As the effort to enact new gun legislation hobbles along, liberals have noted over and over that in polls, 90 percent or so of the public favors universal background checks. In speaking about this yesterday, President Obama said, “Nothing is more powerful than millions of voices calling for change.” Then Jonathan Bernstein explained that opinion doesn’t get political results, what gets results is action. I’d take this one step farther: what gets results is not action per se, but action that produces fear. I’ll explain in a moment, but here’s part of Bernstein’s argument:
See, the problem here is equating “90 percent in the polls” with “calling for change.” Sure, 90 percent of citizens, or registered voters, or whoever it is will answer in the affirmative if they’re asked by a pollster about this policy. But that’s not at all the same as “calling for change.” It’s more like…well, it is receiving a call. Not calling.
Those people who have been pushing for marriage equality? They were calling for change. And marching for it, demanding it, donating money to get it, running for office to achieve it and supporting candidates who would vote for it, filing lawsuits to make it legal. In many cases, they based their entire political identity around it.
Action works. “Public opinion” is barely real; most of the time, on most issues, change the wording of the question and you’ll get entirely different answers. At best, “public opinion” as such is passive. And in politics, passive doesn’t get results.
Politicians are constantly assessing public opinion in ways both formal (polls) and informal (talking to folks, reading the paper, etc.). From their perspective, opinion is complex and multi-dimensional. It has a direction, an intensity, and a relationship to action. It can’t be reduced to one number. And the most important question for them is when opinion can turn into something that threatens them. Right now, that 90 percent figure doesn’t seem to be making too many politicians scared.
If you’re an interest group or a voting bloc, it’s far, far better to be feared than loved. If a politician loves you, he’ll say, “Hey guys, you know I love you, but you’re just going to have to wait on this priority of yours. I promise we’ll get around to addressing it next year.” If a politician fears you, he’ll say, “OK! OK! I’ll do what you want, just don’t hurt me!” The NRA has understood this well, which is why it has spent years working to convince everyone that it can destroy any politician it chooses (as you know, I’ve argued at length that that image is a myth, but the myth’s existence is undeniable). It spends far less time convincing politicians that being in line with the NRA produces wonderful benefits. It’s basically a protection racket; when the local mobster comes into your shop and says, “Nice place you’ve got here. Shame if someone were to burn it down,” the shop owner doesn’t say, “At last! I’m so glad you came to keep me safe!” He isn’t happy about it, but he pays up.
So action works best when it actually makes politicians afraid. It’s a way of getting politicians’ attention, and convincing them that if they don’t go along, they might be risking their jobs. Right now, for instance, politicians in both the Democratic and Republican parties are becoming afraid to be on the wrong side on marriage equality. It isn’t just because of poll results showing a majority of the public in favor; that’s just a number, albeit a significant one. The reason they’re afraid is that they understand this is going to become a culturally defining issue that before long will have the power to end people’s careers. They fear that their position on marriage equality could come to define their entire identity, carrying with it a whole set of judgments people will make about them. You’re seeing all this movement now—Democrats coming out in favor of marriage equality, Republicans stumbling around without a clue as to where they should position themselves—because there’s a collective realization that this is a key moment. And they’re afraid. There’s no question that in the wake of Newtown, members of Congress are less afraid of the NRA than they have been in the past. But the real question is whether they’re afraid of not passing something like background checks. And the answer so far is, not yet they aren’t.
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, March 29, 2013
“He Truly Believes In Nothing”: Mitt Romney Is The Emptiest Candidate In Presidential Election History
As the end of this election approaches, it’s worth taking a step back and asking this question: In the entire history of the United States of America, from George Washington’s election in 1789 on down, has there been a single candidate as unmoored from ideological principle or belief as Mitt Romney? I’m not just throwing an insult here, I ask this question sincerely. Because I can’t think of any. There have been middle-of-the road candidates, candidates eager to compromise, candidates who would divert attention to issues that weren’t all that important, and even candidates who at some point in their careers undertook a meaningful position change or two. For instance, early in George H.W. Bush’s career he was an outspoken supporter of abortion rights, just as Al Gore was anti-choice early in his; both changed their positions to align with their parties. But Romney truly does stand alone, not only for the sheer quantity of issues on which he has shifted, but for the frequency with which wholesale shifts have taken place.
And with the presidential debates complete, there is barely an issue area on which Romney hasn’t undergone a change just in the last few weeks. I had thought that no matter what else Romney might change his mind on, if there’s one thing he believes it’s that the wealth and privilege of the wealthy and privileged must be maintained and enhanced. But he even flip-flopped on that, not only pledging not to cut taxes on the wealthy (in contrast to what he said during the primaries), but actually proposing a huge tax increase on them (though I seem to be the only one who has noticed that that’s what Romney has in fact proposed). That neither his supporters nor his opponents believe that he really wants that just makes it all the more remarkable. I feel like we’ve gotten so used to the idea of Romney as a shape-shifter that what for a different candidate might have been greeted as a series of scandalous acts of cynicism was instead greeted with, “Yep, everybody saw that coming.”
You have to give some strategic props to Romney for his latest ideological refashioning. He waited to unveil it until the first presidential debate, when Republicans were at an emotional low point imagining that the president they hate with such consuming venom might waltz to a second term. After that, the new foreign policy Romney we met in the final debate came as no surprise. He calculated correctly that with the election so close his base wouldn’t care, that they’d accept anything that might improve their chances of getting rid of Barack Obama. Perhaps they’re grumbling in their private conversations, but I doubt it. They know that what matters is winning. They also understand that keeping a President Romney in line will take some work, but that’s an effort they’re ready for. And that would have been true whether he presented himself as newly Moderate Mitt in the last few weeks of the campaign or not.
Romney also probably understood that if he waited long enough, the press wouldn’t punish him much for an ideological refashioning either. At the end of a campaign, horse-race reporting and the focus on the most trivial of campaign quibbles goes from being a bias that colors coverage to swallowing the entirety of coverage. Who has time to write a story about Romney’s latest ideological metamorphosis, when there were 18 new polls released today and there are diners in Ohio whose customers have not yet been interviewed to plumb their deep swing-votery wisdom?
In popular culture, politicians are usually portrayed in one of two ways. First you have the candidate whose polished smile and charm hide something sinister: he murdered his mistress, or he’ll resort to the most immoral tactics (blackmail, vote-stealing) to win. The second version is the candidate who believes in nothing other than whatever will get him an extra vote or two and who doesn’t care at all about issues, the man or woman for whom the only goal is power and for whom power is an end in itself. This caricature is often a way for television shows and movies to use the political world as a dramatic setting while avoiding ideology completely, and it’s one that applies to no politician I’ve ever encountered. Some are more cynical than others, but they all have things they believe in and things they’d like to do. They all have some vision of what America would look like if they had their way.
But in Mitt Romney we may finally have found a candidate who lives up to the caricature. I think by now we can safely say that when it comes to the things government does and the issues that confront the nation as a whole, he truly believes in nothing. It’s really quite remarkable that not only could he get so far, but that he has a real chance to become president of the United States.
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, October 24, 2012
State Rep. Stacey Abrams serves as the Georgia House Minority Leader.
Across the state, legislative maps are drawn to split voters along artificial lines to isolate them by race. Legislators see their districts disappear, themselves the target of racial gerrymandering. Citizens rise up in protest and demand the right to elect the candidate of their choice, but the ruling party ignores them. Racial groups are identified and segregated; their leadership eliminated. It is the way of the South. Only this isn’t 1964, the year before the signing of the Voting Rights Act. This is Georgia in 2011.
But this time, the legislators at risk are white men and women who have had the temerity to represent majority African-American districts, and Latino legislators who spoke up for their growing Hispanic population. In crossover districts, where whites and blacks have worked together for decades to build multi-racial voting coalitions, the new district maps devised by the Republican majority have slashed through those ties with speed and precision. If the maps proposed by the GOP in Georgia stand, nearly half of the white Democratic state representatives could be removed from office in one election cycle. Call it the “race card”—in reverse.
Reapportionment is a dangerous business. Once every 10 years, the naked ambition of political parties wars with the dwindling hope of voters that this time their voices will be heard. In the South, the voting lines traditionally aimed for specific targets—racial discrimination that purged minorities, diminishing their numbers and political power. If a legislator had the poor fortune to be of the wrong race, that district would disappear for a decade or more. The voters who relied on you would find themselves isolated and polarized, the victims of racial gerrymandering.
For most of the nation, the battle lines are drawn by partisan leaders who search for the sinuous lines that will connect like-minded voters to one another and disadvantage those who have shown a preference for the other side. That, as they say, is Politics 101.
But for a handful of states, the stakes are higher. Below the Mason-Dixon Line and scattered across the country, a legacy of poll taxes and literacy tests required a special remedy—Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Voting Rights Act has a simple goal—integrate the voting of minorities into the fabric of our democracy. For any state held to its obligations, no changes can be made to election laws without pre-clearance by the Justice Department. In the last decade, the minority population across the South has increased, and by any measure, the Voting Rights Act has been the engine of racial progress.
In Georgia, the gains made under the Act are undeniable. Districts populated predominately by African-Americans have routinely elected white legislators to speak for them. In enclaves across the state, white voters have punched their ballots to elect African-American and Latino representatives. Crossover districts, where blacks and whites and Latinos co-mingle, have grown in prominence–combining with majority-minority districts to comprise nearly 35 percent of the House of Representatives.
In 2011, Georgia should stand as a model for the South and a beacon for those who believe in the rights of voters. However, based on the maps passed last week by the Republican majority, we are in danger of returning to 1964.
Redistricting is fundamentally about voters, and in Georgia, minority voters comprise fully 42 percent of the population. More importantly, these populations have aligned themselves with majority white constituents to demonstrate political power. Under the proposal, Republicans will pair 20 percent of Democrats and 7 percent of Republicans in the state House and eliminate the sole remaining white Democrat in Congress from the Deep South. The House pairings pit black Democrats against white Democrats in four contests, white against white in another and eliminate multi-racial coalition voting across the state. When the dust settles, between pairings and the creation of GOP-leaning districts, Republicans stand to knock off 10 white Democrats—half the total number. They will pick up seven new seats, for a total of 123 Republican seats, 56 Democratic seats and one Independent. This will give Republicans a constitutional majority in the state of Georgia; in other words, they will be able to pass any piece of legislation without opposition.
Let’s be clear. It is absolutely the prerogative of the majority party to maximize its political gains. No one questions the right of the GOP to draw as many districts as it can legally muster. The issue is not whether the GOP can increase its hold, but how.
The GOP’s newly drawn voting lines in the state of Georgia reveals a pernicious new cynicism in our politics—the use of the Voting Rights Act as a weapon to destroy racial, ethnic, and gender diversity. It is no consolation if individual black legislators benefit in the GOP’s new scheme. The Voting Rights Act was never intended to protect a particular minority. Indeed, the highest goals of the Act, one of modern America’s most progressive pieces of legislation, was to encourage multi-racial cooperation and understanding. Precisely, what we in Georgia have begun to achieve. More alarmingly, this new strategy targeting white legislators is not limited to our state. If effective here, the cradle of the civil rights movement, the strategy is expected to be implemented in mid-term redistricting across the South. Republican lawmakers in Alabama, Louisiana, North and South Carolina, Mississippi, and Virginia are watching closely.
Today, we all decry a national partisanship that seems unhealthy and corrosive. But there is nothing wrong with partisanship, when it is a battle of ideas. The Voting Rights Act is intended to ensure that differing ideas be heard, that no single voice drown out the rest. Sadly, that is not what we see rising in the South. The Voting Rights Act is in danger of not protecting the promise of a new day, but becoming a new tool in the politics of destruction.
By: Stacey Abrams, Georgia House Minority Leader, Published in U. S. News and World Report, September 19, 2011
Buried in this Saturday’s Washington Post Metro section was a short piece about the request from conservative Virginia Republican Gov. Robert McDonnell for $39 million in federal disaster relief for his state.
This was an initial request for 22 localities in Virginia hard hit by Hurricane Irene. According to the article, other local governments can request more aid and, in addition, McDonnell also asked for Hazard Mitigation Assistance for all Virginia localities.
This comes from a governor who, along with his Republican congressional counterpart Eric Cantor, rails against Washington and “government spending.”
What makes this quite interesting is the position taken by Cantor last week on Federal Emergency Management funding for disasters. We have had a record 66 natural disasters this year and Hurricane Irene was one of the 10 most costly ever.
Cantor, whose district was hit hard by the earthquake and the hurricane, has said that any spending for FEMA should be tied to cuts elsewhere, dollar for dollar, “Just like any family would operate when it’s struck with disaster,” says Cantor. Funny, that is not how he felt back in 2004 when he appealed for money for his district after another hurricane and voted against the amendment by Republican Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas to do require offsets.
Did Eric Cantor ask for dollar for dollar cuts to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Did he ask for dollar for dollar cuts to pay for the Bush tax cuts for the millionaires and billionaires? Did he ask for dollar for dollar cuts to pay for increases to homeland security? How about border agents?
Another very conservative congressman from Virginia, Leonard Lance, totally disagrees with Cantor. Help is needed now. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, no friend of government spending, talks as though Eric Cantor has lost his marbles: “Our people are suffering now, and they need support now. And they [Congress] can all go down there and get back to work and figure out budget cuts later.”
It is time for a host of protesters to go to Cantor’s district office and call him on his absurdity. Does he believe we should help the victims of these disasters? Is that what government has done for over 200 years? Does he just want to play politics and delay help? Does he represent the people of Virginia? Does he care about the others who have been the victims of tornadoes and floods across this country?
It reminds me of a Senate debate where a certain Republican from Idaho was complaining about a bill that included funding for rat control in New York City.
“In Idaho, we take care of our own rats,” to which the New York senator replied, “In New York, we take care of our own forest fires.”
That about sums it up.
By: Peter Fenn, U. S. News and World Report, September 6, 2011
It was another one of those weeks in the capital when our leaders debated matters crucial to the survival of American civilization.
Did President Obama try to upstage the Republican presidential debate by asking to address a joint session of Congress that same night? And did House Speaker John Boehner dis the president, and the presidency, by denying him that slot?
Tempted though I was to weigh in on this important matter, I decided instead to head over to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, to preview a small but immensely powerful exhibit marking the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
There, displayed for the first time, are sacred relics of 9/11: the crumpled piece of the fuselage where the American flag had been painted on the Boeing 757 that crashed in a Pennsylvania field, a flight-attendant call button from the plane, a window shade, a landing gear strut, and a log book with the pages intact. The exhibit is simple and raw, without glass or showcases. Some dried mud caked on an airplane seatbelt was flaking off onto a tablecloth.
Nearby is the door from a fire truck crushed at Ground Zero and the beeper of a man who died in the South Tower. There’s a Pentagon clock frozen at about the time American Airlines Flight 77 struck the complex and the phone on which Ted Olson received the last call from his wife on the doomed plane. Most poignant, perhaps, is the postcard from another passenger, written to her sister the day before the crash to give the address of a new home in which she would never live.
The spare exhibit brought back the horror of that time. But it also reminded me of the pride in what followed, the national unity and sense of purpose.
The warm feelings didn’t last long, of course, destroyed by the war in Iraq and the politicization of homeland security. By now, we have lost all sense of purpose in politics, alternately distracted by Sarah Palin’s bus tours, Anthony Weiner’s private parts, David Wu’s tiger suit, Donald Trump’s birth-certificate campaign, and Dick Cheney’s broadsides.
Obama, whose uncertain trumpet has ceased to rally even his own troops, contemplated his long-delayed jobs agenda while lounging on Martha’s Vineyard last month. His leading Republican rival for the presidency talks of treason and secession. Another challenger arranges to quadruple the size of his California home (his defense: He’s only doubling the living space). Lawmakers play games with the debt ceiling and wound the nation’s credit rating but can’t agree on anything to put Americans back to work.
The political extraneousness of the moment, in other words, is like that of early September 2001. We spent those days amusing ourselves with Gary Condit and shark attacks. President George W. Bush spent August on a record-long ranch vacation. The biggest issue under debate: stem-cell research. Warnings about Osama bin Laden were ignored while the administration obsessed over rewriting a missile treaty with Russia.
What will it require to end the drift this time? A depression? Another attack? Or is there a less painful way to regain national purpose?
“For most people,” curator David Allison told me as I toured the Smithsonian exhibit, “Sept. 11 is only a media event.” The exhibit is a modest attempt at changing that, taking that day’s ruins out of storage and rekindling memory. The lucky few who see the exhibit during its short run will be reminded that there are things more important than whether the president addresses Congress on a Wednesday or a Thursday.
Consider the simple postcard, written by Georgetown economist Leslie Whittington to her sister and brother-in-law, as Whittington, her husband and their 8- and 3-year-old daughters headed off to Australia for a sabbatical. The card, postmarked Sept. 12 at Dulles Airport, must have been mailed just before the family boarded American Flight 77. The note says, in its entirety:
Dear Sara & Jay,
Well, we’re off to Australia. When we return we will have a new address (as of 11/30): 8034 Glendale Rd. Chevy Chase, MD 20815
We don’t know our phone # yet. While we are in “Oz”, email will work best for contacting us: email@example.com.
Love, Leslie, Chas, Zoe & Dana
I thought about Sara receiving that postcard from her dead sister, and about those little girls who never made it to Glendale Road – because of 19 evil men and a government distracted by less important things.
Then I went out onto Constitution Avenue, where, across from the museum, a bus labeled “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” had just parked.
By: Dana Milbank, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 2, 2011