he understands how that split-screen applies to anywhere in the nation. Twenty-four hours later, you could juxtapose other related events from more than 100 different locations, across the country.

And the networks did just that, juxtaposing events in Oakland, Calif. (where protesters lay down on the highway in protest of the grand jury’s decision) and Chicago (where protesters hit the downtown streets in vast numbers).

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WHAT WENT down on Monday and Tuesday in Seattle (where protesters snarled traffic on the interstate and staged spot demonstrations on Capitol Hill) was much the same as what happened in New York City (where protesters filled Times Square, shut down three city bridges and splashed NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton with red paint). You could split-screen Los Angeles with Salt Lake City. And Denver with Cleveland. And Milwaukee with Miami. And Albuquerque with Atlanta. And Dallas with Minneapolis.

“We need to recognize that this is not just an issue for Ferguson,” Obama said Monday. “This is an issue for America. We have made enormous progress in race relations over the course of the past several decades. I've witnessed that in my own life. And to deny that progress I think is to deny America’s capacity for change.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Election 2014: Gridlock 2.0:
The new Congress and the next stasis

THE POSTWAR world of the United States is slowly taking shape in Washington. Republicans are flush with victory after Tuesday’s election, the results of which confer unto the GOP the first Republican-dominated Congress in eight years, and the biggest Republican majority in the House of Representatives since Truman.

Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, fresh off his own big re-election win, is set to become the new Senate Majority Leader; the drapes are being pulled out of Harry Reid’s old office as we speak. And with the election announcing a new Congress, there was a brief détente of sorts on Capitol Hill early this week. The peace dove was loose in the air.

On Wednesday, McConnell said that, under his watch as majority leader, “we’re not gonna be shutting down the government or defaulting on the national debt” — a pre-emptive budgetary olive branch to the Obama administration if there ever was one. President Obama, likewise making nice, spoke the same day in the East Room of the White House, saying “I would enjoy having some Kentucky bourbon with Mitch McConnell.” We can hear the Woodford Reserve splashing into glasses, neat.

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But before you cue up “Kum Ba Yah,” take note of something else: Wednesday was the same day that McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner published an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, outlining GOP plans in the new Congress.

On the wish list of the 114th Congress: revising the tax code; legislative support of charter schools, more militarily muscular responses to ISIS and other terrorist threats; construction of the Keystone XL pipeline; and the big one, “renewing our commitment to repeal ObamaCare, which is hurting the job market along with Americans’ health care.”

“The skeptics say nothing will be accomplished in the next two years,” they wrote. “As elected servants of the people, we will make it our job to prove the skeptics wrong.”

It got worse. On Thursday, really feeling his oats, Boehner warned Obama not to take any executive action that would ban the deportation of undocumented immigrants, “When you play with matches, you take the risk of burning yourself,” Boehner said of the president. “And he’s going to burn himself if he continues to go down this path. The American people made clear on Election Day they want to get things done, and they don’t want the president to act on a unilateral basis.”

“I’ve made clear to the president that if he acts unilaterally, on his own, outside his authority, he will poison the well, and there will be no chance for immigration reform moving in this Congress,” Boehner said.

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WITH MCCONNELL and Boehner in the room, the president responded on Friday, pledging to implement an executive order authorizing perhaps as many as 5 million illegal immigrants to stay in the United States on at least a temporary basis, despite Republican objection. The Washington Post reports that the president “is expected to announce his intentions after returning from a visit to China, Burma and Australia, either this month or in early December.”

“The president has the authority to act by executive order on immigration,” House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi told The New York Times later. “It’s in the law, but it’s also in the precedent of other presidents, whether it’s President Eisenhower, Kennedy, both Bushes, President Reagan — it just goes on and on.”

We’ve seen congressional-powered gridlock for much of the previous three years. Now we can anticipate a different kind of stasis, as President Obama (backed into an operational corner like never before) uses executive orders to advance his legislative agenda — and vetoes legislation coming from a Congress whose bills he’s rejected, but far more infrequently, before.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Election 2014: Chronicle of a defeat foretold

THE TELEVISION schedules of everyone in America will now return to their regularly scheduled commercial programming. Our long national TV campaign-ad nightmare is over.

The defeat of the Democrats in their bid to hold on to the United States Senate — the defeat that pundits and analysts have been predicting for weeks — came to pass last night, as voters seriously vented, letting off steam in a number of battleground states and ushering in a unified Republican Congress for the first time in eight years.

A number of governor’s races went the Democrats’ way, and 147 ballot initiatives let liberalism ring, with approvals for recreational marijuana and a striking agenda for enhancing the minimum wage. But other governors’ races — Florida, lost by a hair; Wisconsin, lost in a walk — went the Republicans’ way. And the big enchilada, the Senate was gone.

E.J. Dionne, his timing pitch perfect, tweeted the comments of a Democratic consultant lamenting the outcome of the election while being relieved about D.C.’s vote to decriminalize marijuana: “At least we can get stoned tonight.”

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When is a wave not a wave? The anti-incumbent outrage that animated a lot of the political media never really materialized. Incumbents Democratic and Republican alike stayed on in states from Maine to Nevada, Iowa to New Jersey.

There was a wave, to be sure, one that solidifies control of the Congress by the Republicans. But with several incumbents held over, at the Senate and gubernatorial levels, it was clear that any anti-incumbent wave was a situational experience, not a wave but a wavelet, with voters assessing on a state-by-state basis who was doing well and who wasn’t, an overview that wasn’t subject to being applied across the board.

There were exceptions, some breaks in that wave for the Democrats. Progressive ideas advanced in red states, with ballot initiatives in four states approving new minimum wage standards. In Colorado, the regressive “personhood” amendment went down to defeat (for the third time). And in blue-state Oregon and red-state Alaska, voters approved measures decriminalizing marijuana for personal use.

But the throughline, the deeper story, is one that’s set Democratic objectives back, at least in the short term.

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THE BLAME game-on-the-Potomac is well under way. And there’s plenty enough to go around. Yes, Harry Reid, the outgoing Senate Majority Leader, deepened the divide in Congress with his own intransigence about what bills came to the floor for debate

And yes, President Obama engaged the GOP that was his legislative bête noire, but he did it diffidently, surgically, too calculated by half, acting like a man trying to psych his way out of a street fight.

But Democrats lost finally not because of any deficit of messaging, or any shortage of concern from President Obama and the White House over turnout or voter disenfranchisement, or the economic issues more regularly keeping Americans awake at night.

Republicans won in no small part because of the structural changes to the electoral map, their own tireless efforts at gerrymandering, and, simply enough, because many of the key Senate races this year were in red and/or purple states where longstanding political culture and history reflected the Republican identity, and where Democratic candidates’ reluctance to embrace their own leader favored the Republican message.

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Consider Iowa. Republican Joni Ernst won there in a squeaker over Democrat Bruce Braley in a race that shouldn’t have been that close. In a state like Iowa, it’s frankly a wonder that Braley was even remotely competitive. Much of the Democratic Party’s success in recent years has come through not only expanding the electoral map, but also expanding its outreach to a demographically evolving electorate.

Braley, whose party represents that expanding electorate, was up against a huge challenge in a state like Iowa, whose population is overwhelmingly whiter, older and — thanks to a long and grand tradition of farming and agriculture — necessarily more rural than most Democratic voters. Iowa is a stronghold of people more like Joni Ernst, culturally and politically speaking, than people like Bruce Braley. And it has been for years.

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DAVID CORN of Mother Jones, in a postmortem that went up so fast last night you knew he wrote it some time ago, observed how we got here:

Obama's wins have often been nuanced or mixed, especially from the perspective of his supporters. In the lame-duck session after the 2010 elections, he won a tax package that was a mini-stimulus—but at the cost of extending George W. Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy. His health care reform—the product of a long and ugly legislative tussle—did not include a public option, and then yielded the website fiasco. ...

He issued orders that protected certain undocumented immigrants—but deportations increased, and he delayed further action that would protect undocumented immigrants. He went along with GOP-pushed budget cuts to protect other spending priorities and to prevent a debt ceiling implosion. 

Through much of this, he had trouble presenting his side of the tale — and he was often reluctant to bash the Republicans because he believed he was obliged to keep trying to forge reasonable deals with the opposition. At times, the president did let loose on his Republican enemies, but this was done only intermittently, in specific circumstances, and Obama never developed a consistent plot line that depicted the GOP as a force of unwavering obstructionism.

Uncertain messaging, complex policy wins, compromise, and mess — it's not a surprise that members of the Democratic coalition with tenuous ties to the political process dropped out. ...

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For Corn, the way forward for Democrats should have meant taking a look backwards: “To beat back the expected oppositional waves of 2010 and 2014, he needed a playbook as unconventional, imaginative, and effective as those he used in 2008 and 2012,” he writes. “He needed to keep show-me independents on his side and Democratic-leaning voters, particularly those who otherwise would be unconcerned with politics, somehow engaged in the process. And he had to do this while presiding over a Washington that seemed to be a miasma of disorder and while contending with a troubled economy and all hell breaking loose overseas.”

Election 2014: North Carolina: Tar Heels for Tillis

AFTER HE won his Republican Senate primary on May 6 with 45.7 percent of the vote, Thom Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina House, struck the right conciliatory chord, promising to “work across party lines to pass an agenda focused on generating growth and opportunities for middle-class families and small businesses.”

The message that carried him to victory in the state’s primary was strong enough to use again in the general election yesterday, to great effect. Tillis defeated Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, 49 percent to 47 percent, flipping North Carolina’s Senate leadership to blue to red and winning the most expensive Senate campaign in American history.

Tillis’ message and his strategy have been nothing if not consistent. In May he smashed his weak primary-season challengers, Libertarian/Tea Party darling Greg Brannon (27 percent) and Charlotte pastor Mark Harris (17 percent). And he remained on message long enough, months later, to beat the incumbent Hagan handily.

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Hagan, who until the very end adopted the Democratic practice of staying at arm’s length from the president, suffered from associations with Obama just the same. But she was somewhat wounded by a Senate career that didn’t set the world on fire for some Tar Heel State voters.

“It’s as much an anti-Obama vote as any of the other reasons, but not entirely,” retired Charlotte neurosurgeon Jerry Greenhooot, told The Charlotte Observer. “I can’t think of one thing (Hagan) has done.”

One recent poll suggests Tillis has his work cut out for him in the likeability department, despite what happened last night. An NBC News/Marist poll conducted Oct. 19-23 showed Hagan's disapproval rating at 48 percent and Tillis' unfavorables at 44 percent. For some voters, it was a matter of not so much liking Tillis as it was a case of just disliking Hagan more.

Still, Tillis managed to capitalize on the viral discontent with Washington in general and the Obama administration in particular. Tapping into that broad sentiment didn’t make a big difference last night. Just big enough to win. We’ll see if the sweeping bipartisan overture he made in May holds up when he gets to Capitol Hill next year.

Image credits: Tillis: via Real Clear Politics.

Election 2014: Kentucky: Grimes’ rookie mistake

WHAT was already predicted to be a bad night for Democrats started, well, predictably. By the night’s end, though, the disaster of Alison Lundergan Grimes’s Senate campaign was a template for the serial Democratic disasters to follow.

Built into her losing effort — she fell to Sen. Mitch McConnell, the presumptive next Senate Majority Leader, by fat double digits, 56 percent to 40 percent — was the folly of other Democrats in this election: an unwillingness to stand with President Obama, the standard-bearer of the Democratic Party, and an inability to craft a clear, articulate, passionate message that stay-at-home voters could get their hearts around.

From practically the minute the polls closed last night, McConnell was declared the winner in a hard-fought, nasty campaign. She followed the news of McConnell’s victory with a sour grace note: a concession speech that didn’t concede anything.

◊ ◊ ◊

Grimes, the Kentucky secretary of state, launched a campaign that showed her to be a challenger eager to position herself and her campaign as a fresh alternative to the sclerotic leadership of McConnell, who’s long presented himself as a master of congressional gridlock.

Her campaign was seen as a long-shot to begin with; Kentucky is a reliably red state and has been for decades. But Grimes soldiered on for months, holding her own in the polling, focusing on several tractionable economic issues, and bolstering faint Democratic hopes of turning Kentucky blue at the congressional level.

Then Grimes committed the unforced error of a political novice. In an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal, she stubbornly and repeatedly refused to say whether or not she voted for President Obama in either 2008 or 2012. Grimes rationalized — doubling down on her refusal as some kind of a stand of principle, saying that her past voting history had no bearing on what was facing Kentucky in the future.

It was the wrong principle to stand on. At least seven times in a week, Grimes refused to answer a question that should have been laughably easy.

◊ ◊ ◊

IT was the kind of inexplicable rookie mistake that might have been overlooked in a primary campaign, but not in this high-visibility general-election contest, with the Senate hanging in the balance. And there’s good reason to think that Democrats, especially black Democrats, didn’t forgive her.

A Bluegrass Poll conducted before Grimes’ Courier-Journal interview found HGrimes had a solid core of 80 percent support among the state’s black voters, 8 percent of the state’s total. A Bluegrass Poll after the interview found that black voter support had plummeted 20 points. McConnell’s favorables climbed by seven points. He never looked back after that.

The message from Grimes’ curious stand on the sanctity of the secret personal ballot was the wrong one to send. For loyal black Democrats, it sent the corrosive message that Grimes had no conviction — or at least no conviction she was willing to share out loud. And for stay-at-home Democratic voters, the Cousin Pookies of the Bluegrass State, it was just one more reason not to vote. Think of it: the Democratic candidate running for a Senate seat didn’t think enough of the leader of her own party to admit she voted for him. Why vote for her if she wouldn’t admit to voting for him?

Image credits: Grimes top: Alton Strupp/Louisville Courier-Journal. Grimes lower: Patrick Delehanty.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Election 2014: What anti-incumbent wave?

The election was characterized before the fact as likely evidence of an anti-incumbent wave, but to this point, that idea hasn't taken hold so far. Whether voters dump incumbents or keep them is a situationally specific matter, rather than something reflecting a broad "wave" sentiment. Incumbents in several key races have been called the winners tonight in Maine, Illinois, Tennessee, Massachusetts, Delaware, Alabama, Rhode Island and New Jersey. More to come.

Election 2014: McConnell in big early lead

This one may be over already. With 1 percent of the vote in in Kentucky’s Senate race, MSNBC reports that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is swamping Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes, 60 percent to 38 percent.

That’s with only about 12,000 votes cast. It’s early yet but if these early numbers hold up, it’ll be a long short night for Grimes.

Vote. Today.

YES, IT’S TODAY. The time for talk really is over now. It’s Election Day. The cliché machine is warming up in the punditburo’s bullpen. Watch for the phrase “stakes couldn’t be higher.” It’s a reliable phrase, one that’s been used before with varying degrees of accuracy.

Today, though, what hangs in the balance for the next two years justifies the word “stakes.” The tidal gravity of Congress is set to shift again; it all depends on turnout. It all depends on who shows up.

In a recent speech, President Obama called out to Democrats to show up today, conjuring a hypothetical “Cousin Pookie,” the archetypal stay-at-home voter tuned to the rhythms of an African-American audience. It was time, he said, to get Cousin Pookie off the couch and into the voting booth.

It’s axiomatic in American politics that, for midterm elections, the electorate reliably becomes a nation of Cousin Pookies of both genders and every ethnic slice. Turnout is consistently down compared to elections in presidential-vote years. And this year, more than previously, there’s a lot that’s up in the air.

◊ ◊ ◊

This vote could decide the arc of environmental regulations, the role and projection of America’s armed military might around the world, and the makeup of the Supreme Court for the next generation. It matters. Maybe the stakes really couldn’t be higher this time.

So, if you haven’t voted yet, go. If you mail your vote in, dig out the stamps under the bills on your desk. With control of the Senate hanging in the balance, and about 150 ballot initiatives up for decision across the United States, this election will set the stage, thematically and emotionally, for what’s coming in 2016. If you really want to understand how the big show works, you need to be at the dress rehearsal. This is it.

Go ahead. Get Cousin Pookie. Or Cousin Ethan. Or Cousin Indira. Or Cousin Fouad. Or Cousin Shaniqua. Or Cousin Ernesto. Do this thing. In a country that gets more enamored of numbers and data all the time, in a political age that’s smug in its certainties about civic apathy, there aren’t many opportunities to stick your hand up and say “I’m here! I’m in the house! I matter!”

This is one of those times. Don’t let it get away.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Election 2014: Looking for the weathervane

THE NEW MSNBC pre-election promo ad made its debut over the weekend. The refreshingly speech-free ad features a number of the channel’s hosts and personalities and friends, holding fingers to their lips — fingers marked with the word “VOTE.” After several seconds of this, the ad finally drops the big reveal in another card:

“The Time for Talk Is Over.”

All due props to the folks at MSNBC for this soundless call to civic action, but in some important ways, they couldn’t be more wrong. The time for talk may well be over for the punditburo —  the Beltway crowd and the analysts, the seers and Sabbath gasbags who’ve been talking about the upcoming election since the last one was over.

For most of the country, the time for talk — for a serious discussion of the issues local and national, among themselves and with the people they know and trust — is just getting started. And to go by a variety of recent opinion polls of those American people, they’re talking by not saying very much that’s committal one way or the other. At least out loud.

◊ ◊ ◊

As opinion polls come back with results as gridlocked and inconclusive as we think Congress is, what comes clear is an electorate wrestling with a choice of undesirable outcomes: two more years of stalemate and stratagem from a Congress determined to do as little as possible as long as possible; or two years of a unified Congress free at last to exact its own privatizing, corporatist agenda under a majority-Republican banner.

The early money said Republicans were a lock to recapture the Senate, if just barely. That may or may not happen, but what’s been missing in recent weeks is the cocksure certainty that it will happen.

To a great extent, recent polling, demographic assumptions and research used by mainstream media, political analysts and the campaigns themselves have been forced into a state of unknowing, an uncertainty  that suggests the election six days away may be more of a horse race than many have believed. They’re all looking for the weathervane to know which way the wind blows, and all that many campaign seers see right now is the dead calm of no discernible wind at all.

◊ ◊ ◊

IN THE Daily Beast on Oct. 22, veteran political reporter Eleanor Clift reported on a recent focus group of women in Charlotte, N.C., and posited their response on the candidates in their pivotal state as typical of voters around the country:

The women gathered around a table Monday night in Charlotte and in New Orleans are registered voters, but this election they’ve pretty much tuned out politics. It’s just too depressing when all the candidates do is bash each other. And world affairs are no comfort either, with Ebola surfacing as the latest scary thing.

Better to put on blinders, they say, and focus on home and family.

The fact that [Sen.] Kay Hagan in North Carolina and [Sen.] Mary Landrieu in Louisiana are women doesn’t much impress these voters, dubbed Walmart Moms for their shopping habits and having at least one child under 18 at home. When asked whether they would vote for Hagan or her challenger, Republican Thom Tillis, they resisted siding with either candidate. Asked if Hagan deserves reelection, not a single hand went up -- which is the same thing that happened when asked if she didn’t deserve reelection.

“All those ads and you don’t know one way or another?” the moderator pressed. Many millions have been spent on television ads in North Carolina, as groups on the right and left try to sway the electorate.

When would they decide? “When it gets closer to the time,” one woman said. How would they decide? “Google it,” said another. When? “Probably the night before.”

◊ ◊ ◊

WHAT CLIFT reported is both dispiriting and encouraging. It’s dispiriting because it dovetails so seamlessly with the longstanding political truism that midterm voters don’t show up, as a matter of course — and also because it suggests that, despite years of living with Hagan as their senator, these North Carolinians are even disengaged as to what she’s already done in the state they live and work and pay taxes in.

But it’s perversely encouraging too. It means that despite millions in TV ad money flooding the North Carolina market (about half and half for Democrats and Republicans alike, The Wall Street Journal reported), voters aren’t being pushed into deciding anything on the weight of those ad buys. At least not yet. Whoever wins or loses the ad war really doesn’t matter — not to the public those ads are aimed at, anyway.

Neil Newhouse is encouraged, too, but for other reasons, not necessarily correct. “If control of the senate goes through North Carolina, then these women are ripe for the picking,” said Newhouse, the Republican pollster whose Public Opinion Strategies firm conducted the Charlotte focus group, with Democratic strategist Margie Omero of Purple Strategies.

But if they’re “ripe for the picking,” why haven’t they been picked yet? The power of TV and direct-mail advertising isn’t to be overlooked in a hot race like North Carolina’s. But the question remains: With just days before the election, what more can you do to reach, to persuade these presumably persuadable voters that you haven’t already done?

Omero told Clift: ““There’s a much lower level of engagement than you’d expect given all the ads, and all the money. They’re tuning it out.”

◊ ◊ ◊

One reason for disengagement may have to do with efforts, loose in the nation, to suppress voter turnout altogether, and it’s in this matter the Republicans face the biggest risk of blowback — of people finally deciding to show up at the polls out of civic pique, people coming to the conclusion that even if they don’t want to vote, they’ll be damned if one party or the other is gonna stop them from voting.

Republican efforts to curtail exercise of the American franchise are an inherent contradiction. There’s something fundamentally twisted and wrong with a political party that wants the American people to cast a vote expressing their resentment at the same time that party’s doing everything it can to stop a lot of the American people from voting at all.

Undeterred, they’re taking a different familiar tack. The two epidemiological preoccupations of the moment — Ebola and ISIS — are being symbolically exploited by the GOP. Republicans in the states up for grabs and on Capitol Hill have been trying to nationalize the midterms, trying to make November 4th the date of the national immunization election — the date to purge themselves of all things Obama, and by extension the candidates of his party, and everything “bad” that’s happened under his watch.
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