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“Appearances Are Deceiving”: Vastly Overblown, Susan Collins Is No Independent Moderate

I have always thought that Maine Senator Susan Collins reputation as a moderate voice of bi-partisan reasonableness was vastly overblown. That prejudice was confirmed again this week as Collins prostituted her credibility as a centrist to the gang bang Republicans, led by John McCain and Lindsey Graham, are waging against UN Ambassador Susan Rice.

According to Think Progress, the presumably independent-minded Collins repeated GOP talking points when she announced she’d have a hard time supporting Rice as the next Secretary of State if President Obama nominated her after comments she made on the Sunday talk shows two days after the Sept. 11 Benghazi terror attacks.

“It’s important that the Secretary of State enjoy credibility around the world, with Congress and here in our country as well,” said Collins, “and I am concerned that Susan Rice’s credibility may have been damaged by the misinformation that was presented that day. That’s one reason, as I said, that I wish she had just told the White House no, you should send a political person to be on those Sunday shows.”

Collins had no misgivings about confirming Condoleeza Rice when she was nominated by President George W. Bush to be the nation’s top diplomat, as Think Progress notes, despite the political role she played misleading the American people during the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq.

According to Think Progress, Collins “hammered home various GOP talking points” about concerns that Rice may have acted overly political in providing an overview of the Obama administration’s knowledge in the aftermath of the attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, and said that damaged Rice’s credibility to be the top State Department official.

Susan Collins is the political equivalent of the Great White Hope – that ever-elusive Republican who at least appears to be open towards working with Democrats on the other side. But appearances can be deceiving, and in our rush to anoint Collins as another Great Compromiser in the tradition of Webster, Clay and Calhoun we may fail to recognize the partisan wolf who resides in a moderate sheep’s clothing.

I learned that the hard way two years ago when I attended an awards dinner in Boston honoring historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and Maine Senator Susan M. Collins.

I’d gone to the dinner along with 1,400 of New England’s movers and shakers to hear Goodwin, one of my heroes, reminisce about the joys of historical story-telling. But it was Collins who left the biggest impression with remarks that opened a window into the civil war currently raging for the soul of the Republican Party.

Collins has a reputation as an independent-minded moderate in a party that’s become ever more extreme over the past 15 years, a distinction she will briefly share with the two other New England “moderates” departing the Senate in the next Congress — Olympia Snowe of Maine and Scott Brown of Massachusetts.

Collins said all the right things to this New England audience about what makes our region’s politics unique: the retail style of living-room campaigning, the Town Meeting history of direct citizen involvement, the premium New Englanders place on no-nonsense Yankee problem-solving, and the hands-across-the-aisle tradition of bi-partisanship.

I did find it telling, though, that the only senators Collins mentioned by name were Lieberman, Dodd, and Kennedy: a turncoat, a lame duck and the dearly departed.

Given Collin’s reputation “as a thoughtful, effective legislator who works across party lines to seek consensus on our nation’s most pressing issues” (as the dinner’s program intoned) it was not surprising that Collins would be introduced by our evening’s host as the person who had followed in the footsteps of that other famous free spirit from Maine, Senator Margaret Chase Smith.

Smith, who detested Senator Joseph McCarthy from the start, is perhaps best known for the ringing “Declaration of Conscience” she delivered on the floor of the Senate on June 1, 1950, which earned her the epithet “Moscow Maggie” from McCarthy and his staff.

Her gauntlet was thrown less than four months after McCarthy’s own infamous Wheeling, West Virginia speech, in which he announced he had in his possession a list of Russian agents in the employ of the US government.

Smith’s Declaration attacked both the HUAC communist witch hunts then underway as well as laid out what Smith believed were the basic principles of “Americanism:” the right to criticize; the right to hold unpopular beliefs; the right to protest; and the right of independent thought.

Smith was a loyal Republican who said the Truman Administration had “lost the confidence of the American people” and should be replaced. But in words that now form an indelible part of American political history, Smith also said that to replace Truman “with a Republican regime embracing a philosophy that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty would prove equally disastrous to this nation. The nation sorely needs a Republican victory. But I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny – Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear.”

In her speech, Collins showed she has a long way to go if she wants to wear Maggie Smith’s mantle of patriotic, public-spirited statesmanship. Collins complained about the toxic partisanship poisoning politics in the nation’s capital, the loss of civility eating away at personal relationships, the extremism overtaking both major parties, and the vilification that awaits anyone (a.k.a. Collins herself) who tries to walk and work across party lines.

“I don’t know who first described politics as the ‘art of compromise,’ but that maxim, to which I have always subscribed, seems woefully unfashionable today,” said Collins. “Too few want to achieve real solutions; too many would rather draw sharp distinctions and score political points, even if that means neglecting the problems our country faces.”

Noble sentiments, all. But then you realize that the person who wants to “draw sharp distinctions” and “score political points” while neglecting “the problems our country faces” is Collins herself.

Rather than leverage her moderate standing to call out the bad behavior she claims to loathe, as Maggie Smith once did, Collins would rather trade on her reputation for evenhandedness in order to advance the Republican Party’s partisan prospects — whether it was in the 2010 mid-term elections two years ago or to pile on against Ambassador Rice today.

The great tragedy in America today is that there are so few leaders — in politics, the media or public life — who have the credibility to stand above the fray and be heard across partisan lines.

Every game needs it umpires and politics is no exception. However much we might genuflect to the Will of the People, we still need those adults who stand ready to mediate our disputes and differences, whose commitment to honesty, impartiality and disinterestedness is so obvious and so deep that we trust them implicitly to call balls and strikes and tell us “and that’s the way it is.”

Susan Collins was among those few we looked up to for an unbiased appraisal of current conditions – or as unbiased as is humanly possible in these hyperpolarized times. And that is why it was so dispiriting to find her making such patently self-serving remarks.

The far right of the GOP obviously got to her. That’s the most charitable explanation I can give for her obscene assertions that she’s never seen such “divisiveness and excessive partisanship” in the Senate before – ever. Or that partisan rancor is why the American people are so angry with incumbents — “particularly those who are in charge.”

Or that the reason Republicans “overuse the filibuster” is that Republicans are routinely shut out in a Senate that “used to pride itself on being a bastion of free and open debate.” Or that the way to promote greater harmony between parties is with “divided government and a more evenly split Senate.”

That’s right, to get along better what the county needs most is to elect more Tea Party Republicans who would see their own party spontaneously combust rather than see someone other than a far right extremist get elected. And those are South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint’s words, not mine.

Collins devoted her speech two years ago to New England’s political values and traditions. So, it’s only fitting, I think, to point out that while New England may indeed be the home of the elitist East Coast Establishment, with its Blue Bloods and Boston Brahmins who care more for the pedigree of one’s forbearers than the pedigree of one’s ideas, the New England ruling classes were also able to develop, however grudgingly, a tradition of public-spirited public service that contrasts sharply with the kind of narrowly ideological leadership historically found in other regions of the country, most notably the hierarchal, self-serving plantation-owning South, whose feudal ways have always made it the natural antagonist of scrappy, inventive New England.

New England’s WASP establishment did react with alarm, if not horror, to the invasion of Irish Catholics and others in the middle decades of the 19th century. And the nativist Know-Nothing Party that sprung up in reaction at that time (much like the Tea Party today) remains a black stain on the region’s legacy.

But from that experience, and the simple need to get along, New England’s conservative political elites gradually adopted the habits of a responsible leadership class, one rooted in the genuinely conservative values that promoted social peace and harmony by mediating differences between their community’s competing ethnic groups and classes.

The fact that New England is now considered the most liberal region of the country shows how easily certain American understandings of liberalism and conservatism can overlap. And this is the origin of New England’s liberal, nobblesse oblige brand of “Rockefeller” Republicanism that is now virtually extinct, whose leadership traits were unlike those habits developed by the ruling elites in other regions of the country, like the South, where the political establishment there found it expedient to preserve its privileges and power through divide and conquer politics that, rather than mediate differences, sought to provoke antagonisms within the population instead.

Much the same dynamic is playing out within a Republican Party today as it finds itself divided between those few moderates who see the connection between the responsibilities of national leadership and the need for cooperation and compromise — understanding that the only sustainable society is an inclusive one — and those rigid ideologues of the radical right who view compromise as a sign of betrayal to both cause and party, while they wall themselves up in their gated communities of body, mind and spirit.

Extremism is on the march everywhere, wrote Walter Lippmann during the calamities of the 1930s as civilization itself seemed to be coming apart because the liberal democracies had been tried and found wanting – both in their “capacity to govern successfully in this period of wars and upheaval but also in their ability to defend and maintain the political philosophy that underlies the liberal way of life.”

Yet, who is ready to stand up for the liberal way of life now? In 1950, a Republican Senator from Maine stood on the floor of the US Senate to denounce her own kind for shamelessly exploiting “the Four Horsemen of Calumny – Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear.”

Sixty years later, her successor stood before New England’s elite and embarrassed her region, its governing traditions and herself when she shamelessly exploited impartiality and civility itself for a few more votes.


By: Ted Frier, Open Salon, November 30, 2012

December 1, 2012 Posted by | Senate | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“BS Hidden In Plain Sight”: Let’s All Agree To Pretend The GOP Isn’t Full Of It

It’s really amazing to see political reporters dutifully passing along Republican complaints that President Obama’s opening offer in the fiscal cliff talks is just a recycled version of his old plan, when those same reporters spent the last year dutifully passing along Republican complaints that Obama had no plan. It’s even more amazing to see them pass along Republican outrage that Obama isn’t cutting Medicare enough, in the same matter-of-fact tone they used during the campaign to pass along Republican outrage that Obama was cutting Medicare.

This isn’t just cognitive dissonance. It’s irresponsible reporting. Mainstream media outlets don’t want to look partisan, so they ignore the BS hidden in plain sight, the hypocrisy and dishonesty that defines the modern Republican Party. I’m old enough to remember when Republicans insisted that anyone who said they wanted to cut Medicare was a demagogue, because I’m more than three weeks old.

I’ve written a lot about the GOP’s defiance of reality–its denial of climate science, its simultaneous denunciations of Medicare cuts and government health care, its insistence that debt-exploding tax cuts will somehow reduce the debt—so I often get accused of partisanship. But it’s simply a fact that Republicans controlled Washington during the fiscally irresponsible era when President Clinton’s budget surpluses were transformed into the trillion-dollar deficit that President Bush bequeathed to President Obama. (The deficit is now shrinking.) It’s simply a fact that the fiscal cliff was created in response to GOP threats to force the U.S. government to default on its obligations. The press can’t figure out how to weave those facts into the current narrative without sounding like it’s taking sides, so it simply pretends that yesterday never happened.

The next fight is likely to involve the $200 billion worth of stimulus that Obama included in his recycled fiscal cliff plan that somehow didn’t exist before Election Day. I’ve taken a rather keen interest in the topic of stimulus, so I’ll be interested to see how this is covered. Keynesian stimulus used to be uncontroversial in Washington; every 2008 presidential candidate had a stimulus plan, and Mitt Romney’s was the largest. But in early 2009, when Obama began pushing his $787 billion stimulus plan, the GOP began describing stimulus as an assault on free enterprise—even though House Republicans  (including Paul Ryan) voted for a $715 billion stimulus alternative that was virtually indistinguishable from Obama’s socialist version. The current Republican position seems to be that the fiscal cliff’s instant austerity would destroy the economy, which is odd after four years of Republican clamoring for austerity, and that the cliff’s military spending cuts in particular would kill jobs, which is even odder after four years of Republican insistence that government spending can’t create jobs.

I guess it’s finally true that we all are Keynesians now. Republicans don’t even seem to be arguing that more stimulus wouldn’t boost the economy; they’ve suggested that Obama needs to give up “goodies” like extending unemployment insurance (which benefits laid-off workers) and payroll tax cuts (which benefit everyone) to show that he’s negotiating in good faith. At the same time, though, they also want Obama to propose bigger Medicare cuts, even though they spent the last campaign slamming Obama’s Medicare cuts and denying their interest in Medicare cuts. I live in Florida, so I had the pleasure of hearing a radio ad from Allen West, hero of the Tea Party, vowing to protect Medicare.

Whatever. I realize that the GOP’s up-is-downism puts news reporters in an awkward position. It would seem tendentious to point out Republican hypocrisy on deficits and Medicare and stimulus every time it comes up, because these days it comes up almost every time a Republican leader opens his mouth. But we’re not supposed to be stenographers. As long as the media let an entire political party invent a new reality every day, it will keep on doing it. Every day.


By: Michael Grunwald, Time Swampland, November 30, @012

December 1, 2012 Posted by | Fiscal Cliff | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Schools In The Crosshairs”: Parent-Trigger Laws Effort Has Become A Stealth Means To Privatize Public Schools

When her dyslexic second-grader landed in a failing public elementary school in Pittsburgh, single mother Jamie Fitzpatrick spotted trouble right away. Her daughter’s teacher spent class time shopping online for clothes while the kids bullied one another. Though other teachers wanted to do right by the kids, their union wouldn’t allow it; teachers were forbidden to offer any extra help to the students outside of class, and because their pay was based on seniority, some of the worst made the most. So despite working two jobs, Fitzpatrick somehow found the time to persuade other parents to sign a petition to turn the school into a nonunion charter. Most teachers joined the effort, perfectly content to give up their union protections. At the new charter school, magic happened. The kids began to get a proper education. Fitzpatrick’s daughter learned to read almost immediately.

It’s an inspiring tale. It’s also fiction—the plot of Won’t Back Down, a film released this fall starring Maggie Gyllenhaal as the supermom and Viola Davis as a frustrated teacher who becomes her ally. Like most people, you probably steered clear of this critically panned box-office flop. If so, you didn’t miss much—except a revealing glimpse into the Hollywood-style fantasies of education reformers who believe they have found a new panacea for saving public education: parent-trigger laws.

These laws sound appealingly straightforward. If enough parents sign a petition, they can get their children’s failing school shut down or converted into a charter. Seven states have passed a parent trigger over the last two years; more will likely follow suit next year. These laws are designed to make public education increasingly look like the free marketplace of parental “choice” that reformers long to see. The idea has powerful backers, including conservative groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—best known for “stand your ground” self-defense laws—and the Heartland Institute, famous for challenging climate science. Walden Media, which produced Won’t Back Down and funded the charter—school documentary Waiting for Superman, is owned by Philip Anschutz, an ALEC supporter and prominent Tea Party funder.

Parent trigger is not solely a right-wing cause. Democratic legislatures in Connecticut and California have passed these laws, the U.S. Conference of Mayors has unanimously endorsed them, and 70 percent of Americans view them favorably. The broad support is no surprise. If parents organize to make radical changes to a failing school, who would want to stop them? But many who back parent-trigger laws don’t realize that the effort has become a stealth means to privatize public schools. Heartland, which owns the website, has crafted model legislation for trigger laws that apply to all schools—not just those that are failing. That might be a logical, if drastic, response if public schools were mired in the deep “crisis” that education reformers constantly cite. But they’re not: Many achievement gaps have narrowed substantially, test scores have risen, and high-school completion rates are at all-time highs.

Won’t Back Down, like the movement it champions, begins from the assumption that public schools are a hopeless mess. The complicated challenges that public educators grapple with—severe budget cuts, for instance, or health problems that make learning a particular challenge for low-income kids—are nowhere to be seen. Meanwhile, parents are exempted from responsibility. Jamie Fitzpatrick never volunteers to help out at the school. She doesn’t go to PTA meetings. She never even asks about her daughter’s homework. Gyllenhaal’s character is not so much a parent as an unhappy customer demanding a better school.

Anyone who believes in the school-reform fairy tale of Won’t Back Down should be required to watch another film released this fall to much less fanfare. This one doesn’t feature an Academy Award winner or a soundtrack of No. 1 hits. Instead, Brooklyn Castle chronicles a messy reality—that of Intermediate School 318, a Brooklyn middle school where 70 percent of the kids live below the poverty line, and where funding cuts are threatening the after-school activities that are key to getting many of them engaged. That includes the school’s chess team, which is, improbably, among the best in the country.

In most respects, I.S. 318 is ordinary. It’s not a magnet school or a charter, but it’s also not failing. The kids featured in Brooklyn Castle have real problems: They struggle with ADHD, asthma, and hunger, and many must work after school to help their parents make ends meet. Teachers and administrators encourage the students, helping to set goals for each one. When after-school programs are endangered, the parents rally, launching a letter–writing campaign to state officials and organizing a walkathon to raise money. I.S. 318, like most public schools, succeeds because the community invests in it, without expecting perfection.

“I think this is a good thing for kids to be exposed to—the idea that truth isn’t quite so simple as right and wrong,” I.S. 318 teacher and chess-team coach Elizabeth Vicary says. “The answers aren’t really clear to anybody.” She’s talking about chess. She could just as well be talking about our entire approach to education. The quest for easy fixes is seductive. But the more we look for Hollywood-style magic bullets, the less we focus on what makes public schools work.


By: Abby Rapoport, The American Prospect, November 30, 2012

December 1, 2012 Posted by | Education | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment


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