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“They Deserve A Vote”: More Than Rhetoric, A New Approach To Framing The Public Debate

State of the Union addresses are traditionally laundry lists of policy proposals. President Barack Obama’s this week started that way, but it ended as the most emotional speech before a joint session of Congress in modern memory.

The theatrics of the event also introduced a new approach to framing the public debate that could yield unexpected victories for the president in the next year or two.

Obama made liberal use of what in Washington are sometimes called “Skutniks.”

This is a reference to Lenny Skutnik, a government employee who in 1982 dove into the icy waters to rescue passengers of an Air Florida flight that crashed into the Potomac River shortly after takeoff from Washington’s National Airport.

Two weeks later, President Ronald Reagan invited Skutnik to sit with the First Lady in the gallery of the House during his first State of the Union Address. A tradition was born.

Skutniks are usually sprinkled throughout the State of the Union. This time, Obama kept his in reserve until the end. This made for a powerful coda that mobilized several of the honored guests on behalf of the president’s agenda without seeming too political or sacrificing any of the emotional punch.

“If you want to vote no, that’s your choice,” the president said of his measure to reduce gun violence. “But these proposals deserve a vote, because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun.”

Obama went on to describe the shooting death, only a mile from his home in Chicago, of Hadiya Pendleton, who just three weeks before performed as a drum majorette in his inaugural parade. The president pointed to Hadiya’s parents in the gallery and said, “They deserve a vote.”

Then, as he acknowledged former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, herself a survivor of a shooting, and the families of other shooting victims, “they deserve a vote” became a powerful refrain, which he recited seven more times to rising applause and tears.

When the president, after saluting a nurse who saved children during Hurricane Sandy, got to a North Miami woman named Desiline Victor, the power of the voting idea came into sharper focus. The president explained how “a throng of people stayed in line” to support the 102-year-old woman as she braved a long wait to vote on Election Day and he described the cheers that erupted when she finally put on a sticker that read: “I voted.”

The grandeur of the democratic franchise — the foundation of our system — could be felt in the congressional chamber.

Some analysts said after the speech that the president lowered the bar on gun-safety legislation by stressing only the need for a vote, not passage of a bill.

That criticism ignores that the traditional way to block legislation in Washington is to prevent it from coming up for a vote. This technique allows opponents the satisfaction of successful obstruction without the accountability that comes from a recorded vote.

No vote means not having to worry about negative television ads in the next election for opposing a proposal popular with the public.

Until now, fighting filibusters in the Senate and obstructionist tactics in the Republican-controlled House has been, as they say in Washington, a heavy lift. The assumption has always been that these are “process questions” that bore the public.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to demand filibuster reform when he had the chance last month, and few people outside Washington noticed. Former senator Chuck Hagel, the president’s nominee to be Secretary of Defense, will now face a Senate filibuster, and that’s unlikely to be an issue in the heartland.

Hagel would be the first unpromoted enlisted man to head the Pentagon. If he’s blocked, Obama should rouse audiences of retired enlisted men with the message: “You deserve a vote.”

If voting is framed as a right — as a service that the public “deserves” — the politics of at least a few issues can change in subtle but significant ways.

There’s a big difference between aridly advocating filibuster reform and passionately demanding that members of Congress do what they are paid to do — vote.

Suddenly, when the bright-eyed volunteers from Obama’s new grassroots advocacy group, Organizing for Action, go door to door, their arguments no longer need to be about the confusing and often alienating details of legislation.

These thousands of door knockers (drawn from an email list of 16 million) don’t have to, say, defend an assault-weapons ban to voters who don’t support it or explain why increased border security without a path to citizenship for undocumented workers isn’t an answer to the immigration problem.

They can just ask voters to join them in supporting “a simple vote,” as Obama said.

The administration hopes this common-sense appeal to basic fairness can be applied not just to guns, but to other measures that are bottled up.

This approach provides a unifying theme for the many different policy proposals that the president advanced in his speech. He is telling the Republicans that if they want to reject ideas that the majority of the country supports, they must go on record as doing so.

Now he needs to maintain the pressure and argue that anything short of a roll-call vote violates lawmakers’ oaths to represent the people who elected them.

“They deserve a vote” might not work. It’s much easier to stop something in Washington than to start it.

But casting his program as a struggle for democracy was a smart way for the president to begin his second term.


By: Jonathan Alter, The National Memo, February 15, 2013

February 16, 2013 Posted by | Politics, State of the Union | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Winning The Argument”: Reagan Wanted To Shrink Government, Today’s Republican Party Wants To Destroy It

In his bid to be remembered as a transformational leader, President Obama is following the playbook of an ideological opposite, Margaret Thatcher. First you win the argument, she used to say, then you win the vote.

Obama is gradually winning the argument about what government can and should do. His State of the Union address was an announcement of that fact — and a warning to conservatives that, to remain relevant, they will have to move beyond the premise that government is always the problem and never the solution.

It’s ridiculous for critics to charge that Tuesday night’s speech was not sufficiently bipartisan. Repairing the nation’s infrastructure is not a partisan issue; bridges rust at the same rate in Republican-held congressional districts as in Democratic ones. The benefits of universal preschool will accrue in red states as well as blue. Climate change is not deterred by the fact that a majority of the Republican caucus in the House doesn’t believe in it.

There is no bipartisan compromise between “do something” and “do nothing.” Obama’s reelection reflected the progress he has made in convincing Americans that “do something” is the only option — and that “do nothing” leads inexorably to decline.

Thatcher’s reshaping of British politics and governance is instructive. The Iron Lady came to power at a time when Britain was sinking. The ideological pendulum had swung too far to the left, and the nominally socialist Labor Party, architect of the modern British welfare state, was out of ideas. Thatcher’s Conservative government roused the nation from its torpor. She was an enormously polarizing figure, and much of what she did — fighting the unions, privatizing state industries and public housing — met with bitter resistance.

Today, Britain remains one of the wealthiest countries in the world and continues to play a major role in international affairs. London is arguably the world’s preeminent financial center. I doubt any of this would be the case if Thatcher had not won the argument about how her nation should move forward.

When Obama took office, the United States was in a similar funk. Ronald Reagan’s conservative ideas had been corrupted by his followers into a kind of anti-government nihilism. Reagan wanted to shrink government; today’s Republican Party wants to destroy it.

Obama assumed leadership of a country in which inequality was growing and economic mobility declining, with the result that the American dream was becoming less attainable. It was a country whose primary and secondary schools lagged far behind international norms; whose airports, roads and bridges were showing their age; and, most important, whose path to continued prosperity, in the age of globalization and information technology, was not entirely clear.

Obama’s State of the Union speech was a detailed reiteration of his position that we can and must act to secure our future — and that government can and must be one of our principal instruments.

To understand why Americans reelected Obama in November and sent more Democrats to both houses of Congress, consider the Republican response to the president’s address, delivered by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

Never mind the unforgettable moment when Rubio stooped almost out of sight and reached for a bottle of water, all the while trying to look straight ahead at the camera like John Cleese in some Monty Python sketch. I felt genuinely sorry for him — and appalled at the Republican Party’s incompetence at basic stagecraft. First they give Clint Eastwood an empty chair to perform with at the convention, and now this?

Even more unfortunate, in the end, was the utter lack of ideas in Rubio’s speech.

“More government isn’t going to help you get ahead, it’s going to hold you back,” Rubio said. Yet he also said that he never would have been able to go to college without government-backed student loans. And he spoke touchingly of how Medicare paid for the care his father received in his final days and the care his mother needs now.

I expected him to try to reconcile this contradiction. Instead, he went back to portraying government as something to be tamed rather than something to be used. To a majority of Republican primary voters, this makes sense. To the electorate as a whole, it might have made sense 30 years ago — but not today.

Margaret Thatcher never won the hearts of her many opponents. But by winning her argument, she shaped a nation’s future. There’s an increasing chance that historians will say the same of Barack Obama.


By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, February 14, 2013

February 16, 2013 Posted by | Republicans, State of the Union | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Active Inertia” Of A Dying Party: Intellectually Bankrupt, Republican’s Are Pyromanic’s In A field Of Strawmen

Take pity on poor Marco Rubio. You’d be reaching for a bottle of Poland Springs, too, if you had to spit out the dry-as-dust bromides and the well past their sell-by date Reagan-era platitudes that Rubio was forced to expectorate as the Republican Party’s designated responder to President Obama’s State of the Union address last Tuesday.

“More government isn’t going to help you get ahead,” said Rubio, doing his best Ronald Reagan “government-isn’t-the-solution-it’s-the-problem” impersonation. “It’s going to hold you back. More government isn’t going to create more opportunities. It’s going to limit them. And more government isn’t going to inspire new ideas, new businesses and new private sector jobs. It’s going to create uncertainty.”

Later on, Rubio wasn’t content to merely propose we reduce debts and deficits. He had to go all the way to balance the budget in ways that did not involve the choice between “either higher taxes or dramatic benefit cuts for those in need.” Instead, Rubio offered the oldie but goodie that we should “grow our economy so that we create new taxpayers, not new taxes, and so our government can afford to help those who truly cannot help themselves.”

Good grief! Could this speech have been given 30 years ago? Of course it could, says Andrew Sullivan, because it was not a political speech at all but rather a “recitation of doctrine dedicated to Saint Ronald.”

What Rubio gave us on Tuesday, says Sullivan, “was an intellectually exhausted speech that represents the intellectual bankruptcy of contemporary Republicanism” — a series of “Reaganite truisms that had a role to play in reinvigorating America after liberal over-reach in the 1960s and 1970s,” perhaps, but offering little that was new or applicable today.

If reciting these platitudes in Spanish counts as what the GOP thinks it will take to restore the party to political or intellectual relevance, says Sullivan, then “they are more deluded than even I imagined.”

After listening to Rubio, I am in agreement with Josh Barro when he says the Republican Party’s problem isn’t the messenger but its whole economic message. And to fix that, Republicans need to show they are serious about policy — and for “smart government” on a case-by-case basis – and not just demagogues when it comes to government.

Michael Grunwald had the same thought when he said if Republicans really believe they lost the last election “because Romney was a boring rich white guy who alienated Hispanics” then in Rubio they got their chance “to see a charismatic Cuban-American with humble roots but otherwise indistinguishable positions on every issue except for immigration.”

And the result should have had Republicans reaching for drinks stronger than water.

I am not sure what to say when Rubio tried to pass himself off as a regular guy who went through college on federal student loans and has a mother who gets Medicare — but who then speaks for a party committed to cutting, if not eliminating, both.

At the same time, I am left speechless by Rubio’s assertion that Obama has no cause for blaming President Bush for the nation’s debt – at the same time Rubio insists the “real cause of our debt” is the $1 trillion deficit Bush left Obama when he took office — times four. And shame on Obama, says Rubio, that Obama did not immediately undo everything George W. did and reduce the deficit to zero in the middle of the second worst recession in 70 years.

But “that’s why we need a balanced budget amendment,” concludes Rubio, idiotically.

Rubio offered no compromise on gun control, nothing but border security on immigration, drill, baby, drill as an energy policy, not a word on gay equality, and nothing at all about the 60,000 Americans fighting and dying in Afghanistan. And as for climate change, he quipped: “No matter how many job-killing laws we pass, our government can’t control the weather.” Ha, ha, ha.

Rubio was also like a pyromaniac in a field of straw men insisting President Obama is hostile to the free enterprise economy, believes the economy collapsed because government didn’t tax enough and that the “solution to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more.”

At the same time, Rubio blames the 2008 financial collapse on a “housing crisis created by reckless government policies.”

I used to write speeches for Republicans, and so I suppose I should be indebted to Senator Rubio for providing such a perfect distillation of all the reasons I gave up on the thankless, potentially health damaging task of articulating ideas for Republicans who don’t have any.

By my counting, Rubio is now the third leading Republican (after Governor Bobby Jindal and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor) who’ve gone “over the top” like doomed WWI doughboys as they charge across their barren ideological No Man’s Land in a futile effort to reposition a Republican Party that wants no part of change.

One measure of the heavy lift facing Rubio and Company as they try to pour new wine into old bottles was the reaction of other Republicans to the President’s State of the Union address. Their collective message seemed to be: What a tragedy a perfect opportunity was squandered for the President to declare he’d become a Republican after winning reelection in a landslide.

“He seems to always be in campaign mode, where he treats people in the other party as enemies rather than partners,” said House Budget Committee chairman, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who seemed puzzled Obama had not immediately embraced Ryan’s ideas.

“In the last election, voters chose divided government which offers a mandate only to work together to find common ground,” said Speaker John Boehner who seemed puzzled the President actually thinks like a Democrat. “The President, instead, appears to have chosen a go-it-alone approach to pursue his liberal agenda.”

But the response I loved best came from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell who sounded like some slave-owning Southern Oligarch warning the President against offering “another litany of left-wing proposals” or throwing “red meat” to his base because, you know, “the campaign is over” and so the “Republican-controlled House” is back to calling the shots.

You’ve had your fun Mr. President, McConnell seemed to be saying. You won the election fair and square. But now it’s time to face facts. That’s a nice little democracy you’ve got there, Mr. President. But don’t forget, we’re still in charge.

Republicans like to think themselves connected to the disciplines of the free market, with its emphasis on competition, innovation and the relentless “creative destruction” of revolutionary change. Yet, it’s astonishing to me how Republicans at the same time exhibit the sclerosis of what author Chrystia Freeland calls the “active inertia” of dying organizations that fail to adjust to the imperatives of change because “they do what they always did — only more energetically than before.”


By: Ted Frier, Open Salon Blog, February 15, 2013

February 16, 2013 Posted by | GOP, State of the Union | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Memory And Respect”: Sandy Hook, The Green Ribbon, And NRA Bullying

If a viewer wanted to tell who was a Democrat and who was a Republican at the State of the Union address, there was no need to match faces to facebooks or even to see where they sat in the House chamber. All that was necessary was to look for the green ribbon.

Democrats (and some guests) sported bright green ribbons on their lapels, symbolizing support for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School gun massacre. Republicans were largely ribbon-free. You can see the loop of green on the suit of Vice President Biden in photos of him standing behind President Obama at the speech. House Speaker John Boehner’s lapel is bare. It was like a live-action version of the Dr. Seuss tale about the Star-bellied Sneetches and the Plain-bellied Sneetches. But instead of being a thinly-veiled lesson on race relations, as the children’s book is, the ribbon divide displayed a force nearly as powerful in American politics: the National Rifle Association.

Now, in the plain-lapelled members’ defense, there is something a little irritating about the whole ribbon thing. There’s a ribbon for everything (if there isn’t a rubber bracelet), and not everyone wants or needs to wear a spot of color to express concern for an issue or disease. How many of us sided with Seinfeld‘s Kramer when he refused to wear the AIDS ribbon (even as he attempted to do the AIDS walk)? The social pressure to show solidarity by accessories can be a tad too much.

But congressmen and congressional politics are all about symbols. So why couldn’t the entire House and Senate just wear the damn ribbon? Sadly, the ribbon came to mean something more political than it was meant to be. It was supposed to be a symbol of memory and respect for the children gunned down in their elementary school. Instead, it became a symbol of being for gun control. And while there are indeed members who sincerely oppose any kind of gun control on Second Amendment grounds, there are others who are simply too afraid of the NRA’s power to take a stand—even a mild one—for even the tamest of gun safety proposals. Someone can be a strong Second Amendment supporter and still have compassion for the families of the Sandy Hook victims. The NRA shouldn’t frighten lawmakers from showing basic respect for innocent victims of violence.


By: Susan Milligan, U. S. News and World Report, February 14, 2013

February 16, 2013 Posted by | Gun Violence | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Tone Ain’t The Problem”: The GOP’s Woman Problem Is The GOP

Tuesday night was supposed to be another big step in the Republican rebranding, but it didn’t really turn out that way. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio proved more Aqua- than Superman. And Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, the dark horse darling, turned into something of a snooze inducing sleep sheep.

But maybe GOP-ers can take solace from this: it doesn’t really matter. Because what Rubio and Paul did mere hours before their respective turns on the national stage likely did more long-term damage to the GOP brand than any speech could fix.

Our story starts all the way back in 1993. That’s when the Senate Judiciary Committee, under the leadership of then-senator Joe Biden, issued a report showing that women were disproportionately falling victim to some heinous crimes, crimes that were also less likely to be successfully prosecuted. In other words, if you robbed someone you were more likely to face punishment than if you raped them.

This, understandably, caused some pause. How could our criminal justice system be serving women so poorly? And what could be done to fix it?

One option was to continue to work at the state level to make things better, and that’s what some people did. But others looked at the years leading up to the Biden report and recognized that states had been doing the best they could to stop violent crimes against women for decades and their best wasn’t enough. That helped pave the way for federal engagement: the Violence Against Women Act, also known as VAWA. It’s been on the books for 20 years now.

Two days ago, 22 Republican senators decided that was a mistake. And it wasn’t just any group of 22—it featured many of the party’s leading lights: the presidential frontrunner, Rubio; his Tea Party rival Paul; two other Republicans who’ve occupied an increasing share of the national stage: Ted Cruz of Texas and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin; the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky; and the immediate past head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, John Cornyn. They all voted against reauthorizing the law.

Why? Well, they offered all sorts of reasons, but most seemed aimed at the same place: the bill was an overreach. It made the definition of domestic violence too broad. It trampled the rights of defendants. It was doing something best left to the states.

If you think it unusual to hear some of these arguments coming out of the mouths of conservatives, you’re right. Under ordinary circumstances, it’s conservatives who prefer the sledgehammer approach to criminal justice, but here they say that’s the problem. And its conservatives who for decades have done more than anyone else to gut the due process rights of defendants. But now they rally to the cause of those accused of domestic violence? That’s quite a thing.

And sure, we hear the 10th Amendment argument raised just about every time a conservative wants the federal government to stop doing something. But here’s a news bulletin: the reason the Violence Against Women Act came into being in the first place was because the states weren’t getting it done. The 10th Amendment isn’t like putting on ruby slippers. Invoking it over and over again doesn’t make the federal government go away.

In any case, it’s hard not to see something a little less grandiose than constitutional scholarship underlying the Republican efforts. In the Heritage Foundation’s one pager urging a no vote, its authors warn that provisions of the bill will “increase fraud and false allegations [of abuse], for which there is no legal recourse”, and that “Under VAWA, men effectively lose their constitutional rights to due process, presumption of innocence, equal treatment under the law, the right to a fair trial and to confront one’s accusers, the right to bear arms, and all custody/visitation rights.” The bill is intended to protect women from deadly harm, but its pretty evident who the Heritage Foundation is preoccupied with protecting.

Think that’s an unfair characterization? Maybe. But this is a party whose right wing has found reason to oppose equal pay for women; which questioned whether Hilary Clinton was faking an emotional response at the Benghazi hearing; which raised objections to women serving equally in the military; and which seems to have developed a fetish for transvaginal ultrasound. Etc.

Now, to be sure, there were 23 Republicans in the Senate who found it within themselves to set aside whatever convoluted ideological calculations swept up their brethren, and voted yes on Tuesday. And that’s a good thing. But for the party that lost women in the last election by double digits, it’s hardly enough.

If Republicans really want to become more appealing to more of the electorate, here’s some advice: The tone ain’t great, but the tone ain’t the problem. When so many of your party leaders believe what these guys do, to mangle a phrase from James Carville, it’s the you, stupid. You’re the problem.

And you might want to try and fix that first.


By: Anson Kaye, U. S. News and World Report, February 14, 2013

February 16, 2013 Posted by | Domestic Violence | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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