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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Who's the Worst Democratic President?

A few weeks ago, a few of my friends and I were discussing the rankings of various Democratic presidents. A point of contention arose regarding whether Andrew Jackson could be considered a great president. Jackson, familiar to many Americans as the face of the $20 bill, is widely viewed, by an array of presidential historians, as belonging to the exclusive pantheon of great presidents. Jackson facilitated a strengthening of executive power, firmly defended the Union against efforts at nullification, and portrayed himself as a populist. These elements of his legacy largely influence his high rankings in the lists of great presidents. However, Jackson's legacy is marred by the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears, his politically motivated push to destroy the National Bank, and truly bizarre episodes like the Peggy Eaton affair. Let's not mince words: some of the most consequential Jackson decision were enormously destructive for many, many people. His treatment of Natives tops the list. How would any of that make him a "great" president? Some of my progressive friends and I firmly believe that when a president's policies indisputably lead to real, large-scale destruction of many real people's lives - with no discernible positive effect for society - those factors ought to lower the respective president's ranking. Nevertheless, with respect to President Jackson, presidential historians, by and large, seem to disagree and instead value other factors more strongly in their rankings.

This conversation does make way for an interesting political discussion though: who is actually the worst Democratic president? I'm (obviously) a proud Democrat but, certainly before the 20th century, we had some pretty awful Democratic -- and Republican -- presidents. The aforementioned historians have settled on one particular candidate for that unfortunate distinction: James Buchanan. There is no doubt that Buchanan belongs at or near the bottom of the list. The failure to tackle the slavery issue as the Civil War loomed was inexcusable. Buchanan is arguably faulted more so for what he did not do then what he did do (which is not much); being the immediate predecessor to Abraham Lincoln does not help him either. In my humble opinion, there are two Democratic presidents who deserve to rank even lower than Buchanan though historians do not usually see it this way. Those two are Grover Cleveland and Andrew Johnson. Cleveland, despite ranking relatively around the middle in most lists, deserves to have an even lower ranking than he does in most surveys. He stubbornly stuck by the horrid idea of retaining the gold standard, normalized an anti-labor strain in federal policy for the next several decades through his militaristic response to the Pullman Strike, and divided the Democratic Party in such a way that his presidency culminated in the 1896 realigning election that catapulted the Republicans to dominant status in national politics. For these reasons, Cleveland was a consequentially bad president, in my view. With regards to Andrew Johnson, he was also both significant in his impact and unfortunately, his influence was not for good. The consequence of Lincoln's assassination meant that Lincoln's plan for Reconstruction and his strong leadership style would not come to fruition in the aftermath of the Civil War. Therefore, the task of uniting the country would be left to Johnson and his handling of it was disastrous. His overt racism, active opposition to the constitutional amendments that banned slavery and ensured equal protection, and his facilitation of the very first post-Civil War Southern efforts to discriminate against blacks set the tone for a string of subpar presidencies and, ultimately, for a century of unfulfilled promises for the disenfranchised. Andrew Jackson may belong lower than he does and James Buchanan certainly belongs near the bottom but Cleveland and Johnson, in my humble opinion, probably belong even nearer to the bottom than they do now for being so consequentially horrible.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Are Presidential Delays of Action the Right Call?

For as long as there has been public opinion polling, presidents have been influenced by the opinions of the electorate. For as long as presidents have been influenced by public opinion, they have virulently and invariably claimed that they are not influenced by politics and don't really care about polls. It's true that many of the most significant decisions that modern presidents have made were unpopular judgment calls that, in their estimations, were the right thing to do on policy grounds despite the political implications. Often, these presidents are rewarded by history for making such decisions. In many cases, these decisions are warranted because the consequences of not acting at that time would cause significant damage for the parties and interests involved or, most importantly, for the country's sake at large. However, what is also true is that there are certain consequential policy decisions that, for various reasons, are better left for implementation until after the next election campaign season has subsided. This reality exists because throwing a wrench like a major policy factor into a campaign season could mean that that decision is improperly influenced by politics in that it is watered down or adjusted in a way that properly adapts to the politics of the moment or this decision could harm key congressional allies of the President's in swing races that affect larger party control of a chamber and if that party loses such control, broader policy implications on an array of important fronts are negatively affected. Given such conflicting issues, it is difficult to ascertain, for me personally, whether presidential delays of action until after the elections are the right call. On the one hand, negative policy consequences and suffering for real people affected by the delays persist. On the other hand, there could be a greater political acceptance and ease and comfort in the Washington landscape in implementation if such a decision is carried out after the elections. On the whole, I tend to think President Obama's decision to delay implementation of his impending executive actions to provide broad deportation relief until after the midterm election is a good call. There are not many Latino voters in the southern states in which vulnerable Democratic senators are up for reelection, such action could harm their campaigns as they are seeking distance with the President who is very unpopular in those places, and the fact of the matter is that he and his administration could, in the mean time (before they announce their changes after the midterms) use their prosecutorial discretion to ease deportations or prioritize deportations to focus on individuals at the border or those in the interior who have committed very serious crimes and there's some evidence that lately, under Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, this has happened. Further, if the President is delaying action, it means that after the election, he has more leeway politically to "go bold" and "go big," as immigration reform advocates have been pressing him to do, and provide more large-scale relief to undocumented immigrants, as he will not be constrained by the politics. However, maybe I am wrong and if I am wrong on this issue, on which I am still open to persuasion, please let me know. In terms of historical precedent, by the way, it's worth noting President Bush delayed announcing the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld until after the 2006 midterms justifying his decision by saying in a press conference the day after the midterms that he did not want to insert a major decision like that into the political landscape before the elections. Was he right? Is Obama right here? Let me know your thoughts.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Midterm Profiles 2014: Iowa - U.S. Senate Race

IOWA: U.S. SENATE RACE

(Photo from Omaha.com)

Who's running? 
Democratic Congressman Bruce Braley is running against Republican state senator Joni Ernst for an open seat vacated by retiring longtime Democratic Senator Tom Harkin.

What do the polls show?
The RealClearPolitics.com polling average shows Ms. Ernst with an 0.2 percent lead.

What are the political prognosticators saying? 
RealClearPolitics.com rates the race as a "toss up." In early August, Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight.com  listed Iowa as a race where "Republicans chances have improved" while Silver wrote in the same article: "our model will view the fundamentals of the race as slightly favoring Braley...[because of] being slightly closer to the center...than Ernst, he's been elected to a higher office, and he's raised...more money." National Journal wrote in late July that "over the past several months, the Iowa Senate race...[has] turned from a long sho[t] to a promising Republican pickup opportunit[y]." Professor John Sides, my teacher for Campaigns and Elections class right now at GW, has Ernst at a 66 percent chance of winning, per his Election Lab model. Sides noted to me at the American Association of Political Scientists that that is "considered a toss-up."

What are the central policy differences? 
On FiveThirtyEight.com, Nate Silver ranks Iowa as the second most ideologically diverse divide in a swing Senate race this cycle. "Ernst is in the ideological middle of the GOP candidates this year," Silver writes, "[while] Braley is among the most liberal Democrats vying for a competitive Senate seat."

Congressman Braley is largely embracing the core elements of the national Democratic Party's policy agenda. He is strongly emphasizing his support for raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10, his support for strengthening equal pay laws, his backing of further government spending to create jobs, and for Senator Elizabeth Warren's effort to allow students to refinance their student loans. However, at the same time, he underscores on his website the fact that he "voted to prohibit the EPA from regulating Farm Dust" - a politically potent issue in Iowa.

Senator Ernst is portraying herself as a business-friendly Republican who supports lowering corporate taxes, is endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce, and has called for repeal of the Affordable Care Act. While national GOP figures like Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have endorsed measures like chained CPI to reduce Social Security benefits, Ernst has tried to walk a fine line in which she claims she supports protecting these benefits but vaguely endorses "reforms" to the program. She is also pro-life, a vocal opponent of gun control laws, and, as a Lt. Colonel and battalion commander in the Iowa National Army Guard, she has been emphasizing reforming programs to aid veterans.

What are Braley and Ernst's biggest strengths and weaknesses? 
Braley Strength: Per Professor Sides, Braley has a "very good ground game" that's a result of two excellent Obama campaign ground games, dating back to 2007 when the President was running in the Iowa caucus in which he won first place, and the establishment that Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin has coalesced, as Sides alluded to in his remarks. Further, I personally know that my friends Juliana Amin and Spencer Dixon are working on the Iowa Senate race there as field organizers for Mr. Braley and given their skill, talent, and determination and the impressive effort they've put into this race, and knowing what I know about their tremendous organizing efforts in past races, their involvement speaks well of Braley's campaign. Further, this is a state that has been slightly trending Democratic in recent years: Al Gore won the state in 2000 and Barack Obama comfortably won twice here. Beyond that, Braley's fundraising is extremely impressive in part thanks to the fact that, as a former trial lawyer, he has earned considerable financial backing from trial lawyers across the U.S. and the American Association for Justice which represents trial lawyers' interests.

Braley Weakness: Braley called Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley "just an Iowa farmer who never went to law school." Since these remarks, Braley's polling has weakened. Braley is also dragged down by national conditions as public opinion polling shows President Obama at a 34 percent approval rating in this state. Also: this story does not help Braley in terms of any perceptions of him as a frivolous trial lawyer.


Ernst Strength: "She's a really good candidate," Sides said at the American Association of Political Scientists conference this past weekend. Ernst reminds me a lot of Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania in 2010: a candidate who is to the right of the state but is a very appealing, strong political force there. She has walked a fine line on gay rights issues, for example, much like Senator Toomey, who said he would have voted for the repeal of Don't Ask/Don't Tell and who voted for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, has done too. The national conditions benefit her at this time as well, especially on matters like veterans' issues, where the Obama administration has come under fire amid the VA waiting list scandal, where she trumpets her own credentials as a vet and utilizes that background to play up her support for veterans' law reforms. Lastly, she is also incredibly adept at revving up the GOP base in this state without alienating moderate voters thus far, as evidenced by the fact that she's taken unusual positions such as advocating for Obamacare's repeal while also sort of praising the Medicaid expansion, a specific element of the law which may be popular among low-income GOP voters who benefit from that but nevertheless support her and is popular among centrist voters.

Ernst Weakness: Her fundraising lags behind that of Bruce Braley's by a considerable degree. Her association with big business interests also threatens to undermine her efforts to appeal to middle-class Iowans. This potentiality is highlighted by her recent praise of the Koch brothers at a closed-door event and by this.

How can you help Bruce Braley? 
You can sign up to donate or volunteer to Rep. Braley's campaign here: http://www.brucebraley.com/join-team/.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Dispatches from the Summer of Discipline

I thought to myself last spring that I have had enough fun in my life for now. It was a great ride eating Taylor Gourmet, Chiptole, Capriotti's, Chinese food, pizza, and Subway, among other salivating foods, in regular rotation - and barely exercising. I could never say I was deprived...though you could argue I was deprived of those famous cookie jars that kids desperately reach for at the top of the kitchen cabinet. I don't really remember such jars in my childhood. Well, I guess my mom made me plenty of Jello, cinnamon buns, and Persian kabob to make up for it -- and not in that order but that'd be a hell of a meal, I think.

If you can't decipher it by now, I really love food. It got the best of me though. I was noticeably much heavier than I was in my early high school years and unhealthily so. If you calculated my BMI, it was up there though maybe not as dire as Mike Huckabee's situation back in the day. Perhaps that's what TGI Friday's will do to you? Disclaimer: I still love TGIF and couldn't resist at least one visit with a few friends in July for Endless Appetizers for only $10! Anyway, time was running out to reverse this image before college ends because oh yeah, there was only one more year of college left! So the summer of 2014 would become the self-imposed "Summer of Discipline" (#SummerofDiscipline). The discipline in aiming to lose weight though would extend further to include LSAT studying too since I am taking the LSAT on September 27 so I can maybe eventually become a civil rights attorney, constitutional law professor, Senator, and....well, you get the drift. As the summer nears its end, I can celebrate a record of real results (yes, that is the same exact tagline I crafted when I managed Phyllis Mundy's 2010 reelection campaign and I have no regrets about using it here). Since the spring, I am down 17 pounds, my LSAT score has improved, and, despite my thought that I had enough fun in my life, I still had a lot of fun this summer too. Here's what I learned along the way:

Coaches help - a lot. Be thankful for their presence.
Though the summer of discipline is ostensibly supposed to be about discipling yourself, it doesn't hurt to have the help of others. In fact, it is enormously beneficial because it gives you the motivation, the stamina, and the desire to impress, to work harder, and to keep up with an established, scheduled regimen. That's why I am grateful to my personal trainer, Emily Willhoft, and to my LSAT course instructor, Palmer Heenan. The impact personal training courses and LSAT prep classes have had in improving the summer of discipline is immense. These teachers help give you the willpower, the tools, and the resources to stay strong. If you are trying to lose weight or studying for the LSAT or doing both at the same time, and you can afford to do this, get a personal trainer and sign up for an LSAT class. There are exercises that I know how to do and have a real impact on weight loss and there are questions I know how to answer on LSAT practice tests because of my personal trainer and my LSAT class, respectively. 

Summer is the best time to do this kind of thing.
For two simple reasons: 1) you spend more time outside and 2) frankly, you see so many good looking folks enjoying life in the summer, and clearly in full knowledge that they are indeed very good looking, that you think, you know what I got more work to do. 

I'm pretty lucky to have plenty in resources but once you get going, it's easier than you think. 
I want to emphasize: I was able to succeed in this effort so far in no small part because I am lucky and privileged enough to have the resources to do so, namely: a financially stable household, free (for me) access to two gyms, and caring and generous parents. Obviously, that is a massive help. However, it should also be noted that once you have the momentum instilled in you, you keep going and it is easier than you think. As my friend Jack Cartwright advised me, every single time I would look at food or drinks that looked appealing but was really not good for me, I would think to myself, what would I rather, that I eat this and ultimately gain weight or that I not eat this and ultimately lose weight. The answer was obvious each time. Further, once you get in a routine of exercising daily and eating right and studying at least an hour a day, there's no stopping for you, especially as there are constant reminders around you of what the product of success looks like.

News flash: Positive reinforcement > Shaming. 
You guessed it: fat-shaming people who are overweight is -- spoiler alert -- not a great idea! Aside from being straight up bullying and mean and rude, it is also not effective at actually motivating people to lose weight. What I found was most helpful to me in terms of other people's interactions was that words of encouragement, support, and positive reinforcement were incredibly uplifting. When friends and family cheer you on, insist to you that you are capable of something despite your skepticism, and when they applaud you along the way for the progress you've made, it makes a real difference. Nevertheless, it is crucial to note that honesty is really the best policy and it is especially useful in this circumstance because it's the sober assessments of friends and family, who tell you when they think you've gone wrong or taken a step backwards, that can make you also jolt yourself back into the swing of things. 

What's the secret formula? None! Sorry, Plankton. 
No secret and no magic and nothing complex. Eat right (I basically, with some variation of course given vacations and 4th of July weekend): special K with skim milk for breakfast, turkey on whole wheat sandwich for lunch, and chicken with salad for dinner. As for LSAT: study...a lot. Practice makes perfect. Take as many practice tests as you can, do the homework of your prep course, and utilize any and all online resources you can -- and hope that you have a great fraternity brother like Ryan Jerome who leaves behind for you all of his LSAT prep books he doesn't need anymore because he is going to Fordham Law. 

There are very few blog posts that I do without mentioning something political so, in my parting words here, can we all do a summer of discipline if we put our minds to it? YES WE CAN! 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Midterm Profiles 2014: Pennsylvania - Governor's Race

During this midterm election season, I am starting a new component of this blog: profiles of various contested, closely watched races across the country for governors' mansions, the U.S. House, and, most importantly, the U.S. Senate. These profiles will be based on a variety of sources including on the ground accounts, what the central policy differences are, what polling averages indicate, and the broader importance of each race. Since I am also a proud Democrat though, I will unashamedly include information on how you can help the Democratic candidates in each of these races too. We will begin in my backyard, in the great state of Pennsylvania...

PENNSYLVANIA: GOVERNOR'S RACE

Who's running? 
Incumbent Republican Governor Tom Corbett is running for a second term in office. Democratic gubernatorial nominee Tom Wolf, the revenue secretary under former Governor Edward G. Rendell, is running to unseat Governor Corbett.

What do the polls show?
The RealClearPolitics.com polling average shows Mr. Wolf leading by 21.7 points.

What are the political prognosticators saying?
RealClearPolitics.com rates the race as "likely Dem." The Cook Political Report says it's a "toss up." Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight.com says, "to come back from this deficit, Corbett probably needs Wolf to say something outlandish." National Journal recently said that Corbett is "dead man walking" and compared his situation to that of Rick Santorum's in 2006 when the then-Pennsylvania Senator lost reelection to now-Senator Bob Casey by 18 points.

What are the central policy differences? 
Governor Corbett is strongly emphasizing his support for pension reform, indicating that he wishes to see that "new employees would receive a defined pension benefit based on their average salary, years of service capped at 25 years, and a multiplier...[while] employees and the state would contribute to the plan, as would school districts for their workers," per the Hazleton Standard-Speaker. Corbett appears to be making this pitch central to his proposed second-term agenda as he promoted it in a stop in Sugarloaf, a town not too far from my neighborhood, earlier this week. The governor is also framing his support for natural gas drilling - which has expanded on his watch - as a job-creating economic boon.

Tom Wolf is decrying Governor Corbett's large cuts in education spending in his first year, promising instead to amend the funding formula for education in the state so as to allow for great education spending. In terms of the Marcellus Shale drilling issue, Mr. Wolf is heavily underscoring his backing of a severance tax on drilling -- something the governor has strenuously opposed -- and highlighting his support for stricter rules and regulations on drilling to, as he sees it, ensure it is done safely. Wolf is also highlighting his support for economic development projects and investments in manufacturing after Corbett cut economic grant programs championed by former governors Bob Casey, Sr. and Ed Rendell.

What's Corbett's and Wolf's biggest strengths/weaknesses? 

Corbett Strength: Well, there's not really much here. Corbett is extremely unpopular (more on that later) but his biggest strength, if anything, is that he can claim he's moved to the center on some issues lately. He signed a large bipartisan transportation funding bill last year, has sought to restore education funding in the last year, stopped the state's appeal of the gay marriage ban (thus ensuring gay marriages would continue after a federal judge's decision legalized it), sort-of endorsed banning employment discrimination of LGBT Pennsylvanians, and became the only GOP governor in the country to utilize a loophole in the new federal farm/food stamp law that avoids a cut to SNAP recipients' benefits.

This effort to shift to the center -- almost certainly politically motivated -- though has failed to move Corbett's numbers. Corbett is doing quite well in fundraising though, per FEC reports analyzed by PoliticsPa.com which says "Corbett is fundraising like an incumbent", as he rakes in big money from influential businessmen across the commonwealth. In a race where Corbett is running against an extremely wealthy man like Wolf, all of the fundraising that Corbett can do only helps him.

Corbett Weakness: Where to begin? Ever since his first year in office, Corbett has been an enormously unpopular incumbent. It began with the 2011 education cuts - and of those voters who say education is the number one issue for them in this election, they break heavily for Wolf - and only went downhill from there. Corbett became embroiled in controversy in 2011-2012 as a result of the Jerry Sandusky scandal as accusations were made that the governor, when he was attorney general, stalled on investigating Sandusky (AG Kathleen Kane has cleared Corbett of wrongdoing). Further, Corbett's remarks that women should just "close their eyes" when being subject to a fetal ultrasound - which is what one anti-abortion bill in the legislature sought to do - attracted considerable negative national attention for him.

Beyond that, Corbett's controversial plans to privatize the Pennsylvania Lottery (for which he was scolded by Attorney General Kane, who called it "unconstitutional"), his budget cuts to various social services and programs for the poor, and his refusal to support a severance tax for gas drilling have created for him not only many political enemies but also a large swath of the electorate that truly dislikes him. A majority of Pennsylvanians told Franklin and Marshall pollsters at the beginning of this year that Governor Corbett does not "care" about the problems of people like them.

Wolf Strength: Mr. Wolf's biggest strength is actually Mr. Corbett's biggest weakness: running in a climate in which the Republican incumbent is deeply unpopular. However, on a personal level, Mr. Wolf proved immensely appealing to voters in the Democratic primary. His ads, in which he demonstrates that he's ostensibly a common-sense businessman who shares much of his profit with his workers and is depicted as a regular guy riding a Jeep, resonated in the primary. He is broadly perceived as likable, relatable, and easygoing. It also does not hurt that Mr. Wolf is extremely wealthy. His wealth permitted him to self-fund much of his campaign in the primary and that ability is critical in a race in which Governor Corbett is raising much money himself too from sources like the Comcast hierarchy (based in Philadelphia).

Wolf also has a fine ground game that will be of help to him. Cassandra Coleman-Corcoran, the mayor of Exeter and Senator Casey's deputy finance director, has done an excellent job in her campaigns in northeastern Pennsylvania and in her fundraising for Casey and her talent and skill in her effort for Mr. Wolf's campaign has already proven crucial and will continue to be a key factor in his success. Bill Vinsko, a Wilkes-Barre attorney who is a former congressional candidate, has also been able to utilize his extensive network of friends and supporters locally to rally support. At the legislative level, Democratic candidates for the state legislature, including incumbent Democrats running for reelection, have done all they can to mercilessly criticize Governor Corbett and to tie themselves to Mr. Wolf, which can only help Wolf's cause. In our region, state Rep. Phyllis Mundy and state Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, both very popular in their districts, endorsed Wolf in the primary thus signaling to their constituents that he was someone who shares their values. Further aiding Mr. Wolf is that quickly after the primary ended, Wolf was readily publicly embraced by Senator Casey - who is the most popular elected figure in the state - on Hardball on election night and his former primary rival Katie McGinty formed a PAC, "Fresh Start PA," that's aimed at assisting Wolf and Democrats across the state in this fall's elections. All in all, these developments indicate that Wolf has a strong backing behind him beyond merely Corbett's unpopularity and his own wealth.

Wolf Weakness: To whatever extent the national political climate has an effect in Pennsylvania, it would hurt Mr. Wolf. President Obama, despite comfortably winning Pennsylvania twice, is not very popular here anymore, nor is he popular nationally. His approval rating has dipped into the low 40s both nationwide and in Pennsylvania. Governor Corbett's website already features a photoshopped picture of Mr. Wolf's head next to the President's head. Further, Governor Corbett is portraying Mr. Wolf as the "millionaire Revenue Secretary," indicating that Wolf's massive wealth -- an issue that, in part, helped sink Mitt Romney here in 2012  -- could be a liability.


How can you help Tom Wolf? 
You can sign up to volunteer for Mr. Wolf's campaign here (where you can also find a link to donate): http://action.wolfforpa.com/page/s/volunteer.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Advice for Hillary, Democratic Unity, and Why I Love Match Game



(PHOTO: President Obama and Secretary Clinton, then both senators, hold a joint rally for the Obama campaign in Unity, New Hampshire in June 2008).

In this multi-pronged blog post, there are a few items I touch on so please forgive me but here's what's on my mind:

First of all, Hillary Clinton appears to have hit a rough patch - though definitely not a fatal one by any stretch of the imagination - as she has made some unfortunate remarks that exacerbate the questions surrounding her wealth. She first said that she and her husband were "dead broke" and then said that her family was unlike the "truly well off." There is a better way to handle these questions and Secretary Clinton would be well suited if she took advice from a source very close to her on how to tackle questions like this: President Clinton. Despite being very wealthy obviously, Clinton always responds with an effective retort such as, "I didn't ask for a tax cut" or "I don't need a tax cut," demonstrating essentially that he is supporting progressive policies like tax fairness despite the impact those policies will have on his financial well-being. Something along those lines could easily quell the issue.

The best way to squash questions regarding 'hypocrisy' of scolding wealthy elites while being wealthy is to emphasize that you're actually being selfless by supporting policies that would hurt your own finances and your class. This is of course why FDR was famously called a "traitor to his class." (And, yes, I realize that the wealthy elite doesn't mind higher income tax rates on the rich as long as you don't hit Wall Street with a financial transactions tax and stiffer rules and regulations -- but that discussion is for another day). As a political matter, there is an easy way to diffuse this using the kind of language Bill Clinton has deployed and actually this very good article on MSNBC.com I noticed just minutes after I began writing this post -- I swear, not before! -- emphasizes this exact point very well. Further, as she did on the campaign trail in the last couple months of the 2008 primary, Secretary Clinton would be wise to instead underscore that she actually did not grow up wealthy and was raised middle class thus reasonably allowing her to credibly say she empathizes with middle class struggles. This tactic was successfully deployed by President Obama in his campaigns -- i.e., "Michelle and I paid off our student loans just a few years ago" -- and by President Clinton, who trumpeted himself as the "man from Hope" in 1992. Finally though, it should be noted that these issues probably will not matter much for Secretary Clinton because for one, as Dave Weigel pointed out on Facebook this weekend, the Democratic Party is after all the party of the FDR and JFK, and second, her record of working for and advocating for vital progressive policies that help working families -- like childcare, paid family leave, universal pre-K, etc. -- will be more crucial in a campaign anyway.
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(PHOTO: President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden rally Democratic Party supporters at a 2010 Moving America Forward rally).

Second of all, in an extensive interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, President Obama made an interesting remark that caught my attention when he noted that Democratic voters are "surprisingly united" on issues such as economic inequality and wages. In the past, the President has remarked similarly on how amazingly unified congressional Democrats have been too on key issues in his presidency and the facts back up that assertion. It is indeed amazing to see such strong Democratic unity in both Congress and among Democratic voters in the Obama years. This unity exists despite the fact that elements of the media like to claim that there are massive divisions within the Democratic Party -- usually, these schisms are wildly exaggerated. It is incredible because the history of our party is one of incredible divisions. During the tenure of the last Democratic President, Bill Clinton, many Democrats in Congress voted against Clinton's major legislative achievements, like NAFTA and welfare reform, and liberal Democratic voters' disgruntlement with Clinton was far worse than any progressive disenchantment Obama has faced. In Jimmy Carter's presidency, Carter was unable to get key Democratic priorities like a consumer protection agency and health care reform through an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress thanks to divisions within his party. Carter would later write that he got along better with GOP members of Congress than with Democratic members of Congress. He faced a modestly strong primary challenge from Ted Kennedy too that was really alls bout the divisions of the party. The divisions within the Democratic Party during Lyndon B. Johnson's presidency are obviously well documented. Even more recently though, we can point to a famous example of Democratic division: the 2008 primaries!

Nevertheless, in the Obama era, such division is seemingly nonexistent. President Obama received the highest percentage of votes from Democratic voters of any president ever -- 92 percent -- and, according to public opinion polling, is the most popular president among Democratic voters ever, all Senate Democrats voted for the Recovery Act and for the Affordable Care Act, Democratic voters are overwhelmingly liberal on social issues and now even extremely unified on economic matters, and Hillary Clinton appears to be the clear frontrunner in the 2016 Democratic primaries. Why this remarkable unity? A few factors are probably at play. The GOP going far to the right and President Bush's legacy are part of it though this unity is consistent with the overall partisan polarization in the country. A very small part of it may be that the current president is quite effective at uniting various elements of the party as a consequence of begin economically progressive and socially liberal but aggressive on national security, traits that unite various factions in our party.

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(PHOTO: Panelist Richard Dawson makes a point during a taping of Match Game in 1975).

Last but not least, as the 41st anniversary of the premiere of the most popular version of Match Game is this Wednesday, I think it's appropriate I share why exactly it is that I love this game show so much. For one, few game shows in the annals of television history can boast such amazing chemistry between the host, the celebrity panelists, and the contestants. The antics on display on the set were nothing short of surprisingly hilarious entertainment that actually overshadowed the rules of the game -- a point host Gene Rayburn himself made. It is the freewheeling nature of the interaction between the outlandish Rayburn, the definitely drunk panelists, and the nervous contestants that made the show so unbelievably funny for a game show. That's why an exchange like the 1977 "school riot" episode wound up in a TV Land/TV Guide list of TV's 100 most unexpected moments - an unusual distinction given that game shows are usually seemingly carefully scripted. A huge part of this success was undeniably because of the impeccable talent of Gene Rayburn, who earned a lifetime achievement award shortly before his 1999 death and who was rightly recognized as the third greatest game show host of all-time by TV Guide. Rayburn's wild nature, somewhat surprising given his age, allowed for the genuine spontaneity on set that viewers happily embraced.

Beyond these aspects of the show, the risqué fill-in-the-blank questions and the ability of contestants and celebrities to actually say on air words like "boobs" and "bosom" reflected the relaxed cultural standards of the era in which the show hit its peak popularity: the mid-1970s. At the same time that TV sitcoms like All in the Family and Three's Company were venturing into new territory by touching on issues of race in a jocular manner or by utilizing sexual innuendo, Match Game similarly pushed the envelope on these matters thus distinguishing itself in the then-crowded game show universe. Perhaps that is why the show became a cultural staple as it captivated young Americans who rushed from school to watch the afternoon-time show and as it broke records at the time as the most popular daytime television show in American history. Lastly, though the format was kind of unusual, the latter half of the program, which relied upon previous audience surveys on fill-in-the-blank questions and stoked curiosity among viewers as to what their peers would say in response to such questions, was unique enough to even spawn a spin-off in the form of Family Feud. Given the amazing chemistry on set, its cultural significance, and the impact it has had on TV, Match Game - #4 in TV Guide's 2013 list of the 60 greatest TV game shows ever - has rightfully earned its storied place in TV history.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Importance of Keeping the Senate and the Obama Second Term Paradox


(PHOTO: From The Guardian - President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sit in the Oval Office, October 2013).

Recent developments underscore how critical it is that Democrats continue to hold control of the U.S. Senate. As reported by Adam Serwer at MSNBC and by the Huffington Post, it is evident that filibuster reform has been an enormous boost to President Obama. Thanks to the threat of the filibuster being removed from most presidential appointments, Obama has been able to slowly remake the federal judiciary in a more progressive direction. "A majority of appointees on the federal district and circuit courts," Serwer writes, "are Democratic appointees." Further, the President's slate of nominees for the federal bench are the most diverse collection in history, racially, ethnically, socioeconomically, and in background, as many have a history of being involved in Public Defender offices. 

This power is hugely important as these federal judges decide crucial cases that influence American social policy and our understanding of constitutional law for decades, beyond the tenures of the presidents who appointed them. For instance, it was U.S. District Judge Robert M. Shelby, an Obama appointee, who ruled in Utah before last Christmas that same sex marriage ought to be legal in the state. That ruling set off a judicial firestorm and was naturally quickly appealed. A federal appeals court ruling this week reaffirmed Shelby's ruling and this decision may lead to a path that ends with the U.S. Supreme Court finally hearing a case on whether gays have a fundamental federal right to marriage. The President's recent EPA regulations regarding emissions from coal-fired power plants may survive the test of judicial scrutiny thanks to the fact that he was finally able to muster through the Senate his nominees for the D.C. Circuit Court, a very influential body that often hears cases regarding government rules and regulations, as a consequence of filibuster reform. These judges have a real impact on real lives and without a Democratic majority in the Senate for Obama's final two years in office, it will be extremely difficult to fill the vacant seats on the federal bench with progressively minded judges.

Further, another development this week demonstrates how critical it is to keep the Senate in Democratic hands. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that President Obama overstepped his executive authority to make recess appointments when he appointed three nominees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) during a Senate 'pro forma' session in January 2012. Though they could have been more aggressive in their ruling, the Court still somewhat restrained the presidential prerogative of recess appointments, at least from the viewpoint of the Justice Department. Now that filibuster reform has removed the filibuster as a possibility when it comes to presidential appointments, recess appointments have all but disappeared. Nevertheless, the ruling demonstrates that such recess appointments would be difficult to pull off in a Senate controlled by Republicans. The GOP Senate leaders would likely do everything in their power now to ensure that the Court decision is strictly enforced, including lessening recesses to a point at which it would become close to impossible for Obama to make any recess appointments would a Cabinet position be vacated. This would make it more likely that the White House would have to nominate individuals who are not very strong on key issues for progressives but would satisfy the GOP Senate leadership. 

Lastly, on a different note, it was telling that President Obama said this week in Minnesota that he just wants to "say what's on [his] mind" these days as he is freed from the burdens of running for another term. He's certainly done more of that these days, as reflected in his extensive interview with David Remnick in The New Yorker earlier this year, in his blunt comments on gun violence at a Tumblr-hosted event at the White House recently, and in his surprisingly candid remarks on Trayvon Martin and race in America last summer. At this stage, it appears that the President is attempting to carve out a positive legacy that reflects the values he campaigned on, and regardless of how the politics of such language plays out, it is certainly a welcomed development for many progressives. There seems to be an interesting paradox at play. As Obama's approval rating has dipped and issues surrounding the NSA, the ACA rollout, and troublesome events abroad damaged his popularity, he has, in the mean time, become considerably stronger and more progressive on several important policy matters that liberal activists have urged him to improve on and that he has cared about throughout his career. In his second term, Obama is noticeably more accomplished and robust on policy when it comes to climate change and gun safety reform, even stronger on gay rights, shrewder on Iran, and vastly superior on issues of race, the war on drugs, and reforming the criminal justice system, in no small part because of a reinvigorated Attorney General Eric Holder. This may help explain why, despite an overall lower approval for Obama in his second term thus far, the President has held steady among Democratic voters, especially liberal Democrats, who give Obama a resoundingly high approval rating in the mid-80s. Most importantly though, his improvement on these issues in his second term is in the long term better for the country as we finally begin to seriously tackle the menace of global warming, prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, tackle inequalities in criminal justice, and continually expand the rights of LGBT Americans. Given his track record recently on these issues, combined with his impressive first term litany of legislative achievements that are already making a difference such as the Affordable Care Act and the creation of the CFPB as part of Dodd-Frank, Barack Obama is bound to be regarded as one of the more activist Democratic presidents. At the moment, the politics do not look rosy for him or his party but slowly but surely, he's leaving an impressive mark on the country.