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“Hollow Words”: The Wrong Argument At The Wrong Time From The Wrong People

Conservative critics of President Obama’s new Cuba policy are in a tough spot. The right can’t argue in support of the old policy because it obviously didn’t work. Republicans can’t point to public attitudes because most Americans have supported a change for years. Conservatives can’t say this will adversely affect the U.S. relationship with other countries because the exact opposite is true.

And so folks like Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and others are instead making an argument based on Cuba’s horrendous record on human rights. This case is certainly based on reality – the Castro regime has been brutal and dictatorial – but as Digby argued yesterday, it’s hard not to marvel at the Republicans’ timing.

[Y]ou have to wonder if any of these people have the slightest bit of self-awareness. Do they have any idea how hollow their words sound when just a week ago they were condemning our own government for releasing a report that documented America’s own human rights abuses?

It’s absolutely true that the most notorious prison camp on the planet is in Cuba — but it’s run by the U.S. government. Guantánamo Bay is still open for business and its practices are still condemned the world over for its mistreatment of prisoners. And Ted Cruz’s lugubrious hand-wringing over the Cuban government holding people without due process would certainly be a lot more convincing if Americans hadn’t been holding innocent people for years in Cuba with no hope of ever leaving.

Referencing a Rubio tweet, Digby added, “To think that just last week the man who is preaching today about America’s commitment to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was exhorting us all to thank the people who used torture techniques like ‘rectal feeding’ on prisoners in American custody.”

Those who condemn Castro’s human-rights abuses are on firm ground. Those who also celebrate torture as a tool of U.S. national security are not.

Of course, this isn’t even the end of the hypocrisy. Igor Volsky noted yesterday:

In August, top aides to [Marco Rubio] and [Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida] “took an all expenses paid trip to China this month courtesy of the Chinese government,” the Tampa Bay Times reported. The trips – by Rubio’s deputy chief of staff Sally Canfield and Ros-Lehtinen chief of staff Arthur Estopinan – included meetings with Chinese government officials and could have exceeded “$10,000 a person.”

At the time, Rubio spokesperson Alex Conant defended the travel to the Times, arguing that China is a strong economic competitor to the U.S. and that diplomatic relations could actually help spread American freedom and democracy to the world’s most populous nation.

Conant’s diplomatic argument is sound. In fact, a variety of Obama administration officials have been making the identical case this week as part of the rollout of the new policy towards Cuba.

Why diplomatic relations could actually help spread American freedom and democracy in some countries but not others remains unclear.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, December 19, 2014

December 21, 2014 Posted by | Cuba, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Not Cowering Or Conceding”: President Obama Plays The Long Game

The media is settling on a new narrative about President Obama. It’s always interesting watching one after another join in that process. For example, Timothy Egan calls it Obama Unbound.

Perhaps the best thing to happen to him [Obama] was the crushing blow his party took in the midterm elections. Come January, Republicans will have their largest House majority in 84 years — since Herbert Hoover was president. Granted, no politician wants to join Hoover and history in the same sentence. But Obama is not cowering or conceding. He’s been liberated by defeat, becoming the president that many of his supporters hoped he would be.

He promised to be transformative. Instead, especially in the last two years, he’s been listless, passive, a spectator to his own presidency. Rather than setting things in motion, he reacted to events. Even Ebola, the great scare that prompted so much media hysteria it was awarded Lie of the Year by PolitiFact, was somehow his fault. No more. Of late, the president who has nothing to lose has discovered that his best friend is the future.

Glenn Thrush calls it Operation Revenge.

“He needs to run, to compete – or more to the point, he needs someone to run against,” a former top Obama adviser told me.

He’s got that now, in a Republican-controlled Capitol Hill. Obama, a political counterpuncher who often needs a slap in the face to wake up, got a gut-shot in November. The Democrats’ staggering loss in the midterms – like his disastrous performance in the first presidential debate against Mitt Romney in 2012 – seems to have jolted him to the realization that he’ll have to act boldly to preserve what he’d assumed was a settled legacy.

The trouble with this kind of analysis is that it is ahistorical. Every one of the things these pundits name as an example of the President’s newfound persona – executive actions on immigration, new EPA rules, climate change agreement with China, Russian sanctions, normalization of our relationship with Cuba – has been in the works for at least the last 1-2 years (during the time he was supposedly a listless, passive spectator). Back in January of this year, he announced his intention to implement the “pen and phone strategy” we’re all witnessing unfold.

President Barack Obama offered a brief preview Tuesday of his State of the Union address, telling his Cabinet that he won’t wait for Congress to act on key agenda items in 2014.

“I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone,” he said at his first Cabinet meeting of the year. Outlining the strategy, Obama said he plans to use his pen to sign executive actions and his phone to convene outside groups in support of his agenda if Congress proves unable or unwilling to act on his priorities.

It’s true that President Obama might have a new lightness in his step. But that could just as well be because he’s finally off for a much-needed vacation in Hawaii with his family. Anyone who has really watched this President operate knows that he plays the long game. Here’s how Michelle Obama described that back in 2011.

Here’s the thing about my husband: even in the toughest moments, when it seems like all is lost, Barack Obama never loses sight of the end goal. He never lets himself get distracted by the chatter and the noise, even if it comes from some of his best supporters. He just keeps moving forward.

And in those moments when we’re all sweating it, when we’re worried that the bill won’t pass or the negotiation will fall through, Barack always reminds me that we’re playing a long game here. He reminds me that change is slow — it doesn’t happen overnight.

If we keep showing up, if we keep fighting the good fight and doing what we know is right, then eventually we will get there.

We always have.


By: Nancy LeTourneau, Political Animal, The Washington Monthly, 2014

December 21, 2014 Posted by | Media, Politics, President Obama | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Rubio’s Embargo Anger Plays To The Past”: Representing The Views Of Only The Most Reactionary Portion Of The Community

Is Marco Rubio the stupidest politician in Washington? Okay, probably not. The House of Representatives is bursting to the rafters with contenders for the title. But after watching Rubio’s comical response to the Cuba announcement, we should all begin to consider his credentials.

The Florida GOP senator stormed out of the gate Wednesday in the highest of dudgeons. “This president is the single worst negotiator we have had in the White House in my lifetime,” Rubio thundered, adding that Congress will never lift the embargo and that he will do all within his power to undo Barack Obama’s treachery. Grrrrr.

As Bugs Bunny used to say, what a maroon. Now I know, you think I’m being harsh, or that I’m simply wrong, because Rubio is from South Florida and of Cuban stock and I am neither of those things, so doesn’t he maybe know better than I? Actually, no, not this time. He is not reflecting here the views of the Cuban-American community of South Florida as they’ve been repeatedly expressed in polls. He is instead representing the views of only the most reactionary (and rapidly aging and, to be blunt about it, dying off) portion of that community. If he somehow finds himself running against Hillary Clinton in 2016, he—some 25 years her junior—will have masterfully turned the neat trick of being on the side of the past while she speaks to the future.

The polling that supports my contention is voluminous. The Cuban-American vote has changed dramatically in the last decade. In 2002, Pew found back in June, Cubans in the United States identified themselves as being Republicans over Democrats by a margin of 64 to 22 percent. By 2014, that advantage still existed but was statistically meaningless: 47 percent Republican, 44 percent Democratic. In 2012, Obama narrowly beat Mitt Romney among Florida Cubans, according to exit polls. Likewise, in this year’s gubernatorial race, Democrat Charlie Crist beat Republican incumbent Rick Scott among Cuban voters by 50-46 percent.

Get the picture? Things have changed, and seismically. The Florida Cuban vote simply is not very Republican anymore, and it’s not a conservative bloc. Now let’s look at those voters with specific reference to their views on Cuba.

The most comprehensive set of numbers comes to us from Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute, which has been polling on such questions for 20 years now. The institute put out new numbers just this past summer (PDF), and they are eye-popping. And this is a poll, remember, not of Latinos, or of Cuban-Americans across the country. This is 1,000 Cuban-Americans living in Miami-Dade County—the subgroup that we would expect to be the most anti-Castro one imaginable.

Start with the embargo. It’s close, but a majority opposed continuing it, by 52-48 percent. Most age cohorts still supported it, but those who left Cuba after 1995 were against the embargo by 58-42 percent. Eighteen-to-29 year olds wanted to end the embargo by a whopping 62-8 percent. And when the Pavlovian word “embargo” was dropped from the questioning and respondents were asked if the United States should expand commerce with Cuba in specific realms, the yeses were overwhelming: increase business relations, 76-24; sell more food, 77-23; sell more medicine, 82-18.

And how about the matter at hand, the restoration of diplomatic relations? Well, 68 percent favored, and 32 percent opposed. The only age cohort that came out against relations were those 65 and older; among those 64 and under, more than three-quarters supported full diplomacy.

So who is Rubio representing with his outrage? A shrinking and increasingly irrelevant sub-constituency that is understood by most Americans with awareness of the issue to have held our Cuba policy hostage quite long enough. And what deepens the mystery to me is what his hard-line position gets him.

Is it money? There’s money in the Cuban-American universe, certainly, but there’s Senate-race money, not presidential-race money. Is it their votes in a 2016 GOP presidential primary in the state? It could be that. I guess he feels he has to compete now with Jeb Bush for this vote, so he’s running around firing pistol shots into the air to prove he’s the real Castro-hater. But even there I wonder if the Cuban vote in Florida, even the Republican Cuban vote, is going to be strongly against this. By 2016, people will have had time to adjust to this, and they’ll see that the sky didn’t fall in. In fact, they might well see in these next two years that an influx of Yankee dollars and iPads and all the rest will have perhaps not toppled the regime but done more to open up the society than the hard line ever did.

Time will prove Rubio’s reaction to have been a major error. And it won’t be his first. He thought he’d roll the dice and be a leader on immigration, but it collapsed, and he got spanked by Laura Ingraham (metaphorically I mean!) and somersaulted to the safe reactionary position. Then he tried to win back some centrist cred with a few speeches on squish topics like community colleges, which is actually a fine thing to pay attention to and more people should, but the experts in the field whom I consult found his ideas to be reheated leftovers.

So now here he is, pandering to a constituency that by 2016 will be thinned and by 2020 functionally won’t exist. Compare to Rand Paul, who, as The Beast’s Olivia Nuzzi reports, came out in favor of the deal. And compare, as noted up top, to Secretary Clinton, who spent years quietly pushing a modernized Cuba policy. This is intelligence and vision. Rubio’s stance is pure cowardice.

And speaking of intelligence and vision, you’ve got to give it up for Obama on this one. If Syria is his foreign-policy low point—and it is; the butchery of the dictator with whom we have no gripe continues apace with little notice—then the Cuba shift is arguably his high point.

The highest form of political courage is doing the right thing when the mob is against it. This isn’t quite that, as the above polling shows. On the other hand, it’s not as if Americans were clamoring for this change. That’s a kind of courage, too: doing the right thing when the only people who really care are the ones who are going to despise you. But time and history will render an unambiguous verdict on this matter, as Rubio shall soon see.


By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, December 19, 2014

December 21, 2014 Posted by | Cuba, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Who Gets Overtime Pay”: The Next Policy To Help The Middle Class That Republicans Will Oppose

Lately, Democrats have been searching for new ways to appeal to working class and middle class voters on economic issues. They know their basic economic perspective is popular, but they worry that the few specific policies they advocate, like increasing the minimum wage, don’t touch enough people’s lives. They also worry about being seen as advocates for the poor but not the middle class. So they’re looking for ideas.

But there’s one policy change already in the pipeline that looks as though it could be the next big Democratic economic push. It’s got everything: the potential to affect millions, guaranteed opposition from business groups, and the specter of another executive action from President Obama. That last point means that the change can be made as soon as the administration wants, and that Republicans will be apoplectic when it happens.

It’s about who gets overtime pay, which has all but disappeared from American workers’ paychecks. But maybe not for long.

A little background: Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, workers are supposed to be paid overtime (time and a half) if they work more than 40 hours a week. That doesn’t apply to executives and managers, or workers whose salaries exceed a certain threshold. The threshold is what’s at issue; it has only been raised once since 1975. The current threshold is $455 a week, or $23,660 a year — under the poverty level for a family of four. If you make more than that, you’re ineligible for overtime pay. Today only around one in ten American workers is eligible for overtime pay, compared to 65 percent of workers who were covered in 1975.

So what some are proposing is to raise the threshold back to something like what it used to be. Raising it to what it was in 1975, adjusted for inflation, would mean a level of $984 a week, or $51,168 per year, which is close to the median family income. According to the Economic Policy Institute, at that level over six million Americans would become eligible for overtime pay. Raise it a bit higher and you could cover millions more.

This March, President Obama instructed the Labor Department to reexamine the rules and propose a revision, and the department’s decision should be coming some time soon. And an organized campaign to promote it looks to be developing. Today in The Hill there’s an op-ed arguing for changing the overtime rules by Nick Hanauer, a liberal billionaire venture capitalist who could become an important figure in the economic arguments we have over the next few years. Unlike many other major political funders like the Koch brothers, Hanauer doesn’t just give other people money — he’s putting himself out as an advocate.

Many people first heard of Hanauer a few months ago when he wrote an open letter addressed to “my fellow filthy rich,” challenging the notion that the wealthy got where they are because of their unusual virtue and telling them that they had to start working to combat inequality in America). It looks like Hanauer wants to be a player in this debate, and he has the money to make an impact.

So don’t be surprised if a lot of elected Democrats suddenly start talking about overtime rules. This issue is more than an arcane piece of labor law. It gets to the heart of the insecurity and dissatisfaction Americans feel with their economic lives and prospects. It’s been repeated to the point of cliché that Americans feel like they’re working harder but not getting ahead. The lack of overtime is one key reason why. It’s one thing to work 50 or 60 hours a week and know that it means you’ll have extra money in your pocket. But if your boss tells you to come in on Saturday to finish up those TPS reports and you get nothing from it, it’s hard not to feel powerless and exploited.

For Democrats looking for specific policy moves that will demonstrate their desire to help middle-class Americans, the overtime pay issue looks like an excellent candidate, not only because it would mean more money for regular people but also because it would push the dynamics of power, compensation, and dignity a little bit back in the direction of workers.

Republicans will argue that raising the threshold infringes on the prerogatives of business owners, and that Obama is a tyrant for using the regulatory process to make the change. But I’m guessing Democrats would be happy to have that debate, so they can show that they’re trying to help the middle class. And at the end of the debate, the administration can issue the rules, and there’s nothing Republicans will be able to do to stop it.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect; The Plum Line, The Washington Post, December 18, 2014

December 21, 2014 Posted by | Economic Inequality, Middle Class, Overtime Pay | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Cuban Embargo Is Way Past Its Usefulness”: An Outdated Strategy That Accomplished Absolutely Nothing

It’s about time that a U.S. president had the courage and common sense to end our ridiculous policy toward Cuba. It was a relic of the Cold War, an outdated strategy that accomplished absolutely nothing except to give the Castro brothers an excuse for the dire poverty in which their citizens live.

President Obama deserves plaudits for his decision to open full diplomatic relations with the island nation for the first time in more than half a century. So does Pope Francis, who intervened to try to break the stalemate between the two countries. The announcement that the United States will open an embassy in Havana was a fitting tribute to the season in which Christians ostensibly turn our attention to peace on Earth and good will toward all men.

Not that there was an outbreak of good will on Capitol Hill. As any fifth-grader could have guessed, Obama’s announcement, which followed more than a year of secret negotiations, was met with outrage among the usual suspects — a bunch of hardliners who insist that the Castros’ dictatorship is such an affront to international norms that a full embargo should continue until… well, until.

It doesn’t seem to matter that the embargo — established in 1962, back when the Soviet Union was enemy No. 1, when the Berlin Wall still divided East and West, and the war in Vietnam was in its infancy — has not done anything to change Cuba’s internal politics. In fact, the opposite may be true: The embargo has hardened the resistance of Fidel Castro, who has found it convenient to blame his economic disasters on the United States.

(Technically, Obama cannot lift the embargo, which was imposed through a series of laws. He can, however, use his executive authority to circumvent much of it.)

Do Fidel and his brother, Raul, engage in human rights abuses? Absolutely. They imprison their critics and have been accused of murdering their rivals. They don’t tolerate free assembly and they restrict speech. They look for excuses to detain Americans, as they did Alan Gross, a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development who was working to improve Internet access for a Jewish organization. His release helped to set the stage for détente.

In other words, the Castros are dictators. So is Xi Jinping, the president of China, another communist country. Yet President Nixon decided in 1972 that the best way to influence China was through diplomatic contact, and he set about normalizing relations. Few politicians now disagree with that strategy.

The Chinese government tolerates no dissent, imprisons its critics and even restricts religious liberty. But American businesses freely engage in trade with China; U.S. citizens visit as tourists; Chinese students matriculate at our universities. Why should Cuba, which doesn’t have a fraction of the economic or military clout that China has, be regarded as more of a threat to our interests?

In my three reporting visits to Cuba over the last 15 years, I found a country of resilient people who had a strong affinity for the United States. They kept up with Major League Baseball; they circumvented government controls to watch American TV shows; they begged relatives and friends to bring in the latest American music and fashions. The best way to steer them toward a thriving democracy is to encourage more contact between the two countries.

And the fact is that Obama didn’t take a big political risk, despite the hardliners and their continuing drumbeat of criticism. The president enjoys support among Cuban-Americans, even some — like Atlanta political consultant Angelo Fuster — who fled Castro’s takeover. “I think we are on the right path,” Fuster, who has led trade missions to the island, told me.

A Florida International University poll in June found that 68 percent of Cuban-Americans favor normalized diplomatic relations, and 52 percent want to ditch the embargo. As pollster Guillermo J. Grenier told The Atlantic, “We are witnessing a clear demographic shift with younger and more recently arrived Cubans favoring a change in policy toward the island.”

Regardless, restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba is the right thing to do. In this season, that ought to be reason enough.


By: Cynthia Tucker, The National Memo, December 20, 2014

December 21, 2014 Posted by | Cold War, Cuba, Foreign Policy | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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