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“The Idealism-Vs-Pragmatism Debate”: The Differences Between Obama And Sanders Matter

Paul Krugman noted the other day that there’s a “mini-dispute among Democrats” over who has the best claim to President Obama’s mantle: Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. The New York Times columnist made the persuasive case that the answer is obvious: “Mr. Sanders is the heir to candidate Obama, but Mrs. Clinton is the heir to President Obama.”

The framing is compelling for reasons that are probably obvious. As a candidate, Obama was the upstart outsider taking on a powerful rival – named Hillary Clinton – who was widely expected to prevail. As president, Obama has learned to temper some of his grander ambitions, confront the cold realities of governing in prose, and make incremental-but-historic gains through attrition and by navigating past bureaucratic choke points.

But the closer one looks at the Obama-Sanders parallels, the more they start to disappear.

Comparing the core messages, for example, reinforces the differences. In 2008, Obama’s pitch was rooted in hopeful optimism, while in 2016, Sanders’ message is based on a foundation of outrage. In 2008, red-state Democrats welcomed an Obama nomination – many in the party saw him as having far broader appeal in conservative areas than Clinton – while in 2016, red-state Democrats appear panicked by the very idea of a Sanders nomination.

At its root, however, is a idealism-vs-pragmatism debate, with Sanders claiming the former to Clinton’s latter. New York’s Jon Chait argues that this kind of framing misunderstands what Candidate Obama was offering eight years ago.

The young Barack Obama was already famous for his soaring rhetoric, but from today’s perspective, what is striking about his promises is less their idealism than their careful modulation.

What Obama did eight years ago, Chait added, was make his technocratic pragmatism “lyrical” – a feat Clinton won’t even try to pull off – promising incremental changes in inspirational ways.

That’s not Sanders’ pitch at all. In many respects, it’s the opposite. Whatever your opinion of the Vermonter, there’s nothing about his platform that’s incremental. The independent senator doesn’t talk about common ground and bipartisan cooperation; he envisions a political “revolution” that changes the very nature of the political process.

The president himself seems well aware of the differences between what Greg Sargent calls the competing “theories of change.” Obama had a fascinating conversation late last week with Politico’s Glenn Thrush, and while the two covered quite a bit of ground, this exchange is generating quite a bit of attention for good reason.

THRUSH: The events I was at in Iowa, the candidate who seems to be delivering that now is Bernie Sanders.

OBAMA: Yeah.

THRUSH: I mean, when you watch this, what do you – do you see any elements of what you were able to accomplish in what Sanders is doing?

OBAMA: Well, there’s no doubt that Bernie has tapped into a running thread in Democratic politics that says: Why are we still constrained by the terms of the debate that were set by Ronald Reagan 30 years ago? You know, why is it that we should be scared to challenge conventional wisdom and talk bluntly about inequality and, you know, be full-throated in our progressivism? And, you know, that has an appeal and I understand that.

I think that what Hillary presents is a recognition that translating values into governance and delivering the goods is ultimately the job of politics, making a real-life difference to people in their day-to-day lives. I don’t want to exaggerate those differences, though, because Hillary is really idealistic and progressive. You’d have to be to be in, you know, the position she’s in now, having fought all the battles she’s fought and, you know, taken so many, you know, slings and arrows from the other side. And Bernie, you know, is somebody who was a senator and served on the Veterans’ Committee and got bills done. And so the–

THRUSH: But it sounds like you’re not buying the – you’re not buying the sort of, the easy popular dichotomy people are talking about, where he’s an analog for you and she is herself?

OBAMA: No. No.

THRUSH: You don’t buy that, right?

OBAMA: No, I don’t think – I don’t think that’s true.

The electoral salience of comments like these remains to be seen, but the president is subtly taking an important shot at the rationale of Sanders’ candidacy. For any Democratic voters watching the presidential primary unfold, looking at Sanders as the rightful heir to the “change” mantle, here’s Obama effectively saying he and Sanders believe in very different kinds of governing, based on incompatible models of achieving meaningful results.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, January 25, 2016

January 26, 2016 Posted by | Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, President Obama | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Real GOP Divide”: One Of The Big Contrasts Between The Two Parties; Democrats Are More Bullish On The Future

Maybe our definition of the Republican presidential contest is a little off.

It’s often cast, accurately enough, as a choice between “outsiders” and “insiders.” But another party division may be more profound — between Republicans who still view the country’s future hopefully and those deeply gloomy about its prospects.

The pessimism within significant sectors of the GOP is more than the unhappiness partisans typically feel when the other side is in power. It’s rooted in a belief that things have fundamentally changed in America, and there is an ominous possibility they just can’t be put right again.

This is one of the big contrasts between the two parties: Democrats are more bullish on the future.

Hillary Clinton has a big lead in the national polls because Democrats broadly favor continuity, with some tweaks. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) offers a tough critique of inequality and the outsized power of the rich. But he and his supporters are comfortable with the country’s cultural direction and have enough faith in government to believe it can engineer the reforms that economic fairness requires.

These thoughts are provoked by an evening spent watching last week’s GOP presidential debate with a group of Republicans pulled together here for me by Sarah Stewart, a New Hampshire political consultant.

They were anything but pitchfork-bearing rebels, and many of them are involved with local government. There was not a Donald Trump or Ben Carson supporter in the lot, although Jon DiPietro, a libertarian-leaning businessman, said he gets Trump’s appeal and could imagine voting for him.

The debate watchers shared the media’s view in one respect: They all agreed that Jeb Bush had a bad night. DiPietro’s offhandedly devastating comment: “Bush had a typical poor performance.” Toni Pappas, a Hillsborough County commissioner, offered sympathy that was almost as crushing. “I feel badly for Jeb,” she said. “He’s really a bright guy.”

The consensus was that the strongest performance came from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, not Marco Rubio, the man lifted high by the very media he and the others enjoyed attacking during the event. Rubio gained ground with some in the group, but Newton Kershaw III, a successful developer, said the young Florida senator still hadn’t persuaded him that he had the experience to be president. Rubio, Kershaw said, looked “rehearsed and studied.”

Gary Lambert, a former state senator who chairs Lindsey Graham’s campaign here, was proud of the South Carolina senator’s performance in the undercard match. But he spoke for the group in praising Christie for having some of the evening’s best moments. Lambert also offered his take on Carson’s appeal: “He remains so calm. I could never do that.” Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) also got some nods of approval.

But the most instructive part of the evening came toward the end when Ross Terrio, a Manchester school board member, took the conversation to a different place, describing his response to President Obama’s time in office. “I have gotten so pessimistic,” he said. “I used to be such an optimistic person. Maybe Obama just sucked the life out of me.” Terrio, who works as a pharmacist, has no complaints about his personal situation but wonders how his neighbors with much more constrained incomes can make it.

DiPietro shared Terrio’s worries that the country’s problems might be beyond our ability to solve, especially if Democrats win the White House again. Terrio, for his part, wrote me later to say that he was pessimistic about the future “regardless of which party wins the presidency.” Reflecting his skepticism about the public sector, DiPietro said he had warned his daughters about a dark future in which “government’s going to be reaching into your wealth.” Lambert’s worries focused more on terrorism and the rise of the Islamic State, one reason he supports Graham’s robust interventionism.

Others in the group pronounced themselves more hopeful, Pappas, perhaps, most of all. She highlighted her faith that the inventiveness and entrepreneurial spirit of the next generation would pull the country through.

But that this argument about the country’s long-term viability could break out among these thoughtful citizens — they in no way fit the stereotypes we liberals sometimes hang on conservatives — speaks to a central reality of our politics: Many Republicans see government itself as almost irreparably broken.

This is why there’s cheering on the right for the obstructionism of groups such as the House Freedom Caucus. Throwing sand in the gears of the machine is an honorable pursuit if you believe the machine is headed entirely in the wrong direction. It’s also why Trump and Carson will not be easily pushed aside.

 

By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, November 1, 2015

November 4, 2015 Posted by | Democrats, GOP Presidential Candidates, GOP Voters, Republicans | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Ceding To The Language Of Reform”: The Senate’s Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform Bill Only Tackles Half The Problem

Determination to “do something” about the issue of mass incarceration has, at last, moved from the academic and activist worlds into the halls of Congress: At the beginning of October, a bipartisan coalition of Senators, including Chuck Grassley, Dick Durbin, Cory Booker, John Cornyn, and Tim Scott, unveiled a criminal-justice-reform plan. Whether that “something” they’re doing is commensurate to the scale of the problem, though, depends on the terms of the debate.

So far, the growing cost of imprisonment and the injustice of long prison sentences for nonviolent offenders have been the centerpieces of conversations about reform. But if that is all the criminal-justice reformers focus on, the “something” that gets done about the United States’ prison problem will fail to address the root causes of the explosion in the incarcerated population that has occurred over the past 40 years.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, as it is currently known, reduces mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug offenders, replaces life sentences for “three strikes” violations with 25 years, provides judges more discretion in sentencing low-level drug offenders, mostly ends solitary confinement for juveniles, and funds reentry programs, among other reforms. The bill is expected to pass in the Senate, be supported in the House (which introduced its own reform bill earlier this year), and ultimately be signed into law by President Obama.

In the immediate future, it will mean shorter sentences for some nonviolent drug offenders in federal prison; when applied retroactively, it will lead to the release of others. The prison population will shrink slightly, and the federal government will save a bit of money. But the United States will remain free to continue locking away millions of people.

Many reform advocates have praised the Senate proposal, and understandably so. Organizing around prisons and incarcerated people—those written off as the dregs of society—is tough, and any win is a welcome one, particularly one that will directly benefit people currently serving unjust sentences. “I spent 12 years behind bars because of mandatory minimum sentences in New York,” Tony Papa of Drug Policy Alliance said in a statement, “and I’ve been fighting to end them since my release in 1996. I’m proud to say DPA worked with members of Congress to reach this…historic deal. It’s a great step in the right direction.”

“But,” he added, “we must remember it is just a step.” These changes only affect federal sentencing guidelines and don’t end mandatory minimums (in fact, the bill imposes new minimums, on certain crimes related to domestic violence and gun possession or sale linked to terrorist activity). Despite such moderate reforms, it is being hailed as “historic,” “major,” and a “game changer.” Why? Because a true agenda for change has been ceded to the language of reform. The debate started and has effectively ended without considering the injustice of the very existence of prisons. We never considered abolition.

In a reply to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Atlantic cover story “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” political scientist Marie Gottschalk calls for a “third Reconstruction.” She argues that any plan to reduce the prison population cannot focus only on those already incarcerated, but must include a massive investment program to ameliorate the conditions that produce the violence that leads to arrest and imprisonment. “If the US is serious about reducing high levels of concentrated violence,” Gottschalk writes, “then addressing the country’s high levels of inequality and concentrated poverty should become a top priority, not a public-policy afterthought.”

Gottschalk is using language that will be familiar to longtime Nation readers. It was at the onset of Bill Clinton’s presidency that historian Eric Foner made the case in these pages for a “third Reconstruction” to repair the damage of done during the Reagan/Bush era. The Reconstruction, of course, is the period after the end of the Civil War, when federal investment and military protection made it possible for the formerly enslaved to relocate, vote, run for office, start their own businesses, and begin the building of thriving communities. The second Reconstruction is considered to be the fruit of the civil-rights movement, which ended legalized segregation, implemented federal protections to ensure the right to vote, and led to the passage of the Fair Housing Act. Gottschalk sees room to invest in the sort of programs that would drastically reduce the crimes used as a pretext for mass incarceration. To her, the “only legitimate long-term solution to the crime crisis is another Reconstruction.”

But the language of “reconstruction” can’t be employed without considering what preceded it—abolition. We abolished the institution of slavery. We abolished legalized segregation. If we want a third Reconstruction to take place, the abolition of prisons should be on the table.

Abolition makes sense, though, only if we see prisons as a site of injustice in and of themselves. And they are—not only because of the violence of rape and murder that exists within prison walls, the psychological damage, the lack of educational opportunities, and the denial of due process that locks up innocent people. Prison is the means by which we tell ourselves we are dealing with our societal ills, but only creating more. Prison makes us lazy thinkers, hungry for revenge instead of justice. Prison is a violent representation of our failure to fight inequality at all levels. In abolishing prison, we force ourselves to answer the difficult question: How do we provide safety and security for all people?

Abolition will not win right now. But an abolitionist framework for crafting reforms would lead to more substantial changes in the US prison system. An abolitionist framework makes us consider not only reducing mandatory minimums but eliminating them altogether. An abolitionist framework would call for us to decriminalize possession and sale of drugs. Abolition would end the death penalty and life sentences, and push the maximum number of years that can be served for any offense down to ten years, at most.

With these reforms in place, we as a society would have a huge incentive to rehabilitate those in prison, and we would ensure the incarcerated are capable of socialization when they are released. And without being able to depend on prison as a site of retribution, we would have to find new ways to address things like gender-based violence, sexual assault, and domestic violence. And we could then start making the kinds of investments in alleviating poverty that Gottschalk calls for.

But we can’t do that so long as prison exists as a fail-safe. Abolition may not win today, but neither did it win when it was first introduced as solution for slavery or segregation. So long as we allow the terms of the debate to be shaped by what is politically possible, we’ll only ever be taking tiny steps and calling them major.

 

By: Mychal Denzel Smith, The Nation, October 14, 2015

October 18, 2015 Posted by | Congress, Criminal Justice System, Mass Incarceration | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“We Don’t Want You”: Indiana ‘Religious Freedom’ Bill Lets Businesses, Individuals Decide Who Gets Equal Treatment

Indiana’s state motto is “The Crossroads of America.” This week, two important roads in American politics and jurisprudence are crossing in Indiana.

One of those roads is the ongoing quest to give real protection to the rights and liberties of racial and religious minorities, women and gay people.

The other path, a reactionary one, wants to vastly expand one particular American right, the free expression of religion, to allow businesses and individuals to pick and choose who they think deserves equal treatment.

Indiana’s House and Senate have passed an Orwellian-named “religious freedom” law that Republican Governor Mike Pence said he would sign [Ed. note: Pence signed the bill into law on Thursday morning]. The bill protects businesses and individuals from having to do things — and to obey laws — that would be a “substantial burden” on their religious freedom.

Gay marriage is the most visible and politicized arena where this rights conflict is being fought. Some businesses and individuals say it would violate their religious freedom if they had to, say, provide flowers, pastries or appetizers to a gay wedding. Indiana’s new law agrees and would protect them.

This is a radical new understanding of the right of religious expression that would trump the civil rights of others.

The Indiana law is the wholly predictable and unfortunate consequence of the Supreme Court’s decision in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell last summer. In that famous case, the Supreme Court said that by forcing Hobby Lobby to provide its employees with health insurance that covered some forms of contraception, the Affordable Care Act violated the company’s religious rights.

One odd facet of the decision is that for-profit companies have the same religious rights as individuals, something common sense has a very hard time with.

More importantly, the court majority in Hobby Lobby said religious freedom no longer only meant protecting how one worships in private and in church, but also means protection from any compromise of beliefs that may come up in the public world of business and everyday life. “In a decision of startling breadth, the Court holds that commercial enterprises, including corporations, along with partnerships and sole proprietorships, can opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in her dissent.

Dissenters correctly predicted that the decision would set the table for a continuing course of new litigation, new laws and new ways to justify old discrimination. That is exactly what is happening.

If it is legal for a company to refuse to cover contraception in its insurance plan, couldn’t a Christian Scientist company refuse to provide health insurance at all? If it’s okay to refuse catering services at a gay wedding, what about at an interracial marriage? They violate some religious beliefs, too. What if a corner store owned by Muslims didn’t want to serve Jews, or vice versa?

It isn’t hard to make this a long list. Indiana is on the verge of sanctioning and empowering this very un-American mutation of a fundamental American principle.

Earlier this week, Senator Ted Cruz launched his presidential campaign at a convocation service at a Christian fundamentalist university. What a powerful message that sends to Americans who aren’t Christian — Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, atheists and, the biggest category of all, “none of the above.” The message is simply: We don’t want you.

Indiana is at a crossroads and is about to send that very same message, enshrined in a law.

 

By: Dick Meyer, Chief Washington Correspondent for the Scripps Washington Bureau and DecodeDC; The National Memo, March 27, 2015

March 27, 2015 Posted by | Civil Rights, Discrimination, Religious Freedom | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Right’s Word-Deed Problem”: Republicans Rely On All Sorts Of Magic Tricks That Shove Choices And Problems Down The Road

Briefly, there seemed a chance we might have a cross-party discussion of the biggest economic problem the country faces: the vexing intersection of wage stagnation, declining social mobility and rising inequality.

Even the most conservative Republicans were starting to talk about this challenge in rather urgent terms. In a moment whose irony he noted, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) told a bunch of rich Republicans gathered by the Brothers Koch earlier this year that those doing well in America were “the top 1 percent, the millionaires and billionaires the president loves to demagogue, one or two of whom are here with us tonight” while the “people who have been hammered for the last six years are working men and women.”

And on it went through the country’s top Republicans. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) stressed “opportunity inequality” and Mitt Romney, in another ironic turn, charged that “under President Obama, the rich have gotten richer.”

It would be wonderful if conservatives really wanted to deal constructively with the predicament they so passionately describe. But thanks to the House and Senate GOP budgets, we now know that conservatives and Republicans (1) aren’t serious about the plight of working class and lower-income Americans, and (2) would actually make their situations much worse.

Their spending plans fail even on conservative terms: They are not fiscally responsible. Instead, they rely on all sorts of magic tricks that shove choices and problems down the road.

One heartening sign is that at least some conservatives find these budgets ridiculous. For example, James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute headlined his commentary for The Week: “The disappointing unseriousness of the House GOP’s budget.”

Pethokoukis wrote: “House Republicans say they want to balance the federal budget and eventually eliminate the federal debt. They do not have a plan to do so. Oh, to be sure, they have a plan! Just not a realistic one that will actually accomplish their goals.”

He noted that of the $5.5 trillion in cuts from planned spending, $2 trillion would come from “repealing the Obamacare insurance subsidies and Medicaid expansion and replacing them with … well, nothing right now.”

The wholesale assault on efforts to provide lower-income Americans with health insurance is the clearest sign that Republicans don’t want to deal with inequality. The inability to get health insurance is one of the biggest burdens on low-income families, particularly those working for low wages and few or no benefits.

Obamacare has helped 16.4 million Americans get health insurance. Where would they turn? And Republicans would compound the damage: The Senate proposes cutting an additional $400 billion from Medicaid over a decade, the House more than double that. Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes that on other low-income programs, the Senate budget cuts even more than the House. The vagueness of these plans makes it hard to tally how much damage would be done to food stamps, Pell Grants for low-income college students and the like, but Greenstein estimates that about two-thirds of the cuts in both plans come “from programs for the less fortunate, thereby exacerbating poverty and inequality.”

Greenstein concludes that under such proposals — here’s hoping President Obama is relentless in blocking them — “ours would be a coarser and less humane nation with higher levels of poverty and inequality, less opportunity,” and an “inadequately prepared” workforce.

Another bit of hypocrisy: These budget writers care so much about national security that they’re not willing to raise a dime in taxes to cover their sharp increases in defense spending. Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, called out his conservative colleagues for how differently they treat defense and social spending.

“You’re always telling us the deficit is so bad we’ve got to cut programs for the elderly, for the sick and for the poor,” Sanders said, “and suddenly, all of that rhetoric disappears.”

Budgets are, by their nature, boring. That’s why those who assemble these long columns of numbers figure they can assail the well-being of the least privileged people in our society even as they profess to care about them so much.

I’d respect these folks a lot more if they said what they clearly believe: They think more inequality would be good for us. It almost makes you nostalgic for the candor of the Romney who spoke about the “47 percent” and the Paul Ryan who once divided us between “makers” and “takers.” Honesty beats saccharine words about the struggles of working people any day.

 

By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post; Featured Post, The National Memo, March 23, 2015

March 24, 2015 Posted by | Budget, Republicans, Wage Stagnation | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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