Sunday, November 29, 2009

Saved by the Moderates?

The Senate begins debate on the healthcare this week, and the quality of the bill might depend on the stubbornness of a group of Senate moderates. This group of moderates includes Sen. Mary Landrieu(D-LA), Sen Joe Lieberman(I-CT), Sen. Blanche Lincoln(D-AR), and Sen. Ben Nelson(D-NE). All 4 of these Senators currently outright oppose or are skeptical of a bill including a public option. Each of the 4 senators have their own reasons and it might be difficult to appease all of them.

However, the opposition of these 4 might provide a a means for strengthening the bill. A new report from the Urban Institute says that a public option with triggers would be better then the public options currently in any of the legislation before Congress. There is also talk in the progressive community about the weaknesses of the public option. The problem with the public option is that it is not tied to medicare rates and it has limited eligibility. With these limitations, the public option could very likely become a dumping ground for uninsurable; which would make the public option more expensive.

A public option with a strong trigger might be able a better bill and might be able to pass the Senate because of the support of Maine's Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. I also think that a bill that jettisons the public might be a very good bill if it includes increased subsidies and increased access to the insurance exchanges.

There are good reasons to continue to fight for a public option. A successful public option would help liberals make the case that an increased role for government actually helps people's lives, and it would be easier to fix a weak public option then it would to create one at a later date. Those are both good reason to continue to fight for a public option but if those moderate senators are willing to increase subsidies and increase eligibility for the exchanges then I would be willing to make a deal on the public option.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Book Review

Once he found out he was dying, Ted Kennedy gathered his journals, diaries, and the interviews he did for an oral history project and turned them into his memoir True Compass. True Compass is a very engaging and readable book and is a quicker read then a lot of political memoirs.

A great deal of the book's readability comes from Kennedy's natural talent as a storyteller and the quality of the stories he has to tell. Many of the best ones deal with the lengths Kennedy was willing to go to during the 1960 presidential election(a photo at rodeo in Wyoming illustrates this point). Kennedy also went to great lengths to speak at the 2008 Democratic Democratic Convention soon after doctors diagnosed him with a brain tumor. I thought I had followed the 2008 campaign closely but Kennedy shed light on a couple of details that I had not previously known.

The most difficult part of the book was reading about the 1980 election. Kennedy challenged President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination because of disagreements over health care. I admire Jimmy Carter and it hurt me to read of the continuing and long lasting rupture between these two men.

As to be expected from a younger brother(and a considerably younger brother at that) there is little critical said about his family. It is clear that Ted Kennedy has no time for many of the stories about his family and that John and Bobby could do no wrong. John's mediocre record of President is due to it being unfinished and that most the Great Society was passed because it was based on JFK's ideas and not because Johnson was better at getting legislation passed then Kennedy was. Also the book tries to protect Robert's image as ruthless and ignores such facts that it was Robert as Attorney General who acquiesced with J. Edgar Hoover's campaign against Martin Luther King. I can fully understand why Ted Kennedy is not critical of his family but I wondered if Ted might have been better served if he had been more critical of the lessons he learned from his family.

Kennedy's greatest success came in the Senate and he talks at lengths about many of them. He is also not shy about talking about his greatest political struggle and that was trying to achieve universal health coverage. Interestingly his proposal during the Clinton administration looks a lot like what the final product of this year's health care debate will look like. Kennedy's proposal included a "pay or play" version of the employer mandate and an individual mandate that included subsidies and a more regulated health insurance industry. I feel better about the this year's proposals after reading about what Kennedy wanted.

You cant' tell the story of the last 50 years. without including the Kennedy family. There success and tragedies are integral part of American history. Ted Kennedy's role and importance is indisputable and True Compass allows a major player in a half century worth of history to tell his story in his own voice.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Back in Byrd's Day

Sen. Robert Byrd(D-WV) is now the longest serving member of Congress in history. Starting in 1953, Byrd served six years in the House and in 1959 moved into the Senate. While breaking the record previously held by Arizona's Carl Hayden, Byrd has cast over 18,000 votes. Byrd's career in Congress has spanned such an expanse of history that he was able to fully support Barack Obama's presidential run forty four yeas after opposing the Civil Right's act. Senator Byrd's accomplishments are many, and the fact that half of West Virginia is named for Byrd is evidence of that fact, but perhaps his greatest moment came when he opposed the Iraq War.

When he was first elected to the Senate in 1958, Sen Byrd defeated the incumbent Republican who had the greatest name in Senate history; Chapman Revercomb.

Taking the 5th

The 5th Congressional district of Iowa comprises all of western part of the state. All of us who live in the 5th district have the joy of being represented by Republican Steve King. It is not that King is a conservative Republican that makes him an embarrassment but the fact that he is a unrepentant bigot. King called a vote against Hurricane Katrina Relief was "the best vote I ever cast." He cast the lone vote against a resolution honoring the slaves who built the U.S. Capitol.

Fighting the good fight to replace King is Mike Denklau. The Backbencher is an avid supporter of Denklau's campaign and encourages you to do the same. If you live in the 5th district, then find out when Mike is going to be in your area and go meet him. The Backbencher also encourages you to find ways to assist with his campaign. If you live outside the 5th, then consider contributing and telling your friends to that we can raise the national profile of this campaign.

Mike Denklau's website is here.
Here is an ActBlue fundraising page if you want to contribute.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Trying the Terrorists

This big news this weekend is that Attorney General Eric Holder decided to try some of the Al-Qaeda terrorists in U.S. Federal Courts. One of the people that will be tried is the person the government believes masterminded the attacks on 9/11/01. I think Holder's decision is a courageous and wise decision and I wish he would extend it to cover all the alleged terrorists that we hold in custody.

I have some thoughts about this decision.

1. It is my belief that this is the best way to defeat the terrorists. Al-Qaeda sees itself at war with the West and they want to west to react militarily so that the West overreacts and muslims respond by joining Al-Qaeda. Why would we want to play by the rules? I think treating Al-Qaeda like criminals will defuse the myth that they are super villains and deflate their standing.

It is my firm belief that the best way t defeat them is to use the institutions that enshrine the values of our democracy. Our ideals and values are stronger and more enduring than any bomb. Demonstrating our values in action before the world(friend, enemy, and skeptical) will do more to come closer to victory then any military action.

2. I do not understand the objections to the Attorney General's decision. I no see no security threat. Our courts and police have handled plenty of terrorists and other dangerous criminals. The Federal courts have successfully prosecuted the first world trader center bombers(in New York City), Eric Robert Rudolph, the Oklahoma City Bombers, and 20th hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui. All of these trials went off safely and without any security disruption.

As for the fear of terrorists being released on a technicality; I think that fear is is misplaced. A "technicality" usually means the police or the prosecutor were sloppy. On a case as important as one involving Al-Qaeda, we would want our police and prosecutors to give their best and most detailed effort.

I also don't buy the threat of losing an intelligence resource. If there are safety considerations about an informant then our government contains plenty of people with expertise in providing security to witnesses. Otherwise the chance to public bring Al-Qaeda terrorists to justice and hold them to account in front of the whole world is worth the risk to our intelligence resources.

The U.S. effort against Al-Qaeda has suffered from too many self inflicted wounds. It is time that the U.S. anti-terrorism efforts earn a victory by upholding U.S. values and the institutions that uphold those values. Attorney General Holder's decision is a good first start.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Book Review

The blue posts in the above photographs mark where the San Andreas Fault crosses the the southern portion of the Point Reyes Peninsula(about 50 miles north of the epicenter of 1906 earthquake).

I spent part of my childhood in the San Frncisco Bay Area, and I have been fascinated with th 1906 earthquake for as long as I can remember. As a boy I had a calendar commemorating the San Francisco earthquake and fire. I would often open the calendar and stare at the photographs show ing the damage the earthquake caused.

This week I read a comprehensive history of the earthquake and fire. San Francisco is Burning is Dennis Smith's narrative history of the 1906 disaster. Dennis Smith is a retired New York City firefighter and the author of Report From Engine Co. 82(the best book about firefighting ever written).

Since Smith is a retired firefighting, there is a lot of focus on the efforts to fight the fires. However the theme of the book might be how the disaster transformed the city of San Francisco. The disaster brought about the fall of the corrupt forces that ran the city and led to a rise of a government based on progressive reforms.

Smith's tale does have its heros and they are first and foremost the San Francisco Fire Department and a group of naval sailors led Lt. Commander Frederick Freeman and Ensign John Pond. The villains of the disaster are the corrupt mayor Eugene Schmitz and the political boss Abraham Ruef. Brigadier General Frederick Funston and the army come off not as villains but as people in over their heads whose mistakes add to the disaster. One of the devices Smith uses to tell the story is focus on a small group people and incidents as way to draw a wider picture of the devastation.

Smith's real gift has always been the ability to combine an understanding of the technical details of a fire or a disaster with an insight into the human dimension of people caught up in such a cataclysm. This gift makes for an engrossing an informative read.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Obama as Commander in Chief

If the reports that Obama has rejected all the options about Afghanistan that the military has presented are true, then this is good news. President Obama wants a plan that more effectively deals with the corruption in the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzi and a plan that includes a timeline for eventual turning over of the war to the Afghan army.

I am glad to to see President Obama exercising his authority over the military. Even though our society regular treats military leaders as dispassionate experts, it is worth noting that military leaders always have an agenda.

I am reminded of a story about how Franklin Roosevelt exercised his authority as commander in chief. During the early months of World War II, Roosevelt was embroiled in a debate with his top military commanders. President Roosevelt agreed with Winston Churchill and the British military that there should be an invasion of North Africa. The American military did not want to invade North Africa. Army generals wanted to invade Europe directly and they wanted to invade as soon as they could. Navy Admirals did not want to invade North Africa because they wanted the resources allocated for North Africa to be sent to fight Japan in the Pacific Theatre.

When the allied governments announced their intentions to invade North Africa, American generals and admirals got together and said that they could not support the plan and all the the resources should be diverted to the Pacific. Roosevelt called their bluff and told them to have a detailed plan to him the next morning. Since the military did not have a plan ready, the plan they produced was not very good. Roosevelt rejected the plan and ordered the military to go along with the invasion of North Africa.

Roosevelt knew what I hope Obama is learning and that is the military's agenda does not always coincide with what the President was elected to do.

The Separation of Church and License Plate

On Tuesday, a U.S. District Court Judge ruled that Christian themed license plates issued by the state of South Carolina that proclaim "I Believe" are unconstitutional. Judge Cameron McGowan Currie said that the case "presents a textbook example of the need for and continued vitality of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution," and that the law "gives the impression that Christianity, as the majority religion, is also the preferred religion and its adherents favored citizens."

I am a strong believer in the separation of church and state because I believe that church losses the power of its message when it enmeshes itself with the state. What does the license plate actually say? "I am a Christian because the state of South Carolina lets me." "The message of the Gospel is most powerful when presented on a platform made possible by the state of South Carolina." This type of thinking leads to a belief that Christ and the Church have no power and that all the power belongs to the state.

It saddens me that the legislative sponsors are all Baptists because the great Baptist gift to the U.S. is the separation of church and state. It seems that there are many Baptists are willing to sell their religious inheritance for some meager crumbs from Caesar's table.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On Armistice Day

Today is Veteran's Day is the U.S. but originally today was called Armistice Day. Today commemorates the signing of the armistice that ended World War I. Over time, the day has morphed into Veteran's day and I feel like that is unfortunate.

Veteran's Day has turned into a celebration of all things military instead of the somber remembrance of war that it should be. War is always industrialized mass murder and a military is the organization dedicated to carrying out industrialized mass murder.

Armistice Day began as a way to remember those who died in the calamity of World War I. When President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill creating Armistice Day into law he said the purpose of the day was to "be dedicated to the cause of world peace."

I wish that instead of a day glorifying the military we could actually work on the original cause for the day. One way we could do this we be to look at just what a calamity war really is. We could perhaps reflect on the fact that there were nearly 11,000 casualties on the last day of World War I that occurred after the Armistice was signed but before it could take effect.

We could look to World War II, which as we all know was an unambiguous "good war." The war started when Hitler's Germany invaded Poland and when the war ended Stalin's Soviet Union occupied Poland.

Perhaps instead of taking pride in our immense military might we think about what it actually gets us. War is more destructive then we ever imagine and as we enter into our eighth year in Afghanistan with the capture of Bin Laden looking less and less likely it should be clear that we are not going to get out of the war in Afghanistan what we put in.

Perhaps if we reflected on these things then we would see war as the stupid and sadistic state of affairs that it really is then we might come closer to the original intent of the day.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Book Review

Carlos Ruiz Zafon uses a simple concept in his book The Shadow of the Wind but he uses that concept to build a fantastic novel. Zafon's novel is built around the idea that some books are so powerful that their stories will in some very meaningful ways mirror our own lives.

The main character is Daniel, the son of a used book dealer, who finds an obscure novel. The book makes such an impact on Daniel that he attempts to find and read more books written by the same author. This desire to read more leads Daniel into a mystery that touches on issues of love, revenge, and life in post revolutionary Spain.

The summary in the previous paragraph does not to justice to the story. The real power to the story is that he reminds you of what it is about reading that you love. The book grabs a hold of you and just never lets go.

Sometimes a book is great because it grants some new insight about the world you live in and some books are great because they open up a new world to you. The Shadow of the Wind is great because it does both.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Backbencher of the Week

Yesterday the House passed it's version of the healthcare reform bill. The House managed to accomplish a good and worthwhile task in such a way as to bring as little credit to itself as possible.

The final vote was 220-195 and only Republican crossed sides and voted for the healthcare bill. That Republican is Rep. Joseph Cao(R-LA-2) and he is this week's Backbencher of the Week. Cao represents the heavily Democratic district in New Orleans and won his seat because the incumbent was convicted felon William "Dollar Bill" Jefferson.

Since Obama carried the district with about 75% of the vote there is to be sure a certain amount of political self-preservation. However there certainly a number of Democrats who thought the political self-preservation meant they needed to vote they other way. Besides, every vote a Congressman takes contains a bit of self preservation.

For be willing to vote against his party, and on the right side of history, we award this week's Backbencher of the Week to Joseph Cao.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Election 09

The results from this year's elections are in, and the result is basically a draw. Two governor's mansions currently held by Democrats were won by Republicans, the Democrats won both of the special elections for Congressional seats, and the fight for marriage equality spilt between a narrow defeat in Maine and a narrow victory in Washington State.

This was not a referendum on President Obama or the national Democratic Party. The two federal elections were both won by Democrats. In the 23rd district of New York, a place that has been electing Republicans to Congress since U.S. Grant was a national figure, Democrat Bill Owens defeated the tea-bagger candidate.

In Virgina, Republican Bob McDonald defeated Democrat Creigh Deeds by running away from his hard right record, and getting an assist from Deed's tepid campaign. Of the two, Deeds was one whose campaign went to great lengths to distance itself from Obama. In New Jersey, Republican Chris Christie defeated incumbent Democrat John Corzine. While New Jersey is a state that usually votes for Democrats, Christy Todd Whitman was a recent popular GOP governor. Corzine was done id by a combination of a trouble economy, budget difficulties, and ties to Wall Street firms(a combination that almost did in the more popular New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg).

The national political dynamics that placed Barack Obama and his governing coalition in office are still the same. Both of the Republicans who won did so based on local issues and Christie explicitly used Obama in a campaign ad. In both of the elections for federal office, where federal issues are important, the Democrat won.

Granted, a tie is not a victory and it does not feel like one. The biggest reason is the marriage equality loss in Maine. While it is a deeply disappointing loss, I can see something of a silver lining. I realize also that it is easy for me say this. However, I believe that time is on the side of equality even though there will be more disappointing days between now and then.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Book Review

Since my days in seminary, Nick Hornby has been one of favorite writers. A seminary roomate introduced me to Hornby first through Fever Pitch. From there I read High Fidelity and everything Hornby writes. What drew initially drew me to Hornby was the why he used music, sports, and pop culture to convey deep truths about the people in his stories.

With his book Juliet, Naked Hornby has returned to that formula and it works rather well. The story is about the devotion that many men have to an obscure pop culture figure and how that devotion affects their relationships. In a change in style for Hornby, he tells story not just from the perspective of the obsessive fan but also the pop "icon" and the love interest.

The obsessive fan resonated with me because I know many men like him who obsessively study every detail of the music and life of their favorite musician(Jeff Buckley and Glen Phillips were some of the more common targets of in-depth fandom). However the two characters that I like the most were the musician and the story's love interest. I though both of them were far more interesting and developed then the fan.

I'm not sure if it is the result of growing and maturing but Hornby's books increasingly deal with ambiguity and frustration. Due to this development, Hornby's book ends not with a happy ending but with a more ambigious one and in the end a more hopeful one.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Backbencher of the Week

In recognition of the fact that good work done during a political career might not take effect until after a person leaves office, this week's Backbencher of the Week is retroactively awarded to former Senator Gordon Smith(R-OR). Smith served two terms in the Senate and earned a reputation as moderate Republican but last November he barely lost his bid for a third term.

In 2008, Sen. Smith worked Sen. John Kerry(D-MA) to include a provision in last year' President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief(PEPFAR) bill that overturned a 22 year old ban(the handiwork of Jesse Helms) on people with HIV/AIDS from traveling or immigrating to the United States. President Bush signed it into law last July, and on Friday President Obama announced that the ban wold be officially lifted 60 days from this coming Monday.

In recognition of his work leading to the bipartisan repeal of one of Jesse Helms longest standing acts of bigotry, we are glad to retroactively award this week's Backbencher of the Week to former Senator Gordon Smith. Congratulations.