With a lush spring came cruel days. The Philadelphia train wreck happened only a hundred miles up the tracks from the Baltimore riots. Is the wind of history, the zeitgeist, on the job as we face the 2016 presidential race?
If so, it’s worth noting that Jeb Bush, the Republican frontrunner, spent days defending older brother George W. Bush, the former president, and the long war he started in Iraq. The younger brother was a one-man off-key Greek chorus.
In defending the decision to go to war based on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction — a claim proved false — the former Florida governor kept saying, “my brother.” Like we the folks are all in with the Bush family? It’s not as if we enjoy fond memories of a presidency defined by 9/11.
To return to the Baltimore and Philadelphia scenes, equidistant from the Mason-Dixon line. Those shocking sights, from April to May, told us that business as usual is taking a tragic toll. The Northeast infrastructure is old, getting older. So are Baltimore’s sad-sack slums, visible from a moving Amtrak window as a train zips up to New York. Lives are on the line. Stressed rails reach a breaking point. And if we let things languish in policing and income inequality, heat will rise on the streets. Plain as that.
But Jeb Bush, the leading Republican candidate (all but declared) had nothing nice to say, no sympathy note to send from his alternate universe. He astonished even friendly media at Fox News and conservative pundits by a doomed defense of “my brother” and his administration’s aggression in starting the Iraq War — still playing out. But as we know from previous Bush family dramas, loyalty to the tribe comes first. Nearly all Jeb Bush’s foreign policy advisors were on his brother’s A list, too.
After several stumbles on whether he would have invaded Iraq as president in 2003, Jeb Bush finally conceded that would be a bad idea. Yet he’s echoed his brother’s bluster and blunder by speaking to the issue with the veneer of a sneer. Why “re-litigate” the past? Many were puzzled at how little thought Jeb Bush gave to the biggest question facing his quest — and bedeviling his brother’s legacy. (If his brother started it, hey, how bad could it be?)
By nature, the busy Bushes don’t spend a lot of time lost in thought or looking back: “No regrets” could be the family coat of arms. Now we know Jeb Bush is no exception. Contrary to claims he’s his own man, he often invokes his last name, stating his brother is his “closest advisor.” Oh brother.
When war goes wrong, it’s in the distance. Here at home, something strange went awry seven miles north of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. A Northeast Regional train came around a bend, speeding at over 100 mph. The derailment devastated and bewildered swaths of the East Coast and beyond. Philly is a handsome city — with the Victorian zoo, the river boathouses, the Museum of Art. The city responded with great compassion and care to the injured and the dead that night. Brotherly love.
Eight beating hearts on that train were gone in a split second, torn from their plans, dreams, loved ones. All eight bodies were found in the wreckage. One victim, Rachel Jacobs, and I are alumnae of Swarthmore College in Philadelphia. She was 39. Somehow she seemed a long-lost friend.
Everyone knows safety improvements and infrastructure investment are overdue (except Congress.) Those old railway bridges over the bountiful, wide Susquehanna River? Sure, it’s easy on the eyes, crossing over the river. The most peaceful way to travel is now freighted with anxiety.
Here’s the thing this spring asks, starkly. Did our country get derailed at a reckless speed? Was Iraq akin to the curve in North Philadelphia?
The next president should address buttressing transportation, income inequality and beleaguered cities with fresh imagination and ideas. Whether a President Jeb Bush could do all that and regain our moral stature in the world community is a bridge too far. He’s failed the test of character.
The younger Bush is not the one to lead us out of our predicament, safe toward home.
By: Jamie Stiehm, The National Memo, May 22, 2015
Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker.” — Proverbs 14:31
It’s not my habit to start a column with a quotation from the Bible, but this one’s loaded with self-professed Christians, so why not?
In the mid-1990s, during my time as a metro reporter and feature writer for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, I started writing stories about people who lived in poverty.
I learned early to avoid certain words and descriptions that ignited the ire of certain readers who would rather shame fellow Americans for their dire circumstances than consider why so many of them live in poverty. And often just blocks away from our front doors.
As a columnist, I still sometimes fall back on those rules:
Unless crucial to the story, don’t refer to the flat-screen television in the living room or the car in the driveway, no matter how many miles are on it. A depressing number of people will want to know why a poor person needs a TV or an independent mode of transportation.
Avoid mentioning a tattoo unless it’s central to the narrative. Even then, brace yourself for the onslaught of angry readers demanding to know whether taxpayer money paid for that ink.
And just skip the part about the gold cross dangling around the neck of the grieving mother. I admit this is born of self-preservation. The number of people who are more interested in how she got her jewelry than how her son died will eat at your soul.
So here we are, facing another round of legislative attempts to humiliate poor people who can’t fight back. Lots of headlines but little noise from most of us. I’m not the cynic who thinks everybody’s heart has shriveled to stone. I do, however, worry that our exhaustion is fueling these heartless victories.
In Missouri, the pending House Bill 813 stipulates, “A recipient of supplemental nutrition assistance program benefits shall not use such benefits to purchase cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood, or steak.”
This bill was introduced by state Rep. Rick Brattin, who identifies himself and his family on his website as “devoted Christians.”
In Wisconsin, a new bill would dictate that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits could not be used to buy crab, lobster, shrimp, or any other variety of shellfish.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the Baptist preacher’s son who insists his marching orders come from God, wants to take it further: Anyone who applies for unemployment, food stamps or another assistance program would have to prove his or her sobriety.
“This is not a punitive measure. This is about getting people ready for work,” he said. “I’m not making it harder to get government assistance. I’m making it easier to get a job.”
In Kansas, we have Gov. Sam Brownback, who last year said, “Our dependence is not on big government, but it’s on a big God, who loves us and lives within us.”
Brownback just signed a bill into law that prevents welfare recipients from spending their assistance on “expenditures in a liquor store, casino, jewelry store, tattoo or body piercing parlor, spa, massage parlor, nail salon, lingerie shop, tobacco paraphernalia store, vapor cigarette store, psychic or fortune telling business, bail bond company, video arcade, movie theater, swimming pool, cruise ship, theme park, dog or horse racing facility or sexually oriented retail business.”
You might wonder whether there was any evidence of such widespread spending, but that would mean you’re in search of facts and you’re definitely not going to fit in with this crowd.
State Sen. Michael O’Donnell, also the son of a pastor who likes to mention Jesus when explaining his opposition to helping the poor, told the Topeka Capital-Journal last month: “We’re trying to make sure those benefits are used the way they were intended. This is about prosperity. This is about having a great life.”
Democratic state Sen. David Haley’s response: “This is a troubling elitism here that this body is embracing during what, for many of us, is Holy Week. We really have to look in the mirror. We can’t say something on Wednesday and shift gears on Sunday and think somebody isn’t paying attention.”
As the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin once put it, “it is ironic to think of the number of people in this country who pray for the poor and needy on Sunday and spend the rest of the week complaining that the government is doing something about them.”
“Ironic” isn’t the word that immediately comes to my mind, but what do I know? I’m just a Christian-in-training, not one of those experts willing to insult our Maker.
By: Connie Schultz, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Columnist and Essayist for Parade Magazine: The National Memo, May 22, 2015
“Progressive Frenemies”: It’s Always Wise To Seek The Truth In Our Opponents’ Error, And The Error In Our Own Truth
You probably think there is a big struggle over the Democratic Party’s soul and the meaning of progressivism. After all, that’s what the media talk about incessantly, often with a lot of help from the parties involved in the rumble.
Earlier this month, Gov. Jack Markell of Delaware, a proud Democratic centrist, published a thoughtful essay on The Atlantic‘s website under a very polemical headline: “Americans Need Jobs, Not Populism.” Take that, Elizabeth Warren.
The Massachusetts Democrat is clearly unpersuaded. In a powerful speech to the California Democratic Convention last weekend, she used variations on the word “fight” 21 times. “This country isn’t working for working people,” Warren declared. “It’s working only for those at the top.” If populism is a problem, Warren has not received the message.
There’s other grist for this narrative. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel was re-elected earlier this year only after a spirited battle during which his opponent, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, labeled him “Mayor 1 Percent.” And every other day, it seems, there’s a report about Hillary Clinton being under pressure either to “move left” or to resist doing so.
A storyline doesn’t develop such a deep hold without some basis in fact. There are real dividing lines within the center-left around issues such as the right way to reform public education and the best approach to public employee pension costs. There’s also trade, a matter that has so vexed Democrats that for many years, its presidential candidates have tried to hedge the issue — usually during the primaries but sometimes until after the election.
But the us-vs.-them frame on this debate has two major problems. The first affects the center-left itself, something shrewd Democrats have started to notice. A post on The Democratic Strategist website in March argued that “slinging essentially vacuous stereotypes like ‘corporate centrists’ and ‘left-wing populists’” inevitably leads to “a vicious downward spiral of mutual recrimination.”
The larger difficulty is that the epithets exaggerate the differences between two sides that in fact need each other. There is political energy in the populist critique because rising inequality and concentrated wealth really are an outrage. But the centrists offer remedies that, in most cases, the populists accept.
Both Markell and Warren, for example, have emphasized the importance of business growth and job creation. In her California speech, Warren described the need for policies that foster prosperity while “bending it toward more opportunity for everyone.” Her priorities were not far from those Markell outlined in his article.
There was nothing exotically left wing about Warren’s call for “education for our kids, roads and bridges and power so businesses could grow and get their goods to market and build good jobs here in America, research so we would have a giant pipeline of ideas that would permit our children and grandchildren to build a world we could only dream about.”
For his part, Markell freely acknowledged that “the altered economic terrain is preventing new wealth from being broadly shared,” that “income inequality is growing worse,” and that “a huge number of Americans are economically insecure.” Growth is “necessary, but not sufficient,” and he made the case for “a decent minimum wage,” “affordable and quality health care,” and support for a dignified retirement.
Sen. Warren and Gov. Markell, would you kindly give each other a call?
As for Emanuel, his inaugural address on Monday was devoted to the single subject of “preventing another lost generation of our city’s youth.” It was a powerful and unstinting look at how easy it is for the rest of society to turn its back on those for whom “their school is the street and their teachers are the gangs.”
“The truth is that years of silence and inaction have walled off a portion of our city,” he said. “It is time to stop turning our heads and turning the channel. … We cannot abandon our most vulnerable children to the gang and the gun.” If “centrists” and “populists” can’t come together on this cause, they might as well pack it in.
Yes, the populists and centrists need to fight out real differences, and that’s what we will see in the coming weeks on trade. But they would do well to remember the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s observation that it’s always wise to seek the truth in our opponents’ error, and the error in our own truth.
And as it happens, to win the presidency, one of Hillary Clinton’s central tasks will be to move both sides in the progressive argument to embrace Niebuhr’s counsel.
By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, May 21, 2015
“Are ‘Death Panels’ Coming To Scott Walker’s Wisconsin?”: A Scheme To Make Middle-Class Workers Pay Even More For Health Care
Scott Walker could be on the verge of giving Infowars some great conspiracy theory fodder. A move by Wisconsin’s Group Insurance Board to substantially increase how much state employees pay for their health insurance is drawing unqualified and sharp opposition from labor leaders but could once have drawn criticism from Sarah Palin, as well. That’s because the proposal includes “consultations about end-of-life care, which some called ‘death panels,’” as the Wisconsin State Journal put it.
Death panels?! In the great Badger State? Putting Badger Staters to death? How could this be? One may have asked, as some on the right did during the debate over the Affordable Care Act. But here we are, with the Wisconsin state government overseeing what’s set to be the controversy-free implementation of new policies designed to save the state money through its employees’ end-of-life decisions.
Quick background: The Wisconsin state government is having some tough fiscal times, and Walker’s budget proposal suggested substantial cuts in a number of areas, including to the University of Wisconsin system and to K-12 education. The governor’s budget proposal also called for savings of $81 million on the state employees’ group health insurance program. (Remember that in 2011 the governor oversaw the passage of Act 10, which virtually ended collective bargaining for most of the state’s public sector unions.) But the budget wasn’t too specific about how to save that $81 million. Instead, Walker’s proposal directed the state’s Group Insurance Board to work with Atlanta-based Segal Consulting to figure it out.
The most buzzed-about change, the Wisconsin State Journal reported, will require public sector employees to pay twice as much out of pocket for their health care than they do now. These changes are projected to save the state $85 million over the next two years (Wisconsin passes budgets biennially), and most of the savings “will come from increasing out-of-pocket limits and introducing deductibles for the vast majority of state workers who don’t have them,” according to the paper. Individual employees will have new $250 deductibles, and family deductibles will be $500.
The Group Insurance Board voted for the changes on May 19, and unless the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee moves to require legislative approval for the changes, they will go into effect Jan. 1, 2016, according to Mark Lamkins, communications director for the state’s Department of Employee Trust Funds. The board that approved the changes has 11 members, some of whom are Walker appointees. The majority of the Walker appointees on the board voted in favor.
And the change has labor leaders irate.
“What the group insurance board did today is unconscionable,” said Wisconsin AFSCME executive Marty Beil, according to THOnline. “I’d also call it evil that they’re treating state employees at that level. It’s incredible.”
But Walker’s critics on the left aren’t just going after him for increasing public sector employees’ expenditures for their health care. They’ve also targeted him for a tiny provision the board approved that seeks to save a bit of money through end-of-life care. The memo laying out the cost-cutting health-care proposal doesn’t detail how these changes would work, and the State Journal reported that “[e]nd-of-life care consultations, also called advanced care planning or palliative care, would save $292,500.” That’s hardly a hefty sum. Lamkins said the changes would involve “keeping people out of institutions near the end of life, giving them more opportunities to manage their care-treatment plan.”
He added that the change is designed “to ensure that members facing serious illness and survival of less than six months are informed of care options and are able to make treatment decisions based on their individual values and goals of care.”
Reached for comment, Laurel Patrick, a spokeswoman for the governor, pointed out that the phrase “death panels” is nowhere to be found in any of the health care change proposals. But that hasn’t defused liberal ire about the panel’s move.
That’s because Walker has been one of the most outspoken conservative opponents of the Affordable Care Act.
“When Sarah Palin was trying to derail Obamacare over ‘death panels,’ Scott Walker didn’t say a word defending the need for people to have end-of-life counseling and instead on his first day as governor wasted taxpayer dollars suing the federal government over Obamacare,” said Scot Ross, executive director of One Wisconsin Now. “But wrapped in a scheme that would make cash-strapped middle-class workers in Wisconsin pay even more for health care, Team Walker quietly slides this into the mix. The inclusion of the palliative counseling is critical, but Scott Walker would have saved families a lot of grief if he would have stood up to the Tea Party in 2010 instead of this backdoor deal now.”
Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin, voiced support for Walker’s so-called death panels but said he was frustrated the governor didn’t do more to defend the Affordable Care Act.
“The right, using Sarah Palin, shamelessly tried to call simple voluntary end-of-life consultation a ‘death panel’ early in the debate over Obamacare,” he said. “There’s obviously a great irony that the Walker administration would now come forward with an end-of-life consultation provision. I still have to say that it’s good policy, most likely, it’s just incredible hypocrisy for them to come out with that after Walker has been one of the most disingenuous critics of the ACA.”
It’s doubtful, of course, that any of this will be a problem for Walker’s 2016 ambitions. Nobody ever did poorly with Iowa Republican caucus-goers because critics on the left were too noisy. But the debate highlights one of the tricky aspects of running for president as a governor: that the tiniest provisions in uncontroversial policies can easily become flashpoints for controversy.
By: Betsy Woodruff, The Daily Beast, May 21, 2015
“Being Punitive For The Hell Of It”: Kansas Wants The Very Poor To Crawl, Often, For The Means Of Survival
Former WaMo Weekend Blogger Max Ehrenfreund has an important if maddening piece up at WaPo’s Wonkblog today about the latest indignity towards the poor inflicted by those good Christian GOP lawmakers in Kansas.
A dollar bill is a special kind of thing. You can keep it as long as you like. You can pay for things with it. No one will ever charge you a fee. No one will ask any questions about your credit history. And other people won’t try to tell you that they know how to spend that dollar better than you do.
For these reasons, cash is one of the most valuable resources a poor person in the United States can possess. Yet legislators in Kansas, not trusting the poor to use their money wisely, have voted to limit how much cash that welfare beneficiaries can receive, effectively reducing their overall benefits, as well.
The legislature placed a daily cap of $25 on cash withdrawals beginning July 1, which will force beneficiaries to make more frequent trips to the ATM to withdraw money from the debit cards used to pay public assistance benefits.
Since there’s a fee for every withdrawal, the limit means that some families will get substantially less money.
Why is this happening? Apparently because Republican legislators heard anecdotes about “the welfare” accessing ATMs at baseball games, liquor stores, casinos, etc. It’s just like the stuff Ronald Reagan once said about food stamp beneficiaries using their change to buy vodka. So for their own good, the solons decided to force them to make more and much smaller withdrawals, even if their cash benefits are used, as they typically are, for relatively large payments like rent.
While some politicians and news organizations have found occasional examples of the poor misusing their public assistance, there’s no clear evidence that it’s a systemic problem or that limiting the recipients’ access to cash would force them to use their money differently.
In other words, the legislators were just being punitive for the hell of it. After all, it’s mostly those people we’re talking about. Why shouldn’t they have to crawl?
By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, May 21, 2015