POLITICS AND POLICY
Best Political Moments of 2013: Honest, Humanistic, Positive, and Profound Moments in Politics
Nearly a decade ago, Democrats wanted to quickly forget about John Kerry and move on after Kerry narrowly lost the 2004 presidential election to President Bush. Much of the media declared that Kerry came across as an elitist, flip-flopping, and aloof figure who could not connect with the average Joe. He was derided as a Dukakis-like figure in some corners. Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, set out to prove them wrong after President Obama, who owes the start of his national political career at the 2004 DNC to the former Massachusetts senator, picked Kerry as Secretary of State. Undaunted by the political perils and the potentials for disaster in perilous parts of the world, Kerry has assembled an impressive portfolio of tackling America's most vexing foreign policy challenges as America's chief diplomat. He took on Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, bringing both sides to the table and speaking honestly regarding the sometimes intractable issues at hand. He may have stumbled his way into an international, negotiated diplomatic solution in Syria but he did forge the deal, with Russia's foreign minister, that ultimately destroyed Bashar Assad's chemical weapons. Towards the end of the year, Kerry, seeking to both prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon while also hoping to avoid war, achieved something that was unthinkable at the start of the year. Along with other foreign diplomats, he brokered the interim, negotiated deal with Iran that forces their government to accept serious limits on their nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief. There is a lot on the line with regards to these efforts, some may still falter, and the consequences of failure are tremendous but for this decorated war hero, there is seemingly no risk not worth taking.
The same year that the school of conventional wisdom wrote off John Kerry was the same year the CW crowd wrote off the prospects of marriage equality. In 2004, on the same day George W. Bush was reelected President, 11 states voted to ban same-sex marriage, including the swing state of Ohio. Everywhere that same-sex marriage had been on the ballot in the United States, it had failed. Nearly a decade later, the political calculus has radically and fundamentally changed for the better. Not only is the sitting President openly supportive of marriage equality but he also became the first president, earlier this year, to reference gay rights in an inaugural address. Same sex marriage is now legal in 18 states and the District of Columbia, some because of elections, some due to the courts, and some thanks to state legislatures. The high watermark of the year for LGBT rights though was the Supreme Court's June decisions repealing the core of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and Proposition 8 thus allowing gay married couples to reap the same federal benefits as straight couples and legalizing gay marriage in California, respectively. The pure joy, ecstasy, and sense of collective relief that overtook the emotions of activists outside the Supreme Court that morning was palpable even to those watching on TV. Though those activists know that much work remains to be done for full LGBT rights, they earned the right to celebrate. For years, they struggled hard to achieve these consequential victories and, despite occasional political setbacks, their dreams came to fruition all because they realized the fight was really inextricably linked to something deeper: preserving our core value of equality under the law. For that accomplishment, all Americans with a deep respect for our Constitution and its principles should be grateful.
She may never be Governor of Texas. Her filibuster was not successful in stopping a controversial law that is already chipping away at abortion rights. She is vilified by many conservative activists. To Wendy Davis though, it does not matter. For this trailblazing single mother, Harvard Law graduate, and dedicated state legislator, a woman's right to choose trumped all of those concerns when she bravely mounted a filibuster in deep-red Texas against a Rick Perry-backed bill to ban abortions in the state after a 20-week period. Wearing her now famous pink sneakers and exhibiting defiance against a cadre of male conservative state senators determined to silence her, Davis inspired Americans across the country to join with her in support of a cause that desperately needed an invigorated movement behind it to beat back against attacks. She may not have been able to stop the law from taking effect but she drew more attention to the assaults on women's rights that have been happening in Republican-led states throughout the nation. By doing so, Davis paved the way for women everywhere to rise up, like her, and fight for the right to control their own bodies. Even if she fails to win next year's gubernatorial election, that achievement alone will forever ensure Davis a place in the annals of the history of the women's rights movement.
The National Rifle Association has always been politically potent, even if their track record in the most prominent recent elections is not perfect. It is a testament to their power that universal background checks, an idea with 90 percent national public support, fell short of the 60 votes required to thwart a Senate filibuster last April. While the defeat was stinging for advocates of gun violence prevention, the NRA had met their match in the form of Gabby Giffords, and her husband Mark Kelly, who founded, this year, Americans for Responsible Solutions. The new organization is raising money, raising awareness, lobbying, and advocating tirelessly for stricter gun laws even as many Americans' support for such proposals is fading. The heartwarming bravery of Giffords, herself a victim of gun violence, to undertake this cause, despite the ferocious potential political ramifications, is admirable; she was already accused in some conservative circles of being a prop for President Obama's push for gun control. In addition to founding this organization, Giffords also penned a powerful op-ed in The New York Times that scolded Senators afraid to stand up to the NRA and, despite continued difficulty speaking, she testified in front of congressional committees regarding gun violence. Even if universal background checks or an assault rifle ban or bans on high-capacity magazines are forgotten by legislators next year in the heat of the 2014 midterms, Gabby Giffords will keep on trying. She's battled and overcome worse before, after all, but much like the reports of her own death were literally greatly exaggerated, the death of the cause for which she is fighting is also greatly exaggerated.
5. BARACK OBAMA speaks from the heart about Trayvon Martin and race in America.
Much of the bombastic and vitriolic rhetoric on display from elements of Fox News and other conservative media, in the aftermath of the not guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, focused on President Obama's February 2012 remark that if he "had a son, he would look like Trayvon." Therefore, much of the media widely assumed Obama, already embroiled in political misfortunes of his arguably worst year in office, would be largely silent about the trial. They were wrong. Instead, America's first black president surprised reporters and Americans watching at home by appearing at a White House press conference to eloquently and honestly speak about his own experiences with racism in America, how society can overcome racial resentment, and the broader context of the killing of Travyon Martin and how and why many African-Americans saw a clear racial element to the incident. It was not shocking to close political observers that Obama had a unique ability, as a cool-headed son of a white Kansan mother and black Kenyan father, to calmly, articulately, and beautifully speak about race. His 2004 DNC keynote address, his March 2008 National Constitution Center speech, and his own memoirs, Dreams from My Father, tackle the issues of race, as they relate to his life, in astounding ways. However, given that this president receives more death threats than any previous presidents and is the subject of often scornful racially charged rhetoric and action, it was widely surprising that he was as forthcoming, emotional, and open with the American people as he was that afternoon. Obama's off the cuff remarks though were as unusually spontaneous as they were necessary for the sake of what BuzzFeed dubbed "racial healing."
Honorable Mention: Harry Reid stares down and defeats the GOP in battles over Barack Obama's executive appointments, the government shutdown and near-debt default, and the filibuster of presidential judicial nominees.
Best Policy Ideas of 2013: Solid Progressive Public Policy Pitches
This idea should be a no-brainer. It is common sense that expanding early childhood education is fundamental to future economic growth, fostering a productive society, and laying the foundation for a stronger country. In Oklahoma, there is already an experimentation underway to expand early childhood ed and in New York City, voters elected Bill de Blasio, who ran on universal Pre-K, to implement this idea on a citywide level. We know that early childhood education expansion is a solid investment that means we have to pay less for prisons and welfare programs in the future. In fact, business groups, liberal education activists, teachers' groups, and various other industries and organizations support it. Early this year, President Obama voiced his support as well, at the State of the Union address. My senator, Bob Casey, has moved forward the bill in the Senate. However, it is going nowhere. The Republican-led House refuses to even consider the legislation. It is depressing, to say the least, but the idea is so widely supported that perhaps it will become a reality soon with the right amount of public pressure.
For too long, the Beltway school of conventional wisdom and the Establishment media, packed by vociferous deficit hawks, have pushed the idea of cutting Social Security. Reducing benefits though is not only an extremely unpopular idea but it is also disastrous for our nation's seniors, many millions of whom are either barely living above the poverty line -- and only above it because of Social Security -- or are living in poverty despite their monthly check. For these Americans, Social Security, a wildly successful and popular program, has been a literal lifeline. Billionaires like Pete Peterson though push this idea in order to prevent legislators from considering deficit slashing measures that might actually hurt wealthy people like closing tax loopholes that largely benefit the rich and the well-connected. Some members of Congress though, led by the iconic progressive Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, had a different idea this year. Harkin, along with Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown, put their weight behind a proposal to expand Social Security benefits by raising the payroll tax cap. This idea makes sense given the average benefit is so meager and that Social Security has nothing to do with the annual budget deficit as it is funded by the FICA tax (besides, the federal government actually owes the Social Security Trust Fund money!)
Congress prevented student loan interest rates from doubling this year thanks to a compromise bill that the President signed in August. Senator Warren though, a progressive star in 2013, had a better idea. It was to give students seeking loans for college the same low interest rate that the big banks get: 0.75 percent. She also has condemned on principle the notion that the Department of Education should profit off of students. Few politicians are willing to be think so long-term and to take such an aggressive, principled stand on an issue that affects millions of young people struggling to make ends meet. Elizabeth Warren though will keep on fighting even if few others are willing to listen.
First introduced by Ted Kennedy and John McCain during the Bush years, comprehensive immigration reform is a bipartisan, economically common sensical, and morally right policy that has all the necessary elements to solve the lingering politicized issue of immigration. It includes tightened border security to assuage conservatives, a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and it improves and eases, for family members of U.S. citizens, legal immigration as well. The legislation cruised through the Senate with nearly 2/3 support in the chamber. House Speaker John Boehner though has refused to bring up the bill for a vote even though it will reduce the deficit, strengthen Social Security, grow the economy, and expand the workforce. In 2014, all eyes will be on the House to see if, in the middle of a midterm election year, it will finally take action on this issue.
All other major industrialized democracies in the world have paid family leave. Though we have unpaid leave thanks to the Family Medical Leave Act signed into law by President Clinton 20 years ago, paid leave has been elusive. It was among the planks of Barack Obama's domestic policy promises in his 2008 campaign for president. The administration though, seeking instead to push health care reform and Wall Street reform, did not focus on paid family leave. This year, despite the obvious obstacle of passing this progressive legislation through the GOP House, New York's Democratic senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, proposed paid family leave in the Senate. If she and the Democrats are politically smart, they will use this issue, as well as economic bread and butter issues like raising the minimum wage, to define the conversation that should be at the center of the 2014 midterms: income inequality and defending the interests of the working class and middle class.
Honorable Mention: Kirsten Gillibrand's proposal to overhaul the military's treatment of sexual assault cases.
Best Movies I Saw in 2013
Consumed with a lot of sex, drugs, and market manipulation, the three-hour Martin Scorsese film, based on a book that is based on a true story, includes stellar acting from Leonardo DiCaprio with a star-studded cast and an intense depiction of a tragic life. Though the film has come under fire from some for ostensibly condoning Jordan Belfort's despicable actions, the movie, from my perspective, was really more of a poignant lesson of what could go wrong if you take the morally, legally, and ethically wrong turns in life.
Though the film is devoid of much dialogue between characters, has a small cast, and is quite short, it is thrilling as ever. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney marvelously capture the unique personalities behind their characters and, needless to say, the special effects and production team involved in the film did a terrific job.
At times, the film is boring and predictable but the talents of Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, and others in this film is enough to make it an excellent film about the true story of the ABSCAM scandal. The eccentric interactions between their fascinating characters define and strengthen a complicated story.
Packed with A-list Hollywood comedians, this comedic motion picture is genuinely hilarious throughout the movie. The laughs never end as the story is original, unique, and provides surprises during every virtually every scene as the actors who are stuck in James Franco's house never cease to make one's funny bones tickle.
The third Iron Man was more political than its predecessors, touching on the theme of terrorism and the ramifications of terrorism in domestic politics and, in the process, it conveyed a compelling message. Robert Downey, Jr. again masterfully depicted his unconventional character.
Honorable Mention: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Best TV I Watched in 2013
A complex and smart political thriller, this Netflix original keeps you coming back for more. Once I started the series, I was hooked and if that is not a sign of a good TV program, then I don't know what is. The brilliant Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright deployed their considerable talents in such a solid fashion as the powerful Underwood couple that the series became appealing to a wide range of fans that includes political junkies, Netflix users of all kinds, and millions more who may have little to no interest in politics. The way the director wove various factors of characters' lives all into one incredible story regarding political corruption and hunger for power is remarkable.
Though I have only finished the first season this year, I already love this simply amazing Showtime original. The show is quite good on a number of levels: its skilled cast and strong characters like Claire and Saul are personas whose movements, thoughts, and conversations are fascinating to watch, its unique message regarding the unfortunate and terrible consequences of counterterrorism efforts gone wrong separates it from other terrorism-related TV shows in a way that makes it smarter than the others, and its plot line is truly thrilling.
When Jon Stewart was out during the summer directing a movie, for the first time, in the Middle East, his chief correspondent John Oliver, a British comedian, took over the hosting helm and beat TV critics' expectations. His now famous mockery of Anthony Weiner, his funnily improvised chat with Aaron Sorkin after the electricity went out in his studio, and his constant poking at Stewart while he was away endeared him to audiences. He should be excellent in his new HBO show which he has rightfully earned.
After Steve Carrell left the show, it was never the same; the series became increasingly less funny in the final two seasons. It was reflected not only in TV critics' reviews but it was also seen in the ratings: the show's audience size was halved. Nevertheless, it went out with a bang as Dwight and Angela got married, Jim and Pam reconciled their differences, Andy got his life back on track, and Michael Scott even made a somewhat predictable, but still satisfying, cameo. It was simply heartwarming, humorous, and happy -- everything Office fans could have asked for really.
Barney and Robin are finally getting married, Ted is considering moving to Chicago ("a Clevelandy New York," he calls it), and we finally meet the mother. Though the ninth and final season so far has been somewhat of a dud, the eighth season finale included all the right elements for a funny, jam-packed story that followed various plots that were carefully brought together in talented, deliberate fashion to set the stage for how and why we meet the mother.
Honorable Mention: Saturday Night Live
MEDIA AND BOOKS
Best Essays and Articles I Read in 2013
1. Iran Surprises Itself and the World
2. Profile of Joe Biden in GQ Magazine
3. The Promise: The Families of Sandy Hook
Honorable Mention: Jahar's World in Rolling Stone: http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/jahars-world-20130717
Best Books I Read in 2013
Kaiser's story of how the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law came about is a necessarily detailed and comprehensively behind-the-scenes, riveting tale about how Congress functions. It shows you very well the best of Washington -- lawmakers coming together to pass a consequential bill that reshapes the financial regulatory framework -- and the worst of Washington as the big banks influence how some members of Congress voted on this law.
This book generated a lot of laughs, raving reviews, and controversy this year as it told the back room tales of the incestuous nature of selfish DC bigwigs and powerful Beltway figures whose conversations, dialogues, and life stories are told in a funny, but also somewhat tragic, way that makes you realize why it is that so many in Washington seem so detached from the struggles of millions of Americans.
Matthews' story of how his former boss, the ex-House Speaker Tip O'Neill, and President Reagan forged an unlikely relationship that laid the groundwork for Social Security reform, tax reform, and other legislative deals came under fire from The New York Times for being too Polyannish. Nevertheless, from my reading of the book thus far, it is a wonderful tale for which Matthews brings you along for a joyous ride in which his storytelling is so good that it makes you feel like you are really right there with Tip and the Gipper.
Honorable Mention: Blowback (Valerie Plame Wilson)