Ilyse Hogue | The Nation

Ilyse Hogue

Ilyse Hogue

Good politics through strong collaborative movements, reproductive freedom and justice for all.

Michelle for the Win

Michelle Obama’s singular mission last night was to convince Americans that she and the president deeply understand the real challenges facing Americans today, and she aced it. With a relaxed grace that wowed the convention hall, she spoke in personal terms of a common American experience and voiced a deep belief that a shared connection allows her husband to fight for all of us, but especially the women. Against a backdrop of the GOP assault on women’s rights and an economic recession disproportionately affecting women, her words offered a handhold for the slipping hope that ran rampant just four years ago.

While she never mentioned either Romney by name, the obvious juxtaposition of the couples’ lives and core beliefs was woven silently into anecdotes and stated principles throughout the speech. The emotion in her voice was audible as Michelle recounted watching her father struggle to dress himself every morning for his physically demanding job at the water plant. The family needed the money despite his progressive multiple sclerosis. The painted image automatically conjured up a comparison with Ann Romney’s idyllic upbringing as the privileged daughter of a small town mayor.

When Michelle relayed the constant worry of her parents as they scraped and sacrified to afford the small portion of college tuition not covered by federal grants and loans, we were remided of Ann Romney’s description of how tough it was to live off of Mitt’s stock portfolio while they were newleyweds in college. Working moms around the country chuckled with camaraderie when Michelle said date night for her and Barack as parents was dinner or a movie because “as an exhausted mom, I couldn’t stay awake for both.” Ann Romney’s full-time mothering was no doubt exhausting, they must have been silently musing, but since she didn’t have to juggle a job as well, she might have gotten both dinner and a movie. And in a final blow, Michelle deftly but gently cut the heart out of of the GOP narrative and Mitt Romney’s top selling point when she said softly that for Barack “success isn’t about how much money you make, it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.”

While Michelle was the main event, the entire evening was a veritable paean to the women voters this campaign needs to win. If the convention stage was the floor of the House, what are commonly referred to as “women’s issues” would be front and center in a Democratic offensive to rebuild the middle class and own the principles of equality and justice.

With female leaders of labor, government and health advocacy speaking all night long, the crowd was primed as the evening wore on. The men also paid homage to the women who got them to the stage, and pledged to fight for a better future for everyone’s daughters. Julian Castro, the young mayor from San Antonio, delivered a standout performance based largely on his life story of being raised by his mother and grandmother. It was a moving nod to the immigrant experience being made possible by strong women.

By the time Lilly Ledbetter took the stage, the crowd erupted in a frenzy something like teenage fans at a Jonas Brothers concert. The notorious blond grandmother from Alabama sued all the way to the Supreme Court after discovering male counterparts at her tire factory earned more than she did. Smart and sassy, Ledbetter summed up the real-life impact of a twenty-three cent pay gap: the ability to take the family to the occasional movie and still have pennies left over for the college savings account. Ledbetter scored one of the best responses of the night when she mused: “Maybe twenty-three cents doesn’t sound like much for someone with a Swiss Bank account….”

Women across the board say that economic concerns are top of list to get their vote, but nine out of ten say it is critical a candidate understand women. “Understanding women,” I heard consistently as I wandered the hall, means not making abortion and jobs separate issues. With two income households a necessity and reproductive health central to economic security, convention promises will remain just those until—in the words of one older male delegate from New Hampshire—“we stop talking about these as women’s issues. They are economic issues and family issues.”

The women at the convention are fiercely defensive of their president. One Virginia delegate told me with an evangelical zeal that “people forget the patient was bleeding. Our country was on the ER table and losing life fast. Now, the bleeding has stopped and the healing can begin.” Women effortlessly list Obama’s accomplishments on healthcare, on choice, on financial reform. They sing his praises as a father and a husband. And they organize like people with the threat of a Romney/Ryan presidency hanging over their heads.

But even on this night of homage to women, the wage gap wasn’t the only one on display. The women’s Congressional delegation lined up behind Nancy Peolsi as she spoke from the stage appeared appallingly sparse. Though not every member was meant to be accounted for, the image is a graphic reminder that women still only make up 17 percent of federal elected positions. Those numbers qualifies the United States for a spot at seventy-third place in the world for female representation in government, tied with Turkmenistan. A delegate from Colorado told me conspiratorially that there’s always a fight with local party leaders to get money to women candidates in enough time to make a difference in viability.

While the Ledbetter Act has become the president’s signature legislation with women, there is widespread frustration that the Paycheck Fairness Act still languishes in Congress, even if most of that rancor is reserved for the GOP. And one African-American delegate from Nevada fervently wished aloud that the president and Democrats would just speak up about the fact that the wage gap is far higher for women of color than white women. “Painting over the race part of inequality doesn’t help,” she said of her work to get other women of color involved in the campaign.

Kathleen Sebelius’s concise summation of the real time impact on women’s lives from Obamacare was impressive in content and delivery. But no speech provided a genuine analysis of why we are losing substantial ground on reproductive choice, most of them instead settling for the easy win against the GOP villain. Governor Deval Patrick’s rousing line about Democrats’ much-needed pivot to offense requiring more spine met with genuine, if surprised, appreciation. But with no stated solutions on how to stop the war on women other than to re-elect Obama, that offensive still looks daunting. Women haven’t forgotten that the Stupak amendment restricting federal funds from going towards abortion happened on the Democrats’ watch. “It’s not a matter of blame,” one woman from Illinois explained, “it’s a matter of strategy.”

But none of that was top of mind tonight as Michelle took the stage. She connected beautifully with almost every woman in the room while she spoke of her daughters, her concern for their future and her primary role as Mom-in-Chief. The distance yet to travel was most evident in what she didn’t say. Her own success as a lawyer, a dean at the University of Chicago and a hospital administrator was notable in its absence. Her impressive professional biography would have to wait another cycle for the political culture to catch up with reality. Meanwhile, she more than fulfilled her core job as first lady, which is to remind us of her husband’s humanity, his dedication and her abiding belief in his ability to continue to lead this country forward. And we believe her. Because while Ann Romney shouted out last week in Tampa, “I love you women,” Michelle Obama is one of us women.

Anatomy of a Meme: #Eastwooding

As anyone knows who’s ever tried to make an idea or a piece of content go viral, it’s almost impossible to manufacture the conditions for the perfect cultural storm. There’s a special magic required for the organized chaos that erupts when a single moment gives voice to a gathering undercurrent of social consensus. And last night at the RNC, Clint Eastwood had that special magic. Just probably not in the way that the Romney campaign had anticipated.

Surprise guest Eastwood was reportedly given three minutes to speak, but spent the better part of fifteen minutes of prime-time coverage ranting at an empty chair that was supposed to be an invisible President Obama. Pain was visible on the faces of candidate and campaign operatives alike as it became clear that these confused ravings of the famous octogenarian were going to be the stand-out performance from an otherwise carefully orchestrated week.

And that it is. Within moments of Eastwood’s start, @InvisibleObama had a Twitter account with a picture of an empty chair. By the end of the speech, the chair had almost 17,000 followers. It now has 48,000.

#Eastwooding is obviously headed for a new definition in the urban dictionary: taking out frustration on in animate objects.

Celebs and commoners alike have been posting pictures of empty chairs from all over the country claiming to have had encounters with the Invisible President.

Even the president got in the fun when his Twitter account posted a picture of the back of the president sitting in his chair, with the tag line “This seat’s taken.”

Given fruitless attempts to beat back the unchecked lies of the Romney camp, it’s easy to see how last night’s antics served as a pressure valve for release.

But why this moment? Why not one of the other surreal and enraging examples that daily flood our airwaves and inboxes?

In my opinion, the most succinct and spot-on insight came from a Jamelle Bouie tweet, “”This is a perfect representation of the campaign: an old white man arguing with an imaginary Barack Obama.” 

In an electoral climate where candidate can lie without conscience and fact checkers are neutralized by the campaign’s ability to buy the airwaves, having an honest conversation about the state of play has come to feel like having an economic symposium in the memory ward of an assisted living facility.

Though there’s nothing mentally deficient about most Romney supporters, there is a demonstrable stream of lies and deceits combined with a strategic effort to make the president fit some archetypal mold of a villain that confuses the debate to the point of futility.

While that feeling has been lurking for the last four years, Eastwood’s performance gave it physical manifestation.

Below are a sampling of the best #Eastwooding tweets out there, including one from yours truly.

Note: An earlier version of this piece wrongly attributed Jamelle Bouie’s tweet to Andrew Sullivan. 

The Danger of Laughing at Todd Akin

US Representative Todd Akin, R-MO (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

The Twittersphere went nuts yesterday after a video was posted of Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin expressing some jaw-dropping views on rape and abortion in an interview with local news:

“First of all, from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare,” Akin told KTVI-TV in an interview Sunday. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

The short-term consequences of such an incendiary remark are predictable: Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill will trumpet the remark to her own political advantage, donations will spike to her campaign and the party committees will offer the remark as one more proof point of the GOP’s war on women. But the impact of Akin’s effort to redefine the terms of this debate reaches beyond this one race. In the multidimensional chess that shapes public opinion, the game is less about individual elections and more about a sustained effort to mainstream radical ideas. In the case of denying women control over their lives, there’s evidence that the bad guys may be winning the long-game.

Akin was Paul Ryan’s co-sponsor on a House bill just last year banning the use of federal funds for abortion except in cases of “forcible rape.” This term seemed laughably redundant since all rape, by definition, is forced. But this redefinition of rape was deceptively sinister. Statutory rapists often use coercion but not physical force. If the measure had passed, a 13-year-old emotionally manipulated into having sex with an older friend or relative would no longer be able to use Medicaid to terminate a resulting pregnancy. Nor would her parents be able to use their tax-exempt health savings fund.

While the measure was defeated, conversation around it introduced skepticism about whether all rape is created equal and what distinctions should be recognized by law. Instead of making him politically toxic, Ryan’s support of the pioneering forcible rape measure likely made him a more attractive vice presidential candidate to a Romney campaign needing to energize the right-wing base.

And whether or not Akin loses this cycle, his comments have already escalated the stakes. In his world view, the rape victim’s body will be the ultimate judge of whether a crime has taken place. If she gets pregnant, by Akin’s standard, her reproductive organs consented to the pregnancy, so she must have consented to the sex. This bizarre standard of innocence is reminiscent of medieval Europe, where the men in authority held the similarly scientific view that women guilty of witchcraft floated in water while innocent women would drown. Being cleared of witchcraft was of course not much consolation to the drowned women, though they at least got to skip being burned at the stake.

Akin’s comments appear an awful lot like step one in the GOP’s favorite two-step tactic to redefine the world around us: first, more extreme figures voice opinions that would never fly from more politically palatable ones. The right-wing echo chamber picks up those opinions in the guise of news coverage. Then, the more politically acceptable candidates shift their rhetoric to acknowledge the newly accepted opinion as reality.

Consider our seemingly uncontrollable slide towards climate catastrophe: in 2006 and 2007, the link between human activity and climate change was almost incontestable. Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth was a breakout hit; and the former VP was rewarded for his leadership on the global issue with a Nobel Prize in 2007. In 2008, both McCain and Obama openly acknowledged the existence of the threat and the need for action. Scientists breathed a collective sigh of relief that the US might finally exert some leadership on this existential issue.

But when the Obama victory made the idea of a clean-energy economy a potential reality, the climate deniers kicked into high gear. Cash from the Koch brothers poured into bogus organizations to promote climate skepticism and cast doubt on the scientific consensus. Senator Inhofe called climate change “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” A 2009 Chamber of Commerce ad buy brutalized House Democrats who voted for the climate legislation. In the lead up to the climate summit of 2009, someone even hacked into a University server and published highly edited e-mails from climate scientists to make them appear to be fabricating their results. While the scientists were exonerated, the damage was done.

The resulting shift in public opinion was almost immediate. Between 2008 and 2010, the number of Americans who believed media accounts of climate change were exaggerated jumped from 35 percent to 48 percent. Among self-identified Republicans, it went to 66 percent. By last year’s Republican presidential primary, right-wing contenders made seemingly inane statements that flew in the face of scientific consensus, and even the ones like Romney who had previously acknowledged the threat were forced to recant to maintain their viability.

While the political dynamics around these two issues are different, there are striking similarities in the right-wing strategy of capitalizing on extreme statements to shift the spectrum of what’s possible. And the wary will take heed: in the span of four short years, we went from having two presidential candidates who openly advocated action to stop climate change to having no GOP candidates in 2012 who could or would affirm its existence and a Democratic president who seems to wish the issue would magically disappear. The consequences of inaction are already being felt.

The same process is underway to undermine women’s voices in our own destiny. Mitt Romney has already flip-flopped from a pro-choice Senate candidate and a governor who promised to be “a good voice” among Republicans on reproductive health to his new incarnation as Paul Ryan’s running mate and an anti-choice leader. While Ryan allows lesser candidates like Akin to carry the water on extreme views held by the right-wing patriarchy, his equally radical views become mainstreamed as his anti-woman credentials are embraced by the party leadership. If we don’t stop laughing and start drawing hard lines around scientific reality, how many Akin’s will it take before we see a President Romney ordering rape victims thrown into the water to see if they float?

For a take on how to fight back against rape culture, read Jessica Valenti’s “How to Out a Rapist.”

The Adjectives of Sally Ride's Life and Death

First American woman in space Sally Ride passed away Monday, and her death has become a question of adjectives. Specifically, which ones are used in the plethora of tributes. Used: iconic, pioneer, brilliant, author, passionate, advocate, and role model. All true. Not used: lesbian. Also evidently true.

Daily Beasts Andrew Sullivan accused the New York Times of either active or passive homophobia by omitting this core part of Ms. Ride’s identity in her extensive obituary. Ultimately, though, Sullivan saves his harshest criticism for Ms. Ride herself, calling her an “absent heroine” for her trademark discretion and bemoaning her missed opportunity to serve as a role model for young gay people.

My neck hair bristled reading that, empathizing with Sally and far too familiar with the universal curse of professional women painfully managing the delicate balance between fruitful camaraderie and destructive vulnerability in male-dominated and often sexually charged workplaces. Still, it seems that towards the end of her life, Ride was quite open about her relationship with her partner of twenty-seven years, Tam O’ Shaughnessy, who was noted as surviving family in the statement released by Sally Ride Science to announce her death.

But the jury’s out on the cause for the omission. Commenters chimed in to point out that the New York Times never leads with a “heterosexual” headline when one dies. Others point to Anderson Cooper, who came out this month to an anticlimactic chorus of “duhs!” If equality is counterintuitively defined by the choice to exercise privacy, to many this is one battle that seems to be drawing to a close.

Such is the view from elite media and pop culture. The view down below isn’t so rosy. The same day as the Sally Ride obituary was printed, the Contra Costa Times carried a report of a Pleasanton, California, comedy club that turned from humorous to hostile when the drunk performer noticed a lesbian couple in his midst. According to the women’s lawyer, the comedian approached the table violently thrusting his pelvis and yelling:

"You’re a LESBIAN. All you need is a GOOD-MAN!! I’ll volunteer my services to get in between the two of you to show you a ­good time you won’t be needing any strap-on’s or vibrators with me.”

Get it? Because nothing makes a lesbian joke better than throwing some rape allusions on top. After the threatened woman threw a drink at her thruster, he retaliated by hurling drinks and bottles from other patrons’ tables at the fleeing couple. Rather than help the women to safety, many in the audience joined in.

When news of the incident led to bad press, the performer in question, Eddie Griffin, fell back on the “can’t you take a joke?” defense, long the kryptonite of anyone trying to highlight cultural oppression. The production company screamed censorship, and Eddie himself posted a screed on his Facebook page calling out the negative publicity “all over a joke about dyke bitches!”

These twin tales are emblematic of a culture increasingly embroiled in a fractured relationship with itself on issues of tolerance. The president endorsed gay marriage in an election year and mogul Russell Simmons can heap public accolades on hip-hop star Frank Ocean for coming out. Progress. A young gay couple faces a hostile crowd in a club in suburban California, and teen suicide remains 300 percent higher in the gay population than the straight. Miles to go.

Kermit gets massive social media love for his public divorce from Chick-fil-A after the fast food chain’s CEO retrenched his company’s commitment to only support the ­“biblical definition of marriage.” But it’s a mistake to lose sight of the fact that the Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day started by Governor Mike Huckabee in response had 80,000 people signed up in the first forty-eight hours. Those metrics are the envy of any organizer who’s ever planned an online event.

A new initiative between Courage Campaign and American Bridge understands this all too well, which is why they’ve joined forces to launch Mitt Gets Worse. These groups are trying to head off the insidious complacency of an embattled electorate who thinks that in comparison to a Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney might be a kinder gentler alternative on social issues. The effort is aimed at those tempted by a change in course on the economy, and serves to remind them that falling for a charlatan carries a heavy price.

Concerns about the economy may divide us into the 1 percent versus the 99 percent, but the numbers get a whole lot scarier when we look at other critical progressive values like justice and civil rights. Until this dynamic changes, the adjectives that define Sally Ride’s life and death are going to be have to remain more than a personal choice.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Sally Ride as the first woman in space. This has been corrected to accurately represent her as the first American woman in space. 

Romney's Doomed 'I Am Rubber, You Are Glue' Defense

A couple nights ago, insomnia led to channel-flipping, which led to an obscure B-movie called Ready to Rumble. The utterly forgettable wrestling flick had almost induced slumber when I heard one of the characters utter wisdom from an ancient martial arts master: “Always attack the man’s strength…. No one expects you to attack you at their strongest point, that’s where you can defeat them.” That phrase came roaring back to me in daylight hours yesterday when Mitt Romney surrogate John Sununu wished aloud that the president would “learn to be an American.” This offensive statement is the latest feint in the Romney campaign’s feeble attempt to execute the patented Rovian strategy reflected in the wrestling movie. Only Romney’s version is less ancient wisdom and more grade school taunt, “I am rubber, you are glue…”

Sununu’s attempted attack, steeped in birtherism and barely concealed racism, comes straight from Karl Rove’s playbook. Famous for aggressively going after his opponents’ strengths, Rove undercut John McCain’s unimpeachable status as a war hero by engaging in a whisper campaign asserting that McCain betrayed his country under torture and was unfit to lead as a result. Four years later, a paralyzed Democratic base watched in shock and awe when the Swift Boat Veterans launched a similar attack on John Kerry. No one anticipated a brutal blow on a decorated vet by a draft dodger.

But the Romney campaign’s attacks look less like the carefully crafted, strategic offensives that Rove is known for and more like the spastic flailing of a candidate desperate to deflect incoming blows to his own credibility. Already under scrutiny for the very charges he’s trying to glue to President Obama, Romney’s major achievement has been to drive home the belief that his attacks only hold up a mirror to his own weaknesses.

Weeks of unrelenting examination of Romney’s record at Bain Capital are taking a toll, according to analysts of both political persuasions. Newt Gingrich backers first aired first-person accounts by American workers who found their jobs axed and their communities decimated after acquisition by Bain. The Obama campaign takes up the drumbeat, and there seems to be an endless supply of folks who can trace their personal misfortune back to the robber-baron tactics of Romney-led Bain. Since not too many voters’ bucket lists include placing trust during a fragile economic recovery in a guy who made a fortune at the expense of Americans workers, Romney’s response was to lob a lame moniker at the president, calling him an outsourcer-in-chief. He didn’t even sound like he believed it would work as he was saying it.

That feeble attempt to undercut the president pales in comparison to John Sununu’s calling this president un-American. While such theatrics may satisfy the teeny percentage of birthers among the GOP ranks, most people read this attack in context of the vast disparity between the life stories of the two candidates. Romney’s privileged upbringing, which he parlayed into lucrative positions in management and private equity, catapulted him to wealth that makes him worth more than the last eight presidents combined. While a good “rags to riches” story is a mainstay of American cultural mythology, Romney’s story is noticeably absent of rags but is rife with whitewash to cover transgressions against the country he seeks to lead.

Americans—fatigued from far-right calls to release a much-examined birth certificate—are far more interested in why Romney steadfastly refuses to release his tax returns, despite even conservative outlets’ nearly begging him to do so. Speculation that Romney paid no taxes in 2009 feeds concerns of an electorate that this candidate has not shared the pain of this economic crisis. To make matters worse, Romney also spent the last week telling media outlets that Bain filings with the SEC placing him at the company in crucial outsourcing years are false. So either he lied to the SEC or he’s responsible for even more jobs being shipped overseas than previously believed.

Avoiding taxes, concealing documents, lying, destroying American jobs—these may be hallmarks of the 1 percent who place personal gain ahead of duty to country, but these are not elements of the American dream that most of us still aspire to. Those are found in President Obama’s story: born to a (mostly) single mom, raised by his grandparents, struggling to put himself through college. Despite the adversity, he managed to attend the best schools, gave back to his community and excelled at every undertaking. Those who want to believe in bootstraps need look no further.

None of this is to exalt a president who—while having achieved many things of significance—has also made strategic and substantive mistakes and struggles with some challenges of the office. But elections are ultimately about trust, and in such a scenario disappointment and human error will trump deeply flawed character every time.

Romney’s failure to grasp this critical difference has led him to make dizzying campaign errors. Far from executing on the Sun Tzu axiom “kill with a borrowed knife,” a k a use the enemy’s strength against him, his attempts to deflect have only magnified his own weakness. And in doing so, he’s inadvertently personified a different Sun Tzu axiom, “cornered prey mount desperate attacks.”

'Money In, People Out': The Twin Pillars of the GOP's 2012 Plan

Mitt Romney escaped the record heat this weekend by attending several parties in his honor in the Hamptons. Early predictions were that one afternoon in this elite enclave would net the candidate more than $3 million for his campaign.

Less than 200 miles away in Philadelphia, where the median income hovers at $36,000 and a quarter of the city lives below the poverty line, there were no beach parties, but some disturbing news. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that state election officials upped the number of statewide voters potentially affected by the new voter ID laws from the 90,000 that Governor Corbett claimed to 758,000. A full 9.2 percent of the state’s eligible voters could be turned away from the polls in November, despite being eligible. In Philadelphia, where over half of the city’s residents are people of color, 18 percent of registered voters lack proper ID under the state’s new laws—laws that Pennsylvania House leader Mike Turzai claimed will deliver the state to Romney in November.

These twin anecdotes seem to perfectly capture the GOP 2012 plan for victory: “voters out, money in.” Despite the massive capital advantage the Republicans have accrued, they’re still driving a strategy of disenfranchisement and destruction that imperils our democracy and seeds distrust among a populace already experiencing record lows of confidence in their elected leadership.

Next week, pundits will be hyperventilating over the political fundraising totals from the last quarter. The cover of the Sunday NY Times Magazine breathlessly asks the rhetorical question, “Can Democrats Catch Up in the Super-PAC game?” Let’s get it clear: no, they can’t and no one ever claimed they could. But they also don’t need to—what they need is to raise some money, spend it smarter than their counterparts, and provide millions of people the legal means and the emotional desire to exercise their constitutional right to vote. The right understands this key to Democratic victory, which is why outraising is not enough. Victory requires dominating the system at both ends.

More than two dozen states have passed voter ID laws, with eleven passing in the last two years. Republicans, sensing the opportunity, have continually hyped the negligible threat of voter fraud in order to make voting tougher and tougher for the elderly, the poor, Latinos and African-Americans—all of whom tend to lean Democratic. Meanwhile, back in April, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson gave $10 million on one day to Romney Super PAC, Restore Our Future. Combined with $20 million to Newt Gingrich’s failed bid plus millions more to Rove and Koch brothers front groups, Adelson has given close to $60 million all told, and has stated publicly that he’ll spend up to $100 million to defeat Barack Obama.

What’s driving these actions at both ends of the spectrum is a mix of personal entitlement, business efficiency and good old-fashioned elitism, with a healthy dose of racism. Take Adelson: he’s in for high stakes because his personal stakes are high. He’s under investigation by both the Department of Justice and the Security and Exchange Commission for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) by paying off local officials and working with organized crime to further his gambling empire in Macau, China. The Obama administration has been diligent about prosecuting FCPA cases, while Adelson presumes the heat would be off under a Romney presidency. When you have $25 billion, what’s $100 million to secure your freedom?

Adelson also makes 90 percent of his earnings from his casinos in Macau and Singapore, a high number, but not unheard of for US companies operating abroad. Obama has promised to close the loopholes that allow these corporations to shelter earnings overseas, robbing US treasuries of billions in tax dollars. Preserving offshore tax havens is not the only place where donating big bucks to GOP Super PACs is a highly efficient business model. Mega-donors David and Charles Koch’s company, Koch Industries, spent a whopping $40 million on disclosed lobbying expenditures between 2008 and 2010. The price of a fundraiser in the Hamptons is peanuts compared to that tab. Between the tax plan and the estate tax, high-net-worth folks stand to save millions annually under Romney. The candidate himself would save almost $5 million per year under his own plan.

Apparently, when the stakes are this high, you don’t take chances. Hence, the full court press on disenfranchisement. In Florida, the GOP governor has been so intent on purging voter rolls of Latino-sounding names that the Justice Department filed an injunction and sixty-seven election supervisors courageously refused to implement the program until he proves his claims in each case.

Self-serving economics is a repugnant driver, but the psychology that allows lawmakers to deny fundamental rights to their constituents while their rank and file stand by is even more insidious. In a rare moment of honesty, a GOP donor that shelled out $25,000 to attend one of the Romney events yesterday had this to say to a LA Times reporter:

“I don’t think the common person is getting it,” she said from the passenger seat of a Range Rover stamped with East Hampton beach permits. “Nobody understands why Obama is hurting them… But my college kid, the baby sitters, the nails ladies—everybody who’s got the right to vote—they don’t understand what’s going on. I just think if you’re lower income—one, you’re not as educated, two, they don’t understand how it works, they don’t understand how the systems work, they don’t understand the impact.”

While it’s the money they flaunt, it’s the people they fear, a fact that would serve us well to remember as limited resources are spent in 2012 and beyond. As progressives work to protect the vote for every American citizen in the short term and to blunt the impact of big money on our democratic process, let’s not lose focus on long-term investments in our own not-so-secret weapon: the people—of all colors and ages, all incomes levels, in the cities and on the farms—that make this country great. When they all have a voice, we all win.

The Three-Letter Word That Saved Healthcare

In perhaps the most highly anticipated decision of the Obama administration, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 today to uphold the individual mandate as constitutional. Justice Roberts, who sided with the liberals to tip the balance, voted to uphold the measure not under the Commerce Clause, as the Solicitor General had argued before the Court, but under the power of Congress to “lay and collect taxes.” The ruling surmises that the individual mandate amounts to nothing more than a tax charge levied on those free-riders who choose not to buy insurance and might otherwise end up sticking the rest of us with the bill.

How easy was that? No more arguments about the limits of Congress' power under the Commerce Clause or the merits of forcing broccoli on Americans. So why didn't the Obama Administration make the free-rider tax argument all along? Because to do that would be to admit that the President had proposed a new tax on Americans, even if only on the most irresponsible scofflaws among its ranks.     

In a desperate attempt to salvage their political win, the minority argued in their dissenting opinion that even though the effect of the mandate is that of taxation, it cannot be upheld under that jurisdiction because the framers of the law used the “wrong label.” Just when you thought that conservative logic couldn't get more twisted, these judges “reasoned” that if the concerted anti-tax campaign was successful enough to force legislators to swap the word tax in order to sell a proposal, then they can't then have the protections associated with taxes. It's almost the legal equivalent to "you snooze, you lose!"

Confused? You’re not alone, since confusion is an intended effect of the linguistic gymnastics key to the right-wing’s win-at-all-costs game plan. But at least we can thank Chief Justice Roberts and the other four justices for striking a blow today for cognitive coherence. The Court affirmed by a razor-thin margin that a rose by any other name remains, constitutionally, a rose.

This comes as a blow to conservatives who, for years, have understood the power of language to shape reality. A nostalgic walk down memory lane of the healthcare reform fight is littered with catchy opposition phrases completely devoid of truth. Who can forget the summer of 2009 when town halls were filled with citizens terrified that Obama-appointed death panels would be administering their care if the bill passed? Anyone still have their “Obama lies, Granny dies” bumper sticker? Someone might want to tell Granny that it’s safe to come out of the basement now.

And how about that mandate that’s at the center of the frothing Tea Party rage? This “radical” initiative was introduced in 1993 by Republican Senator John Chaffey of Rhode Island as a means to undercut the employer mandate central to Hillary Clinton’s infamous health care proposal. Shifting the burden of responsibility from business to individuals proved to be such a popular conservative position that Mitt Romney made it the centerpiece of his Massachusetts healthcare reform bill. Rationally, Democrats assumed that Republicans would never attack their own idea. However, ever attuned to the power of language, Republicans made the "mandate" sound even scarier than a small tax applied to a few bad seeds. 

Now that that the Court has ruled that mandate is the semantic equivalent to tax, the questions seem endless. Can we expect “no-tax Norquist” to withdraw support from the Republican presidential candidate who effectively raised taxes on Massachusetts residents when he signed RomenyCare into law? And was Romney lying to his constituents then, as Sarah Palin claimed that Obama is now in her tweeted response to the ruling?

@SarahPalinUSA: Obama lied to the American people. Again. He said it wasn’t a tax. Obama lies; freedom dies.

It’s worth noting here that what their side lacks in originality, they make up for in brevity, lyricism and consistency. Truth comes in a distant fourth in the Republican message hierarchy.

But this whole linguistic rabbit hole we find ourselves at the bottom of raises the question: why not just call the whole thing what it is? Given how much Americans tend to love tax breaks and how relatively few “free-riders” there are who would incur unsubsidized new taxes under Obamacare, what political cost calculation led to all the talk of a mandate and a commerce clause in the first place?

The answer lies in a decades-long war on taxes that has left Democrats paralyzed when faced with an advantageous opportunity to reclaim the term. Conservatives, well aware of their victory in this strategic front of the language war, use the weaponized word prodigiously. In 2009, a Democratic-backed (but really quite conservative) market mechanism to put a price on carbon and begin the slow process of mitigating the disastrous impacts of climate change was killed in Congress after being labelled “cap-and-tax.” Never mind that even more taxpayer dollars are going to fight unprecedented forest fires in Colorado or biblical-scale floods in Minnesota, both obvious effects of record heat and shifting weather patterns.

The full frontal assault on taxes was birthed by conservatives with an agenda to squeeze the life out of popular social spending initiatives in the latter part of the last century. Given how normative taxes were in American culture, the intellectual architects of the “Starve the Beast” strategy saw no way to force spending cuts without a high-profile campaign to destroy the funding mechanism. The fact that the Federal Treasury would be collateral damage was of no concern to these men, and any political consequence for an incoming Democratic administration was icing on the cake. George W. Bush’s deficit spending and casino style regulatory approach drove the American economy straight off a cliff after systematically dismantling the rescue squads. The subsequent mess is one that Republicans have delighted in watching Obama try to clean up, a task made even more impossible by Republicans who would rather see the economy destroyed than vote for an increase in tax revenue, even—or especially—on the country’s wealthy.

But the impacts of this scorched-earth campaign are ominously visible not only in a policy agenda skewed towards the 1 percent but also in newly embedded cultural norms. When fire services were rendered optional in rural Tennessee as a way to curb spending in 2011, many residents opted out. After all, who ever believes that their house will burn until the sparks start flying? But in at least two heart-breaking instances, firefighters were forced to sit by and watch as peoples’ homes burned to the ground because of unpaid fees. The parallels are strikingly similar to the conservative outcry against the healthcare mandate, without which we would be forced to sit idly by while people suffer. As I wrote last week here, Justice Scalia’s endorsement of the “let them die” faction of the tea party in the healthcare hearings gave judicial credibility to a fundamentally anti-American posture of indifference—a position reinforced by his dissenting opinion this morning. Do we really want to embrace an America where we watch our neighbors’ lives go up in flames?

Given all of this, the irony of this much-reviled three letter word offering a parachute for a plummeting healthcare initiative is not lost on this progressive. As millions sleep easier tonight as a result of this ruling, it’s important to remember a few lessons as we forge ahead: Obama didn’t kill your granny, freedom is not actually dead and constitutionally protected taxes can—and often do— create a stronger America. That may be language actually worth fighting for.

Healthcare and Scalia's Broken Moral Compass

The Supreme Court's highly anticipated ruling on Obama's healthcare reforms could come any day now. Whatever the verdict, expect much ado about the hotly debated role of broccoli in healthcare and arcane explanations of the Commerce Clause that is at the center of the legal case against the individual mandate. But buried deep in hearings filled with legalese and judicial sparring was a short exchange that illuminates an American ideal that truly hangs in the balance with this decision—the idea that in a civilized society, we do not sit idly by and watch our neighbors die.

The specific back-and-forth in question occurred on the third day of the hearings between Justice Antonin Scalia and Solicitor General Donald Verilli, the administration official charged with defending the law in court. It went like this:

GENERAL VERRILLI: No. It's because you're going—in the health care market, you're going into the market without the ability to pay for what you get, getting the health care service anyway as a result of the social norms that allow—that—to which we've obligated ourselves so that people get health care.

JUSTICE SCALIA: Well, don't obligate yourself to that. Why—you know?

GENERAL VERRILLI: Well, I can't imagine that that—that the Commerce Clause would —would forbid Congress from taking into account this deeply embedded social norm.

JUSTICE SCALIA: You—you could do it. 

If you are not a frequent watcher of the Court and therefore not fluent in the cadences of judicial banter, this short, seemingly banal interchange in an exhaustive debate may not have even registered. The “deeply embedded social norm” that Verilli refers to—in fact seems confused that he has to explain to Justice Scalia—is the norm that dictates that people will step in to aid others who are ailing or in danger of death.

Scalia's statement that “you could do it [defy these norms]” eerily evoked the appalling moment at the September 2011 Republican presidential debate when the audience wildly applauded Wolf Blitzer's stunned probing of whether candidate Ron Paul would allow a 30-year-old uninsured man in a healthcare emergency to die. “Yes!” shouted unashamed audience members, turning a presidential debate into something reminiscent of the Roman Colosseum. When Justice Scalia argued against the social norms that Verilli was presuming sacrosanct, he was essentially saying, “Let him die!”


While we've grown to expect this kind of mob mentality from a radical right wing whipped up in a Tea Party frenzy, this bizarre display of indifference from a Supreme Court Justice breaks new ground in an evolving culture that seems to prize resistance to any and all government over the compassion that is the essence of civilized society. The right screams often and loudly that President Obama has declared war on the Judeo-Christian underpinnings they hold as American as apple pie. But in fact, it is Justice Scalia, from his exalted perch, who appears intent on vacating the Golden Rule and undermining the parable of the Good Samaritan, both core to Christian theology.

Dahlia Lithwick hit the proverbial nail on the head in her description of Justice Scalia when she wrote in Slate in 2003:

Scalia doesn't come into oral argument all secretive and sphinxlike, feigning indecision on the nuances of the case before him. He comes in like a medieval knight, girded for battle. He knows what the law is. He knows what the opinion should say. And he uses the hour allocated for argument to bludgeon his brethren into agreement.

Scalia, ever the showman, joked during the March hearings that having to read the entire healthcare law in order to rule on it would amount to cruel and unusual punishment, prohibited by the Constitution. At the same time, he displayed an egregious ignorance regarding which provisions in the bill actually passed. And on the final morning of arguments, Scalia laid his cards on the table when he argued that stripping out the individual mandate would cause the whole law to topple.

The mandate, more descriptively titled the “free-rider clause,” fines uninsured individuals who expect taxpayer-supported emergency services to cover calamities that befall them. It is also the component of the reform that allows insurance companies to affordably cover those with pre-existing conditions. Cutting the mandate, Scalia mused, cuts the heart out of the entire reform and would almost certainly kick the whole matter back to a gridlocked Congress, while millions of lives hang in the balance.

A recent Pew poll shows that approximately 83 percent of Americans are affiliated with an organized faith, be it a form of Christianity, Judaism, Muslim, Hinduism or Buddhism. A whopping 78.4 percent of us fall somewhere in the Christian camp. Yet, it is core Christian values that are currently on trial at the Supreme Court.

Perhaps this emotional dissonance is what drives a new poll from the New York Times that shows that only 44 percent of Americans approve of the job the Supreme Court is doing. Once a venerated institution that seemed immune to the partisan squabbles of the other branches of government, the Court has consistently displayed its corporate and right-wing allegiances in decisions that span from 2000's Bush v Gore when it picked our president and irrevocably altered the course of history (Scalia later told Americans to “get over it!” when asked about the decision) to the 2009 Citizens United decision, the impact of which is being felt acutely this election season. Now, 75 percent of Americans say that the Justices' political preferences motivate their decision making on the bench.

When healthcare reform passed in 2010, the United States ranked dead last among similar countries in a study comparing cost and quality of healthcare. America consistently spends twice as much for lesser care than its industrialized allies. While the Affordable Care Act left some of the best solutions on the table, it offers real hope to the one in four American adults that go without healthcare each year due to job transitions or other circumstances. So many of our neighbors live in terror that a single unexpected calamity will drive their family into bankruptcy spurred by emergency medical bills. Now, when the verdict comes in, those fellow Americans can add a new fear to their list: that a Conservative Catholic Supreme Court Justice will lead the charge to let them die.

Reflections From Netroots Nation: Seven Years Later

Last weekend, the annual Netroots Nation conference in Providence, Rhode Island, drew 2,700 progressives to discuss the state of the movement. Since the event fell two days after Governor Scott Walker won his recall election in Wisconsin, I expected a collective mood approximating either a massive group therapy session or a giant wake. I found neither. The political challenges were apparent, sure. The “Bold Progressive 99% Candidates” panel was supposed to feature two bold progressives, Lori Saldana and Eric Griego, who lost their primaries to more centrist candidates. And while some respected elected officials were in the proverbial house—Senator Sheldon Whitehouse held court in the bar after speaking about the perils of Citizens United, while earlier Elizabeth Warren wowed from the main stage—there was none of the craziness of the 2007 Netroots Nation when all eight Democratic candidates for president made almost-mandatory pilgrimages to Chicago to court the powerful base of bloggers and activists and get an edge in the long race ahead. Instead, there were multiple panels on Occupy, art in every hallway, an amazing TED-style Ignite session from participants. Netroots Nation 2012 seemed to reflect a growing progressive sentiment that favors sass over suits and an emphasis on power building over power wielding.

In the hallways and in the twittersphere, a handful of folks bemoaned the absence of administration heavyweights as evidence of disrespect for the base, and some of the press used the conference to drive that now familiar storyline. Digging deeper though, the back-to-basics energy that pervaded the conference felt refreshing to most attendees. Rather than racing between keynotes dominated by political rockstars, participants lingered over panels doing deep dives into policy or skill shares on social media. Less Democratic Party participation left room to elevate emerging movement leaders, like Ai-Jen Poo from National Domestic Workers Alliance and Becky Bond from CREDO Action. The thousands of conversations elicited some common themes on lessons learned and moving forward. Here are five of my top points; I'd love to hear yours in the comment section below:

  1. A powerful movement is defined by values, not tactics. Occupy. Consumer Boycotts. Shareholder Activists. Netroots Progressivism. While some argue these are independent movements; I see them as different tactics in a singular movement committed to economic opportunity, social and political equity, and environmental sanity. Despite having experienced a growth decade in the progressive political power due to the emergence of online communities, the national political sector is often the lagging indicator in social change. Does that mean we abandon the electoral playing field? Absolutely not. Groups have been and will continue to be active in primaries and general elections this year. But it does mean it's time to put resources into other sectors that build power towards our ultimate goals. The Stop Rush campaign has alerted political activists to the power of the pocketbook to stop hate speech and ChangeToWin has invoked the wrath of the Wall Street Journal for its effective shareholder organizing. Trayvon Martin's murder united progressives around the need for racial justice and The Advancement Project is organizing that energy to fight voter suppression campaigns that keep people of color out of politics. Embracing a values-based definition of the progressive movement and resourcing strategies accordingly will allow us to control more levers and win more victories.

  2. Impact is impact: embracing progressive entrepreneurs. Social entrepreneurship is exploding. From energy efficiency giant O-Power to peer-to-peer car-sharing platform Relay Rides, private ventures with a social mission are having great impact on everything from consumption to community-building and often outpace their non-profit brethren in measurable gains. And while these folks are everywhere from the Young Global Leaders table at the World Economic Forum to the pages of Fast Company, they are often nowhere to be found at progressive political gatherings. It's time to stop divining whether the motivation of profit-driven ventures are pure and to start evaluating these folks on their impact. An effective progressive movement needs like-minded business to stand with us against corporate co-option of our government.

  3. Winners practice multidimensional chess. The right sees a win as a win as a win. A state win or a local win is as good as a national one; a partial win may not be good enough, but heralding it shows the momentum and power of the movement. Progressives are notoriously short on elevating local and state candidates, even though those actors may be able to maintain a progressive posture better than the national ones. There exists good infrastructure to identify and support candidates to build our bench, including Progressive Majority and the New Organizing Institute, but until we learn to use national bully pulpits to herald these up-and-comers, we unnecessarily limit the narrative of our own victories and the power-building that comes with it.

  4. Claim victory early and often. The right, amazingly, even sometimes counts losses as wins. While the personhood amendment in Mississippi failed late last year, its backers helped succeed in moving the conversation from access to abortion to access to contraception, something they clearly consider a victory. As progressives, we are slow to claim victory—even when it is real—for fear it might communicate to those in power that we are wholly satisfied and to those on the sidelines that we don't need their help. But momentum generates more energy, not less and more energy can create greater change.

  5. Microtargeting is for voters, not movements. It is high time that we stop using the words “online” and “off-line” in front of organizing. Organizing is organizing. Netroots are grassroots. Many organizers and funders who share the analysis that we are losing have an inclination to go back to what they know best — funding direct service and traditional Alinsky-style organizing. I fear this future. While service providers are absolutely critical in addressing immediate need, they alone will never be able to alleviate the inequality that plagues our nation. And no one refutes that traditional community organizing will always have lessons to teach us about building power. Still, there's no going back to the 1990s. Community organizers are wired now and mobile platforms represent the best hope of engaging anyone under thirty. Only when we lose the artificial distinctions will we fully embrace our power and the possibilities of a united cohesive movement.

Et Tu, Cory Booker? The Pathology of False Equivalence

Newark Mayor Cory Booker. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)

There is a disease spreading across our political punditry, and the beloved mayor of Newark, Cory Booker, seems to have contracted it. On Sunday’s Meet The Press, Booker disavowed the new ad campaign attacking Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital, and in doing so, compared the Obama team’s decision to air the ads to the right-wing invocation of Reverend Wright to take down the president. Booker released a retraction video hours later, but the incident indicates just how advanced the sickness of false equivalence is in our national dialogue. The plague has now infected a normally sharp public official unlikely to confuse a thinly veiled racist play against the first African-American president with an examination of the economic track record of his challenger.

I’m as much a Cory Booker fan as the next populist progressive. I’ve watched with bemusement as his social media presence has made him a superhero, able to plow driveways in biblical snow storms and tweeting as he goes door to door during hurricanes to protect his constituents. His larger-than-life persona went stratospheric last month when he rushed into a burning building to save a woman trapped by the flames. But Cory, while you had me at your first hashtag, you lost me yesterday when you uttered these words:

“This kind of stuff is nauseating to me on both sides,” [Booker] said on Meet the Press. “It’s nauseating to the American public. Enough is enough. Stop attacking private equity. Stop attacking Jeremiah Wright. This stuff has got to stop.”

In an effort to appear objective in a political climate anything but, talking heads now feel the need to utter a Democratic offense in the same breath as a Republican offense. But I’ve got news for them: when the offenses don’t line up—as they often don’t these days—these folks don’t sound objective, they sound like lunatics.

Mitt Romney is running as CEO-in-chief of a country starved for jobs. His economic record is central to his candidacy by his own design. The ads in question feature workers from factories destroyed by Bain Capital challenging Romney’s model for job creation. In an election where the economy and jobs lead voters’ concerns by double digits, a candidate’s history as an industrial titan is not only germane but crucial to decision-making. Obama’s team are hardly the first people to think so; Winning Our Future, the Sheldon Adelson–backed Super PAC, launched the mini-documentary King of Bain, widely credited with helping win the South Carolina primary for Gingrich.

This line of inquisition simply does not equate to using a preacher’s old inflammatory statements as an attack on the president’s patriotism. Even the previous Republican challenger understood the immorality of stoking racism as a path to the Oval Office.

But unchallenged false equivalence in our media and from our politicians is at epidemic proportions. A few cases in point:

    In March, after the release of Game Change—the movie depicting the train wreck that Sarah Palin made of the McCain campaign in 2008—McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt defended himself on Morning Joe by claiming that both parties choose unqualified candidates for vice president. He compared John Kerry’s choice of John Edwards as vice president in 2004 to McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin, saying both were ill-suited to run the country. Schmidt is a Republican operative with self-interest in playing down the Palin decision, so we might forgive him the transgression. But NBC Chief Correspondent Andrea Mitchell—guest on the same show and the epitome of establishment media—was quick to affirm Schmidt’s assessments of the two candidates. Not a single guest made the obvious point that Edwards was a respected senator with thoroughly vetted policy positions whose character flaws would not be revealed until years later. Sarah Palin, on the other hand, was virtually unknown and her lack of knowledge on even basic policy issues would have become clear in the most basic interview of a rigorous vetting process.

    Earlier this month, one of Politico’s premiere political reporters, Manu Raju, stated in an article about Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s frustration over gridlock in the Senate that the filibuster is a tool that has been employed with growing frequency by both parties over the years. Raju’s history book seems to begin in 2009 when the threat of filibusters by the Republicans shot up to more than double that of their Democratic counterparts in previous years.

    More insidious is the February column by Washington Post analyst Ezra Klein that claimed that “politically motivated” shifts on issues by both parties undercut any ideological meaning of “left” and “right.” By making this sweeping conclusion, Klein ignores the body of evidence that shows distinctly different motivations for the examples he uses. Democrats have consistently shifted position in an effort to compromise with Republicans—being lambasted by their base for doing so—and move legislation forward. Republicans have shifted position to stake out increasingly extreme positions that will drive government out of business. In conflating the two, Klein misinforms readers about the nature of the political dysfunction in our country and makes it that much harder to fix it.

The problem of false equivalence is so rife in our country that the president dedicated a chunk of his speech at the Associated Press luncheon in April to the issue. While it doesn’t rank explicitly on the list of voter concerns, this habit contributes to the high rates of American distrust in the news media. The American people are smart enough to know when a commentator or anchor holds an opinion and forgiving when this is made apparent. Attempts to cover up personal bias with false equivalence does not make one objective, but it does make one complicit in obscuring the dynamics of that lead to political gridlock and an unresponsive democracy. I’d expect Cory Booker, who’s built his entire political career on being responsive, to be immune to such an affliction.

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