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Early voting in Ohio, November 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)
As the 2012 election approached, Republican governors and legislators in battleground states across the country rushed to enact restrictive Voter ID laws, to eliminate election-day registration and to limit early voting. Those were just some of the initiatives that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People identified as “an onslaught of restrictive measures across the country designed to stem electoral strength among communities of color.”
Why did so much energy go into the effort?
John Payton, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, explained, “These block the vote efforts are a carefully targeted response to the remarkable growth of the minority electorate, and threaten to disproportionally diminish the voting strength of African-Americans and Latinos.”
Civil rights groups pushed back, working with the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and other organizations to mount legal and legislative challenges. But the most dramatic pushback may well have been the determined voter registration and mobilization drives organized on the ground in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and other battleground states.
A key supporter of the Ohio voter registration and turnout drive, State Senator Nina Turner says, “Republicans thought that they could suppress the vote, but these efforts actually motivated people to get registered and cast a ballot. It’s no surprise that the communities targeted by these policies came out to the polls in a big way—they saw this not just as an affront to their rights, but as a call to action.”
Turner’s point turns out to be highly significant.
According to a new study produced by Brookings Institution demographer William Frey for the Associated Press, 2012 turnout was down overall from 2004 and 2008. But African-American turnout does not appear to have declined at the same rate as white turnout.
Headlines suggested that African-American turnout levels may actually have exceeded white turnout levels, which would be a historic first. Frey tells MSNBC that he'll need to analyze more census data -- some of which is not yet available -- to confirm whether this was the case.
But the data that is available points to the critical conclusion: While overall turnout dropped from 2008 to 2012, African-American turnout remained steady at 13 percent.
That 13 percent figure is a big deal, as African Americans make up only 12 percent of eligible voters. In other words -- according to numbers reviewed by Brookings, the Pew Research Center and others -- the actual African-American vote in 2012 “outperformed” the group's percentage of the potential electorate.
Turnout among non-Hispanic white voters has traditionally outperformed that group's percentage of eligible voters. This was still the case in 2012. But, according to AP, the margin was down, and overall the white turnout nationwide was off by millions of votes.
The turnout patterns appear to have aided President Obama’s reelection run. Polling data tells us that the president always retained a good measure of popularity in the African-American community, as he did among young people. There was plenty of talk before the 2012 election, however, about an “enthusiasm gap” that would undermine turnout among voters who were most likely to be supportive of the president.
But the Reverend Al Sharpton, the president of the National Action Network and the host of MSNBC’s Politics Nation, says anger over voter suppression did much to alter the dynamic.
“From the tours we did in 22 states, it became clear to us that many blacks that were apathetic and indifferent became outraged and energized when they realized that [Republicans] were changing the rules in the middle of the game, in terms of voter ID laws, ending ‘souls to the polls,’” Sharpton told theGrio.” So what was just another election, even though it dealt with the re-election of the first black president, took on a new dimension when they realized that they were implementing the disenfranchisement of black voters.”
This was a big deal for Obama and the Democrats.
Indeed, the emerging research on voter turnout suggests, it might well have been definitional.
Romney would have erased Obama’s nearly 5 million-vote victory margin and narrowly won the popular vote if voters had turned out as they did in 2004, according to Frey’s analysis. Then, white turnout was slightly higher and black voting lower.
More significantly, the battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida and Colorado would have tipped in favor of Romney, handing him the presidency if the outcome of other states remained the same.
If the African-American voting patterns seen in 2012 continue—in combination with rising Latino and Asian turnout and support for Democratic candidates—Frey says, “By 2024, the [minority] vote will be essential to victory. Democrats will be looking at a landslide going into 2028 if the new Hispanic voters continue to favor Democrats.”
But that’s a prediction that does not take into account the prospect that political parties can and do change.
By and large, the recent focus with regard to the future of the Republican Party has been on speculation about how the Republicans might change their fortunes by nominating a candidate with broader appeal: Florida Senator Marco Rubio or, perhaps, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez.
But the significance of rising African-American turnout—in combination with other turnout and voting patterns—suggests that the extent to which the Republican Party changes its approach on voting issues could matter as much or more than the ethnicity of candidates.
The Republican National Committee’s remarkable “autopsy report” on the GOP’s 2012 election debacle concluded that “many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country.”
“The pervasive mentality of writing off blocks of states or demographic votes for the Republican Party must be completely forgotten,” wrote the authors of the report. “The Republican Party must compete on every playing field.”
The Republicans who penned that statement provided indications of their sincerity. The autopsy report was strong in its general recognition of the challenges the GOP faces in attracting African-American, Asian-American and Latino voters, as well as women and young people. But it was soft with regard to the voting-rights debate.
But it is hard to imagine that Republicans can make the inroads they seek with minority voters if the party is identified with what civil rights, voting rights and good-government groups identify as voter suppression.
If that identification remains, the party’s candidate recruitment and messaging strategies are unlikely to be sufficient to renew its fortunes.
If the GOP becomes more clearly and seriously supportive of voting rights, on the other hand, the party’s options expand.
This is something Republicans—and, frankly, Democrats who imagine a simple strategy of benefitting from Republican missteps—ought to recognize: There should not be a partisan divide when it comes to voting rights.
The message for Republicans is clear enough: The backlash against what were broadly perceived as assaults on voting rights appears to have been a significant factor in the 2012 election results.
If Republicans are serious about reaching out to African-American voters, and to voters in other minority groups, they have to address voting-rights concerns.
Republicans have a tremendous story to tell. Theirs is not just the “Party of Lincoln,” it is the party of former Congressman William Moore McCulloch, the Ohioan who served as the ranking Republican member of the House Judiciary Committee in the critical days when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were being forged.
No one who knows the history of that time doubts the vital role that McCulloch, a very conservative Republican who was a steady critic of federal spending, played in securing essential support for measures that outlawed segregation and racial discrimination. Lyndon Johnson would hail the Ohio Congressman as “the most important and powerful political force” in advancing civil rights legislation in the period.
McCulloch did so because, he said, “To do less would be to shirk our responsibility as national legislators, and as human beings who honor the principles of liberty and justice.”
The contemporary Republican Party has lost four of the last six presidential elections. It has won a plurality of the popular vote just once since 1988. A recognition of the challenges the party faces has led to a measure of soul searching, and that in turn has inspired public and private wrangling over electoral strategies. It may be the case that some Republicans still want to play the voter-suppression card, but they do their party no favors.
The smarter strategy is to recognize that voters are wary of those who seek to restrict voting. In Maine, in 2011, a referendum vote overturned an attempt by the Republican governor and legislator to eliminate election-day registration. In Minnesota, in 2012, voters rejected a Republican-backed constitutional amendment to impose a strict Voter ID law.
Republicans need to engage in a rethink when it comes to voting issues.
It is often said that the emerging demographics of the United States are not on the side of the GOP. However, demographics are not necessarily the stuff of electoral fate.
The new studies of voter turnout offer sobering indicators for party strategists. But they also suggests a way forward.
If Republicans desire to stop “writing off blocks of states or demographic votes,” the party must send affirmative signals about its commitment to voting rights. Republicans can and should do so in the spirit of William Moore McCulloch, and the many Republicans—some of them quite conservative—who recognized that his party should be in the forefront of supporting voting rights.
But it’s not just Republicans who need to get more serious, and more focused, on taking practical steps to advance voting rights. Both parties need to work dramatically harder to establish a uniform commitment to defend the right to vote and to assure that every vote is counted. In short order, Congressmen Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, and Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, will introduce legislation calling for a “Right-to-Vote” amendment to the US Constitution. It’s being proposed with an eye toward ending the lingering uncertainty about voting rights in the United States. Ellison and Pocan are interested in appealing to Republicans as potential co-sponsors. They should make this a high priority, not merely for the practical reason that broad support is needed for their initiative but because the American commitment to expand and sustain voting rights can and should be embraced by all parties.
Immigrant rights activists, unions and others are gearing up for May Day—under the FBI’s watch. Read Allison Kilkenny’s analysis.
A web surfer in silhouette. (AP Photo)
The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which has for 222 years promised that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
That’s an old commitment that members of Congress swear an oath to uphold.
But members of the House on the right and the left have concluded—correctly—that it applies to the most modern of technologies.
Amash and Ellison, Rohrabacher and Grayson, Sensenbrenner and Conyers were among the 127 members of the House (ninety-eight Democrats and twenty-nine Republicans) who last week voted against the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act.
Described by the Electronic Frontier Foundation as “Digital Big Brother,” CISPA is a sweeping proposal to bypass existing privacy law to enable corporations to spy on personal communications and to pass sensitive user data to the government.
“CISPA is a poorly drafted bill that would provide a gaping exception to bedrock privacy law,” says EFF Senior Staff Attorney Kurt Opsahl. “While we all agree that our nation needs to address pressing Internet security issues, this bill sacrifices online privacy while failing to take common-sense steps to improve security.”
It is this disregard for the Fourth Amendment that united Democrats and Republicans, progressives and libertarians in opposition to the measure. In the face of a 38-1 lobbying advantage for corporate proponents of the legislation (who spent have spent more than $600 milion over the past two years to influence Congress ), key members of the House on both sides of the aisle rejected the spin and focused on the objections raised by civil libertarians and grassroots privacy activists.
Conyers summed up the common-sense concerns:
In its current form, CISPA would allow the federal government to potentially have access to a private citizen’s email, medical records, and other personal information. Unfortunately, the House did not approve amendments to require companies to use reasonable efforts to remove unrelated private information from what they turn over to the government.
In addition, CISPA contains provisions that limit private companies from liability. If a company makes a poor cybersecurity decision based on information it obtains that harms public, the company would not be held responsible for their actions.
Our nation faces very real cyber threats, but this bill is not the right way to address them.
CISPA actually won 288 “yes” votes in the House, but the 127 “no” votes—coming from principled members on both sides of the aisle—sent a strong message to the more deliberative Senate. In combination with a grassroots campaign spearheaded by tech-savvy privacy activists and a threatened veto by President Obama, the bipartisan House opposition appears to have convinced Senate leaders have signaled that they plan to put the legislation on hold. The American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday suggestion that CISPA looks to be “dead for now.”
Groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU and Free Press will remain vigilant in opposition to proposals that the latter warns “would obliterate our privacy laws and chill free expression online.” They recognize that the fight to block CISPA is a multi-year struggle that is likely to take many forms.
But we should all recognize the importance of what has been accomplished.
It is often said that Washington doesn’t work, that partisans cannot work together. Yet, a left-right coalition in support of an old ideal and a new urgency with regard to online privacy is mounting an inspired, and effective, defense of the Bill of Rights.
What does public shaming mean in the Web 2.0 era? Read Cole Stryker’s take.
Dick Cheney and other senior administration officials at a meeting in George W. Bush's Oval Office. (Reuters/Larry Downing)
George W. Bush’s presidency began on a note destined to inspire skepticism.
Bush did, after all, lose the ballot-box count at the close of his 2000 run for the nation’s top job by 543,895 votes. But with a boost from an outdated Electoral College system and a Supreme Court that decided to make an extraordinary intervention on his behalf, the son of the forty-first president of the United States became the forty-third president of the United States.
And in what historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., long ago identified as the era of the “imperial presidency,” the fact of his tenure entitles Bush to something George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison never got: an official presidential library and museum.
Bush has gone all in.
His library and museum are the biggest of the thirteen that have been established to recognize former presidents: 226,560 square feet on the grounds of the twenty-three-acre Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University near Dallas.
His is also the most expensive of these monumental endeavors, with a $250 million price tag.
But it may not be the most thorough.
News reports tell us that:
Politics is downplayed; the 2004 reelection campaign goes unmentioned. And essentially invisible are Karl Rove, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, who the president became somewhat estranged from in his second term.
Bush wants to be remembered as a statesman, not a hawk.
Why would anyone who is hoping to be remembered as a statesman want to avoid being associated with Karl Rove and Dick Cheney?
To ask the question is to answer it.
A case might be made for giving Bush a pass when it comes to downplaying Rumsfeld—whose Pentagon role kept him of the fringe of domestic policy making and who surely took a backseat to Cheney when it came to foreign policy.
But Cheney and Rove were not exactly spectators in the George W. Bush White House.
As Bush’s senior advisor, deputy chief of staff and political czar, Rove proudly positioned himself in the tradition of Mark Hanna, the Gilded Age political operative who created an assessment system to channel the riches of the robber barons into a scheme for “buying” elections with what came to be known as “The Money Power.” Rove’s updating of Hanna’s approach—via his network of contribution-bundling “Bush Rangers” and “Bush Pioneers” and his more recent machinations with the American Crossroads combine—created a crony capitalist behemoth that delivered mightily for Wall Street and the energy industry but steered the party away from core conservative principles and set the stage for the economic turbulence that rocked the last years of his protégé’s presidency.
As Bush’s first-term prince regent, Cheney guided Bush away from the basic premises and principles on which he had campaigned in 2000. Cheney showed little taste for the “compassionate conservatism” that was Bush’s most appealing—and I would suggest sincere—message of the 2000 campaign. And Cheney abandoned Bush’s stated skepticism about positioning the United States as a nation-building “policeman to the world,” embarking instead on a neoconservative rewrite of American foreign policy objectives which, from the very first days of the Bush-Cheney administration, saw the country begin to reject international diplomacy and cooperation in favor a heavy-handed approach that would eventually include invasions, occupations and pressure tactics so crude that some of the country’s closest allies distanced themselves from its endeavors.
Rove liked, or at least appreciated, Bush. They came up together politically and there is no question that at key “decision points” along the former president’s political trajectory, the man they called “Bush’s Brain” did his best to serve his candidate. Which, of course, also served Rove’s ambition to be a defining figure not just in the Republican Party but the broader conservative movement—in much the same way that Mark Hanna’s “service” to William McKinley made it possible for Hanna to define the politics of another era (and to become a very wealthy and powerful figure). But just as Hanna’s name became associated with the backroom deals and abuses of power that progressive reformers (many of them Republicans) decried a century ago, Rove’s name is now synonymous with manipulation of the political process by billionaires, corporations and their cronies.
Cheney’s relationship with Bush was always more complex than Rove’s. It is much harder to suggest that the former vice president ever really served Bush. As Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff during the harshest days of the Bush-Cheney tenure, well explained it, Cheney “became vice president well before George Bush picked him. And he began to manipulate things from that point on, knowing that he was going to be able to convince this guy to pick him, knowing that he was then going to be able to wade into the vacuums that existed around George Bush—personality vacuum, character vacuum, details vacuum, experience vacuum.”
What this all adds up to is a quite understandable choice by Bush to downplay his former associates.
Aides report that Bush was a very hands-on player in the development of his museum. “He literally looked at every exhibit and said ‘I want this one, and I want that,’ ” says George W. Bush Foundation President Mark Langdale.
So it is that the space devoted to the former president’s commendable efforts to tackle AIDS and malaria in Africa is by all accounts quite substantial. And the section dealing with his stated commitment to “Protecting the Environment” is a good deal grander than those mentioning his response to Hurricane Katrina or the Wall Street meltdown of September 2008.
Such choices fit within the broad debate about Bush’s legacy, which the former president—who is mounting a campaign to improve his image—well understands.
Bush seeks to make a case for himself.
But he does not want to shoulder the burden of the Rove and Cheney legacies.
This is understandable. Ron Suskind noted in his 2004 book, The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill, that Rove and Cheney often appeared to roll over Bush in a mad rush to advance their preferred agendas.
Famously, following the Republican success in the 2002 off-year elections, Treasury Secretary O’Neill (a former deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget and CEO of Alcoa) counseled that new tax cuts for the rich would be economically and fiscally unwise. Bush seemed to agree. “Haven’t we already given money to rich people?” Bush asked. “Shouldn’t we be giving money to the middle? Won’t people be able to say, ‘You did it once, and then you did it twice, and what was it good for?’ ”
Rove immediately told the president to: “Stick to principle. Stick to principle.” Cheney was typically blunt, explaining: “You know… Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter. We won the midterm elections, this is our due.”
Nine days after O’Neill argued against more tax cuts, he got a call—not from Bush, but from Cheney—asking him to resign.
Stories like that offer a fair measure of insight into why Bush would want Americans to remember him, as opposed to Rove and Cheney. Or at the least, to remember him in a better light than his political czar and his vice president. So it is understandable that the focus of The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum would err in that direction.
The problem, of course, is that it was Bush who gave Rove and Cheney the extraordinary power they enjoyed through his first term. And as O’Neill reminds us, that power defined the Bush presidency. Rove and Cheney may indeed have formed a “a praetorian guard that encircled the president.” But it was from Bush, not anyone else, that they gained the authority to form the circle.
In the middle of Bush’s tenure, Paul O’Neill said: “The president started from scratch and relied on advice of ideologues without any honest brokers in sight.”
There is case to be made that, as Bush’s presidency progressed, he came to recognize that Cheney, in particular, was not the honest broker he needed. Indeed, the story of Bush’s claiming of his own presidency during his second term is the stuff of interesting history. But it is a history that requires a clear recognition of the role that Rove and Cheney played—not a history where the “praetorian guard” remains “essentially invisible.”
Max Baucus talks with reporters on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Montana Senator Max Baucus, a Democrat who frequently clashed with his party’s economic populists as the Wall Street–friendly chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, will step down at the end of his current term.
Baucus, who will retire from the Senate after thirty-six years, played a critical role in the health-care debate that led to the enactment of the Affordable Care Act. Given substantial responsibility by the White House, the Montana senator declared that “single payer was not an option on the table.” That drew the ire of activists, who charged that Baucus was tipping the balance in favor of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, and Finance Committee hearings grew so contentious that the chairman ultimately ordered protesting doctors and nurses removed.
A New York Times profile of Baucus later reported: “He conceded that it was a mistake to rule out a fully government-run health system, or a ‘single-payer plan,’ not because he supports it but because doing so alienated a large, vocal constituency and left Mr. Obama’s proposal of a public health plan to compete with private insurers as the most liberal position.”
The senator frequently split with progressive Democrats on critical issues. For instance, he voted to authorize President Bush to attack Iraq and provided high-profile support to President George W. Bush’s tax cuts in 2001. A frequent defender of corporate tax breaks, he was criticized for his tepid response to efforts to crack down on abuses of overseas tax haven. In 2005, he opposed repealing the tax subsidy for US corporations that offshore manufacturing operations.
Baucus, who sided with the US Chamber of Commerce 64 percent of the time in the group’s 2011 survey of Senate votes, often parted with organized labor on free-trade issues. Famously, after the senator wrote a 2007 Wall Street Journal opinion piece arguing that his party should work with former President George W. Bush to renew so-called “fast-track authority” for negotiating international trade deals—a move that limits the ability of Congress to check and balance the executive branch—the Montana State Senate (which was controlled by Democrats) voted 44-6 in favor of a resolution that urged Congress “to create a replacement for the outdated fast track system.” Montana’s other Democratic senator, Jon Tester, pointed declared that he was “against fast-track.”
Baucus and Tester split again this month on the question of adopting gun-purchase background checks. Baucus voted “no,” while Tester voted “yes,” explaining, “Common-sense measures that protect our Second Amendment rights while making our families safer deserve our support.”
As the gun vote approached, the national Progressive Change Campaign Committee launched an ad campaign urging Baucus to vote “yes.” Despite the fact that a poll commissioned by Mayors Against Illegal Guns found that 79 percent of Montanans backed background checks for guns sales, Baucus pushed back, arguing that the “top-down, one-size-fits-all approach like the president is pushing simply won’t work for us in Montana, and I won’t support it.”
Ultimately, however, it was on the economic issues that critics scoured Baucus upon his announcement that he would step down after this term. “Good bye, Senator K Street,” said PCCC co-founder Stephanie Taylor, referencing the DC base of many special-interest lobbyists. According to a recent New York Times report, at least twenty-eight former Baucus aides have become lobbyists on tax issues that are often addressed by the Finance Committee.
“Max Baucus has a history of voting with corporate interests and not the interests of Montana voters—taking millions from Wall Street, insurance companies, and lobbyists,” continued Taylor. “Montana will finally have a chance to have a senator with its best interests at heart, and we hope Brian Schweitzer jumps into the race immediately.”
Schweitzer, a popular former governor, tops lists of prospective Democratic contenders to replace Baucus. Distinct from the retiring senator in style and on many policy matters, Schweitzer several years ago proposed establishing a single-payer healthcare program in Montana. And he’s been a loud proponent of “Buy American” proposals that aren’t particularly popular with advocates of free trade.
Pitched as a 2016 Democratic presidential prospect, Schweitzer acknowledged Tuesday that he is seriously considering the Senate race. He came on the Montana political scene in 2000 as an upstart candidate who narrowly missed unseating Republican senator Conrad Burns.
Now, says Schweitzer, “I’m the kind of guy that, when I see a broke-down pickup, I’ll get out with my tools and try to fix it, and I can tell you looking at Washington, D.C., from Montana, there is no bigger broke-down pickup than the Senate in Washington, D.C.”
Montana is not much of a swing state in presidential politics, but populist Democrats have run well there in recent years, winning the governor’s office in the past three elections.
The race for the Montana Senate seat will be an intense one, however, as control of the chamber will be very much at stake in 2014. The Democrat Caucus maintains a 55-45 majority in the Senate, but Baucus is the sixth veteran Democrat to announce he’s retiring in 2014.
Polls in Montana showed Baucus trailing likely Republican challengers. By contrast, Schweitzer has been running ahead of one and even with another. If he runs, he’ll bring to the race the populist approach that was on display at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. In Charlotte, he drew wild cheers for a speech that ripped Republican policies with the line: “In Montana, that dog don’t hunt.”
As Tom Tomorrow says, the Senate owns a special place in the failure that was last week.
The Boston Globe’s online homepage. (www.bostonglobe.com)
When editors at The Boston Globe recognized that their city had been bombed by suspected terrorists who were still at large, they immediately mustered a substantial and experienced newsgathering team to cover one of the most tragic, frightening and unsettling moments in the long history of a great American city.
They got the story, from the epic photos of the heroism of emergency workers last Monday to the remarkable announcement on Friday night of the apprehension of the second suspect in the bombing attack.
the Globe’s web headline, published minutes after the arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, reflected the interests and emotions of a great city as a great newspaper should: “Alive, Conscious, Captured.”
Bostonians read the Globe all last week with a passion, as they did the tenacious Boston Herald, its smaller rival in a rare competition for big-city readers. Along with the Globe’s Boston readers, millions of people across the United States and around the world made the paper’s website an Internet hot spot.
That most of this reading occurred online is not news. What we call “newspapers” are better described today as “newsrooms.” It is silly to talk of an “old media” versus “new media” divide. A daily paper is still printed, and some of us love the experience of reading it. But, especially in rapidly-evolving “breaking news” moments, it’s the website that’s got the dynamism. And Twitter: the Globe now has 275,000 followers.
“This shows how vital (metro daily newspapers) are when disasters strike,” Globe editor Brian McGrory told The Huffington Post. “The Globe and its website became something like a town square, where people turned for information and they got it.”
The Globe’s site was packed with instant and detailed coverage and analysis and superb editorials on the conflicts and concerns that arise in these moments. Some mistakes were made along the way, as is always the case when news is breaking so rapidly. But the Globe’s 24/7 coverage—which placed immense demands on its staff and on its limited resources—was overwhelmingly accurate, detailed and insightful. Media writer Seth Mnookin hailed the paper’s coverage of the bombing and the search for the killers as “Tireless. Dogged. Spirited.”
And the Globe’s coverage was something else: Free.
The paper knocked down the paywall that separated potential readers from what is usually a subscription-only website. Editors stripped a banner across the top of the webpage reading: “BostonGlobe.com is currently available to all readers.”
The readers came. On the day the paywall came down, the paper attracted 1.2 million unique visitors—six times the normal amount. Of course, dramatic events drew readers; of course, many of the new readers were from outside the Boston area. But the numbers were way, way higher—locally, nationally and even internationally—because readers did not have to jump through digital hoops and type in credit card numbers.
So dropping the paywall made sense from a standpoint of civic responsibility and from the classic journalistic standpoint of wanting to get new information and ideas to the broadest possible audience.
But it was not viewed as as economic success for the Globe, which is currently up for sale and wrestling with all the financial challenges that face American newsrooms. On Monday, the paywall will return.
That’s understandable but, to my view, unfortunate.
It is no secret that this is an era when major media outlets are desperate to find ways to pay for journalism. In some cases, this really is because they are out of touch with their audience and because alternative media is simply more compelling. But, more often than not, this is because of a dramatic shift in media economics. Advertising revenues that once sustained vast newsgathering operations, with deep commitments to cover communities, states, the nation and the world, have collapsed. And online advertising does not begin to provide sufficient support to pay for the journalism even of popular news sites.
Many publications (including The Nation), and most major dailes, have experimented with strategies to get people to pay for news stories, columns and editorials.
the Globe erected a subscription-style paywall two years ago to try to collect revenue from readers. It has had some success with this approach, as have other publications that are experimenting with models that charge for individual articles or groups of articles.
But when all news broke loose, dropping the Globe’s paywall was a “no-brainer.”
The decision by the editors to collapse the paywall at a critical juncture for the city the paper has covered since 1872 was not unprecedented. A number of major papers did so when Superstorm Sandy was hitting, as did several during in the aftermath of the Boston bombing.
But the Globe’s move was especially wise, and valuable. And it ought to provoke a new discussion about whether paywalls make sense, economically or journalistically.
Newsrooms needs resources to pay reporters, photographers and editors to produce quality journalism that is sufficient not only to inform citizens but to sustain a democratic discourse. And it’s not wrong to ask readers, listeners and viewers to contribute. Indeed, Los Angeles Times national writer Matt Pearce announced Friday night: “If everybody in Boston doesn’t pay the Globe back with a subscription after all this, not sure what more you could ask from a newspaper.”
I agree. If Boston pays the Globe back with a flood of new subscriptions, I’ll be thrilled.
But we ought not presume that this will be the case.
Americans who recognize the importance of not just journalism but the daily amalgamation of journalism that is produced by classic urban newsrooms—with substantial numbers of at least reasonably compensated reporters, columnists, editors, photographers, graphic specialists and all the other people who once made newspapers work and who now make news-oriented websites work—should be thinking of how to get the most news to the most people.
The huge readership—and the huge regard—that the Globe achieved during a critical week in the history of its hometown reminds us that there are a lot of readers out there who don’t leap paywalls.
That’s unhealthy for the future of big urban newsrooms, for the future of journalism and for the future of a vibrant and nuanced democratic discourse.
A lot of traditionalists would like to imagine that the people will eventually pay. After all, they say, newspapers have always charged for subscriptions—or copies on the newsstand.
But the Internet is different. It’s built on the premise that information should be free. And even if some newspapers make some money by erecting them, veteran technology writer Mathew Ingram correctly notes that paywalls that are hailed as “successful” still are not “making up for the continuing decline in print ad revenue.”
So it is that newspapers keep closing, cutting back and laying off reporters, photographers and editors.
But it’s not just the economic challenge that worries me. When a paywall limits access to the journalism produced by a great city’s newsroom, the public debate suffers. People can still get information, but they are edged out of the core conversations of their community—and often toward sources that reinforce rather than challenge and expand assumptions.
My point here is not to suggest that metropolitan dailies—or, to be more precise, the newsrooms that now produce the most popular news sites—can or will simply provide great reporting and analysis at no cost. What I am suggesting is that publications should be examining alternatives to paywalls.
If we learn anything from the Globe’s experience of recent days, it is that it’s a good idea to make information and ideas available to all readers in a moment of crisis. But why isn’t it a good idea to make information and ideas available during elections? During great debate about national, state or local priorities? Or during periods when cities are “getting back to normal” after terrifying events?
In other countries, journalism is sustained with public subsidies and tax breaks—not just for muscular public broadcasting systems but for print and digital journalism. There are, as well, models for running newsrooms (like that of The Tampa Bay Times) as nonprofit or low-profit enterprises, and for leveraging foundation money and community investment to sustain journalism. Some communities—including St. Louis and Seattle—have seen the use of public radio stations as platforms for sites bring together laid-off newspaper reporters to cover local news.
People who care about journalism can and should be engaged in a wide-ranging discussion about how to sustain journalism in the twenty-first century. And this week’s decision by the Globe to drop its paywall should get not just reporters, editors and publishers thinking about those alternatives. It should get citizens engaged with the issue.
For Boston in particular, but for the nation in general, this past week has been daunting. People haven’t just wrestled with the news, they have wrestled with questions about the news means.
It is natural in such a circumstance to try to figure things out, to struggle with questions about specific events and about broad threats and deep fears. About clues and indicators. About responsibility and accountability. About the balance between public safety and civil liberties.
This wrestling with issues and ideas, this search for explanations, can be frustrating and contentious. But it’s healthy. It means that people are engaged. Even when they make mistakes, they tend to do so sincerely.
What’s important is that citizens have a steady flow of information and analysis and—of particular significance in so intense a circumstance—thoughtful reflection that helps steer the discussion beyond kneejerk reactions.
This is what the Globe provided. Its coverage was rich and nuanced. Its commentary was adventurous and challenging. Editorials provided comfort and perspective, reminding readers: “The fact that the Marathon takes place on Patriots Day may or may not have been a factor in the attack; it is, absolutely, a part of what makes the event unique, a celebration of both nature and history, the coming of spring and the region’s connection to the Revolutionary War.”
The Globe’s editorial pages even found room to defend Family Guy, noting: “A real-life terrorist attack isn’t an appropriate source of humor. But some snippets of old movies and TV shows are bound to prompt cringe-inducing associations in the wake of an attack; still, viewers will understand the difference between a calculated insult and an unintended coincidence. So, while Fox executives showed commendable sensitivity in taking the unusual step of removing an old ‘Family Guy’ episode that involved the Boston Marathon from the web, it was an unnecessary gesture.”
That’s one example of the Globe’s many invitations to think freely, while focusing on what matters. A great paper—even if it’s not read on paper—can still do this, especially if it speaks to everyone. That’s what the Globe did last week. It deserves celebration and emulation—especially of the banner that reads: “available to all readers.”
How not to normalize terrorism in the wake of what happened in Boston? Read Aura Bogado’s interview with Sohail Daulatzai.
Paul Ryan touts his 2012 federal budget plan. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Paul Ryan’s numbers are wrong.
As in: his most urgent argument on behalf of painful cuts to federal programs and the denial of new funding for job creation, education, healthcare and infrastructure repair is based on a coding error.
The paper the House Budget Committee chairman has used as the intellectual and statistical underpinning for his austerity agenda has been significantly discredited by the revelation that essential data was excluded from the study, leading "to serious errors that inaccurately represent the relationship between public debt and growth."
The Harvard professors who produced the paper—which Ryan cited as recently as last month—have acknowledged their mathematical error.
Now, the question is whether Ryan and conservative proponents of austerity will acknowledge that they have built their arguments on a false premise. The same goes for the media pundits—including many liberals—who prattle on about the need for painful cuts in government spending. And for Democratic politicians who have accepted elements of the austerity agenda as “necessary.”
Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman suggests that an essential underpinning of the “the intellectual edifice of austerity economics” has been called into question. But, adds Krugman, “the really guilty parties here are all the people who seized on a disputed research result, knowing nothing about the research, because it said what they wanted to hear.”
And Ryan is definitely at the head of the list of the "guilty parties" that seized on the disputed research.
After decades spent as a backroom conservative in Washington, first as a Capitol Hill aide and then as an obscure congressman from Wisconsin, Ryan raced to prominence after President Obama's 2008 election. Condemning Obama's spending to stimulate employment and growth following the Wall Street meltdown, Ryan positioned himself as an economic "Paul Revere," warning that public debt was stalling out the US economy. This notion was always questioned by savvy economists, such as Center for Economic and Policy Research co-director Dean Baker. But Ryan went all in, seizing on the controversial Harvard study as essential information for anyone concerned with debts, deficits, spending and budgets.
Ryan began preaching an economic gospel based on his absolute certainty that when a country’s debt level tops 90 percent of its gross domestic product, it’s economy will decline and crisis will ensue. And he found plenty of takers for his dystopian analysis, which inspired obsessive talk about how the US economy was heading toward a apocalyptic "tipping point."
As the House Budget Committee chairman, the Republican nominee for Vice President, and America’s primary proponent of austerity, Ryan rallied his party and much of official Washington around his argument that, because the United States had edged above the 90 percent level, immediate and draconian action needed to be taken to cut the debt.
Echoing the messaging of billionaire-funded groups such as the “Fix the Debt” coalition, Ryan has argued that any “pain” suffered by working Americans—in the form of restructurings of Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid, post office closures and cuts to state and local aid—was necessary in order to avoid an economic meltdown.
"Economists who have studied sovereign debt tell us that letting total debt rise above 90 per cent of GDP creates a drag on economic growth and intensifies the risk of a debt-fueled economic crisis," Ryan told a congressional hearing in 2011. When he accepted the Republican vice presidential nomination in Tampa, Ryan brought that sense of urgency into the national spotlight, declaring that "a defining responsibility of government is to steer our nation clear of a debt crisis while there is still time."
Since the defeat of his national candidacy, Ryan has continued to claim that the threat of economic ruin is so clear that—despite their rejection at the polls—his proposals must be adopted by President Obama and Congress. This has been and remains a steady message from Ryan, whose “Path to Prosperity” budget proposal rests on the premise that economists have "found conclusive empirical evidence that [debt] exceeding 90 percent of the economy has a significant negative effect on economic growth."
But the 90 percent threshold is a false precipice based on a false premise.
The paper on which Ryan builds his austerity argument was published in 2010 by Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff. In the paper, "Growth in a Time of Debt," Reinhart and Rogoff concluded that “median growth rates for countries with public debt over 90 percent of GDP are roughly one percent lower than otherwise; average (mean) growth rates are several percent lower."
Roosevelt Institute fellow Mike Konczal explains:
In a new paper, "Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff," Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst successfully replicate the results. After trying to replicate the Reinhart-Rogoff results and failing, they reached out to Reinhart and Rogoff and they were willing to share their data spreadsheet. This allowed Herndon et al. to see how Reinhart and Rogoff's data was constructed.
They find that three main issues stand out. First, Reinhart and Rogoff selectively exclude years of high debt and average growth. Second, they use a debatable method to weight the countries. Third, there also appears to be a coding error that excludes high-debt and average-growth countries. All three bias in favor of their result, and without them you don't get their controversial result.
Herndon, Ash and Pollin (a frequent contributor to The Nation) reviewed and recalculated the information on which the Reinhart-Rogoff paper was based. They determined conclusively that data from key years and key countries had been erroneously excluded. When they included all the data from all the years and all the countries, the Amherst professors showed that the average growth rate of nations with a 90 per cent debt load does not decline by 0.1 percent, as suggested by Reinhart and Rogoff. Rather, the growth rate is a positive 2.2 per cent.
Reinhart acknowledged to the CBC News business reporting team that “Herndon, Ash and Pollin have written a useful paper, finding a significant mistake in one of our figures.”
"It is sobering that such an error slipped into one of our papers despite our best efforts to be consistently careful," noted the Harvard economist. "We will redouble our efforts to avoid such errors in the future."
Give Reinhart credit for the admission.
Now, as Krugman suggests, the issue is with the politicians and pundits who have based not just economic arguments but a broader political demand for austerity on a “significant mistake.”
This is a crucial challenge for Ryan, who is supposed to be the Republican Party’s “numbers guy.”
The Budget Committee chairman was never the economic whiz that his fans imagined. Rather, he’s an Ayn Rand-obsessed ideologue who seeks to promote austerity out of a seemingly sincere belief that it is necessary.
Now that his economic case has been discredited, Ryan must either alter course or confirm the darkest assessments from his critics: that he cribs data from academics not with an eye for accuracy but with a determination to advance his austerity agenda at any cost. (And the cost has already been high. As economist Dean Baker asks: "How Much Unemployment Was Caused by Reinhart and Rogoff's Arithmetic Mistake?")
If Ryan is honest, he must admit that his sense of urgency with regard to the debt is misplaced. He can still argue, as an Ayn Rand enthusiast and a Republican partisan, for cuts in federal spending and for a general downsizing of government. But he should at least acknowledge that the argument is based on Rand’s fictional writing, not on economic reality.
Walmart's global labor practices are, workers say, wreaking death and destruction. Read Josh Eidelson's report.
Congressman Keith Ellison. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)
America is not broke, despite what advocates for austerity would have us believe.
This is a very wealthy country.
Unfortunately, transfers of that wealth are not taxed in the same way as the work of American nurses, carpenters, bus drivers and shop clerks. As a result, the federal government struggles to balance budgets, and a yawning gap, between a super-rich 1 percent and the great mass of everybody else, keeps growing.
Congressman Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, wants to do something about that.
Ellison is reintroducing his Inclusive Prosperity Act, a proposal to add a small “financial transactions tax” on high-volume, high-speed trading by Wall Street speculators. The tax—similar to one that the US imposed until 1966, and to taxes maintained by 40 countries worldwide—would generate roughly $1 trillion in revenue over 10 years.
That’s money that can help to stabilize federal finances and pay for programs that are currently threatened by the proponents of austerity.
“A lot of people in Washington like to talk about reducing the debt and deficits. Well if you really care about reducing the deficit, how about asking Wall Street speculators to pay their fair share?” says Ellison. “This bill will add a tax of a fraction of a percent on transactions made by the same Wall Street firms and stock traders who crashed our economy in 2008. This tax alone will generate up to $300 billion a year in revenue, stabilizing the deficit and allowing us to invest in the things that matter—education, roads and bridges, and health care for our seniors and veterans.”
Ellison recognizes reality.
“We’re not broke," he says. "We’ve got plenty of money. It’s just not in the hands of the American people because the people with so much of the wealth bought lobbyists and influence to get loopholes for themselves so that they would not have to pay for the civilization that is America.”
Ellison’s not listening to the lobbyists. He’s facing the facts.
“The money is in the hands of the most privileged and well-to-do Americans, many of whom churn—and I don’t say ‘trade,’ I mean ‘churn’—stocks, bonds and derivatives on Wall Street,” says the congressman from Minnesota who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “So one of the ways for us as Americans to recoup the money is to tax them when they do this churning of these financial assets. It’s a transaction tax. It is appropriately named by its most vigorous advocates a ‘Robin Hood Tax.’”
The Robin Hood Tax won’t solve all of America’s budget problems. But the union that has been leading the advocacy for passage of Ellison’s proposal, National Nurses United, notes that it “would create a Wall Street sales tax, providing critical new revenue for such critical needs as jobs, healthcare, education, and the international fight against HIV/AIDS and climate change. It would also allow the U.S. to join the rest of the world in a growing system of financial transaction taxes.”
Ellison’s bill is attracting support from more members of Congress—Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, Judy Chu, D-California, John Conyers D-Michigan, Barbara Lee, D-California, James McGovern, D-Massachusetts and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-District of Columbia—and from leaders of groups such as National People’s Action, the National Organization for Women, HealthGAP and Friends of the Earth,
"As the Inclusive Prosperity Act demonstrates, there is not actually a scarcity of public funds for global public goods," Friends of the Earth officials explained in endorsing the Robin Hood Tax movement. "It is a question of political will."
That will is growing, in the US, and abroad.
Eleven European countries—including key US allies and trading partners—are currently in the process of embracing financial transaction tax proposals.
There’s a dawning international recognition that the answer to austerity is not merely to defend necessary programs from assaults by billionaire-funded groups such as America’s “Fix the Debt” coalition—and the politicians who defer to the pressure for cuts. It is to find the resources to maintain existing programs and to fund new initiatives.
This is something that Americans who seek to establish a genuine safety net for the ailing, the aged and the vulnerable—as well as the whole of society—well understand. That’s why, after Ellison reintroduces his legislation, the Robin Hood Tax Campaign, National Nurses United and other supporters of a financial transactions tax will rally and march in Washington on April 20.
Their message is directed not just at Congress but at the Obama administration, which has been slow to embrace international efforts to implement the Robin Hood Tax.
They’re demanding that Treasury Secretary Lew and President Obama “Stand with the People NOT Wall Street,” and saying, “Wall Street banks and corporations are raking in record profits while our communities continue to suffer job losses and cuts to public programs. Instead of lining the pockets of corporate fat cats, this money should go to our children’s Head Start programs, Grandma’s retirement, and fixing our broken healthcare system. It’s time for the administration to stand with the people and tax Wall Street.”
Working America, the AFL-CIO's primary non-union offshoot, is launching a 50-state strategy. Read Josh Eidelson's report.
Faneuil Hall, Boston. (Flickr/Tony Fischer)
It happened that I was scheduled to do a Boston radio show Monday afternoon. We were going to talk about national politics. But the deadly bombing at the Marathon changed everything, not just in Boston, but nationally.
It was one of those days when we all had to pause and reflect on where our country is at, and where it might be headed.
But it was not the first such day. We’ve had a lot of them. Indeed, we have had a lot of them in mid-April.
We all know April 15 as Tax Day. But is also a day that has seen deep tragedy. One hundred forty-eight years ago, on April 15, 1865, Abraham Lincoln died.
Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth terrified a nation—not just Northerners but Southerners who had only days earlier concluded a brutal Civil War and who understood the importance of Lincoln to the reconciliation of the Republic.
One hundred thirty years after that agonizing period in American history, on April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh terrified the nation when he drove a truckload of explosives to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. Enraged by the siege two years earlier at the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas, McVeigh committed what would be recognized as the most destructive act of terrorism on American soil until the September 11, 2001, attacks.
As I talked with my friend Jeff Santos on his Boston radio show, and as I participated in other interviews Monday, plenty of calendar connections were mentioned. It was on April 20, 1999, that the Columbine killings took place in Colorado, and on April 16, 2007, that the Virginia Tech massacre was carried out.
The calendar seems to have a dark spot in mid-April. But we should be careful about seeing it as much more than that.
In various interviews Monday, I was asked (as someone who wrote extensively about the Oklahoma City bombing and who was in Washington and wrote a great deal from that city on 9/11) whether there might be a connection that could tell us something about the Boston attack.
I kept coming back to a memory of 1995, when a number of “experts” suggested in the immediate aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing that it looked to be the work of terrorists with Middle East connections. The speculation was linked to recent history; the World Trade Center had been attacked in 1993 by conspirators, later identified as Muslim extremists with ties to terrorist cells, who had used a truck bomb. But the speculation with regard to Oklahoma City was off the mark.
Ultimately, on that day, it was another link to recent history that had meaning. McVeigh was furious with his government’s actions in Waco, where a long standoff had come to a violent conclusion two years to the day before he attacked the Oklahoma federal building.
The memory of past mistakes and miscalculations provides at least a measure of instruction for moments such as these. People look for explanations. And sometimes for scapegoats abroad, and at home. They get excited, angry and maybe a little too certain that they have the answers; on social media, there was a lively debate about calendar connections. When I noted a few that were being discussed in broadcast reports Monday, people came back with more—including references to the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912.
But I think most people recognized that the ironies of timing are usually just that.
Most people also recognized that we ought not lose sight of what is most important in this moment.
Boston is a city of great history.
But on Monday, the people of the city—and the runners who had come to join its great Marathon—wrote a new chapter. There was tragedy, yes. But there was, as well, epic courage. And we should note both.
This is a time to mourn the dead, to mend the wounded and to honor the heroism of Boston cops and firefighters who, as President Obama explained Monday, provided “a reminder that so many Americans serve and sacrifice on our behalf every single day, without regard to their own safety, in dangerous and difficult circumstances.”
At the same time, it is necessary to identify those responsible for the bombing, to hold them to account and to assure that proper steps are taken to maintain public safety in a free society. There is nothing wrong with Americans expressing opinions about the inquiries, prosecutions and official responses—passionate opinions, political opinions. The freedom to engage in these debates is an American birthright won in struggles that can be traced to the Boston streets where Sam Adams and Paul Revere and Crispus Attucks forged an ideal of liberty. They also sought and established the rule of law. And it is valuable to recognize that we can and should place a good measure of trust in the able investigators who already are at work tracking down the killer or killers who committed a heinous crime in Boston Monday. As the president suggested in his statement to the nation, their reasoned conclusions—as opposed to speculation—are what should take us from the “investigation stage” to the accountability moment.
While we can be cautious about drawing conclusions from the calendar, however, there is one historic connection that is of consequence.
In Massachusetts, Monday was marked as Patriots’ Day. It’s a state holiday set aside to recall the first struggles of the American Revolution, which played out on late nights and early mornings in mid-April of 1775.
Patriots’ Day is when we remember the events leading up to the battles at Concord and Lexington, when farmers and shopkeepers challenged soldiers of the mightiest military force on the planet.
The country forged by those rebels against the British Empire has experienced great trauma, misery and pain. But it has also known courage, in Middlesex villages and towns 238 years ago, and in Boston on Monday, where police officers and rescue personnel ran to aid the victims of the bombing before the smoke had cleared. Where Mayor Tom Menino, recovering from surgery, checked himself out of the hospital and took charge of the response. Where runners in the Marathon kept on running to a nearby hospital where they gave blood to aid the victims of the attack.
America is strong country that has taken blows and recovered at every stage of its history. At our best, we recognize that we do not have to trade liberty for safety. Nor do we have to let a moment of terror force us to live in unthinking fear of our neighbors, near or far. This is a country that traces its history to “a cry of defiance, and not of fear.” That is the connection, Longfellow made, so well and wisely, “borne on the night-wind of the Past, through all our history, to the last…”
And, thanks in no small part to the poet, we all recall that the rebellious Paul Revere was a Bostonian who rode at the signal from his great city’s Old North Church. The church remains, a touchstone of liberty that is strong in the present. The same can be said of the city. This is a history worth telling.
Read Dave Zirin's reflection on the legacy of the Marathon.
Representative Greg Walden. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
The most misread—perhaps the proper word is “miscovered”—story of the current budget wrangling in Washington is that of Republican Congressman Greg Walden’s savage condemnation of President Obama’s proposal of the “chained-CPI” Social Security cut.
“When you’re going after seniors the way he’s already done on Obamacare, taken $700 billion out of Medicare to put into Obamacare and now coming back at seniors again,” declared the congressman from Oregon, “I think you’re crossing that line very quickly here in terms of denying access to seniors for health care in districts like mine certainly and around the country.”
That stirred a fair measure of criticism from the regular readers of talking points distributed by the “Fix the Debt” coalition of Wall Street billionaires who want to cut benefits for the vulnerable in able to fund tax cuts for, um, Wall Street billionaires. MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Scarborough ripped Walden: “[He] attacked the president from the left. He was harsher than I think Bernie Sanders was. He was harder on the president than I’ve seen Robert Reich be.”
True believers in the austerity fantasy were upset that a Republican was objecting to balancing the budget on the backs of seniors, orphans and people with disabilities. The Club for Growth complained that “the last thing Republicans should attack the Democrats for is for making the most minor reforms to our entitlement programs.” Conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin proposed that Republicans “muzzle” Walden. Scarborough, a former Republican congressman who knows Walden, was so upset about anti-cuts talk coming from his side of the aisle that he declared that “for Republicans to do this is beyond shameless.”
So the headlines announce that Republicans were squabbling. As if that is news.
The real news, the story that is not getting anywhere near the attention it merits from Sunday talk-show pundits and Sunday talk-show politicians, is the story of why Walden is saying what he is saying. And why the austerity caucus is so upset.
If Walden were merely a Republican backbencher representing a retirement community, or if he were a freshman congressman from a swing district, his remarks would be dismissed as a predictable exercise in political self-service.
But Walden is no newcomer to the House, or to high-stakes political campaigning.
He’s one of the savviest political players in Congress. A veteran state legislator who managed congressional campaigns before his own election to the House in 1999, he “gets” how to win elections in competitive regions and states. And his fellow Republicans recognize this reality: He chaired the House Republican Leadership through 2010 and, when Republicans retook the chamber that year, he chaired the House Majority Transition Committee.
Walden is now the head of the National Republican Campaign Committee, meaning that he is responsible for making sure that Republicans hold their House majority in 2014. That explains why Walden is ripping the president’s decision to go with “chained-CPI.” And it explains why austerity opponents are ripping Walden—they fear that any rips in the fabric of fantasy that suggests only a cuts agenda (as opposed to a growth agenda) will balance budgets.
Walden is not reading from the “Fix the Debt” playbook.
He is interested in winning elections.
And he knows that a Democratic president talking about Social Security cuts is a winning issue for Republicans.
A cynical winning issue, to be sure. But a winning one all the same.
Indeed, even as top Republicans went through the motions of criticizing Walden, one of his closest aides pointed to polling that shows overwhelming opposition to Social Security cuts and explained with regard to the congressman: “His job is to hold the House.”
Translation: Ripping the president’s “chained-CPI” proposal is smart politics.
Even if it is cynical for the party of Paul Ryan to object to assaults on Social Security and Medicare by a Democratic president, the cynicism works. Pointing out—loudly—that a Democratic president and his allies are abandoning a historic Democratic commitment does not turn Democratic voters into Republican voters, it turns Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents into non-voters.
This has long been the essential element to Republican success in mid-term elections.
A key to the Republican breakthrough of 1994 was the fact that former President Bill Clinton had advocated for and eventually signed the North American Free Trade Agreement. The scheme, while enormously popular with Wall Street speculators and newspaper editorial writers, was feared and despised by union members. Those voters stood down in congressional districts across the country. Turnout was abysmal, dozens of Democratic House members lost and Newt Gingrich became the Speaker of the House.
Never mind that Clinton had secured passage of NAFTA with the help of Gingrich and the Republicans. Frustration among union voters who had enthusiastically backed Democrats in 1992 gave the advantage to the GOP in 1994.
Similarly, in 2010, many of the prime talking point for Republicans as they displaced Democrats in congressional districts across the country were taken from the traditional Democratic playbook: Obama had not done enough to create jobs, it was said, and Obama’s health reforms “took” $700 billion from Medicare. Turnout tanked among likely Democratic voters.
Never mind that the obstruction of job creation came from the Republicans, and never mind that Medicare efficiencies associated with the Affordable Care Act project were embraced by Republicans like Ryan in their budget plans. The disappointment among Democrats created an “enthusiasm gap” that favored the Republicans.
Greg Walden, who was a prominent Oregon legislator and potential gubernatorial candidate in 1994, and who was an essential player in the House Republican leadership in 2010, knows the history. Unfortunately, too few Democrats "get it." Of course, Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, does; he refers to a Democratic president undermining Social Security as "terrible politics." So, too, does Congressman Bill Pascrell, the New Jersey Democrat who says of the president's "chained-CPI" advocacy, "Seniors vote in even heavier numbers, proportionately, in off-year elections. So just looking at a political standpoint...I would think that this would be a damning blow to our chances of taking back the House next year."
That’s what Greg Walden is counting on.
That's why he's saying what he is saying.
Anyone who is interested in the politics of 2014 knows that Greg Walden is not pontificating about policy. He is laying political traps that will spring on the Democrats if they put their party on the side of “chained-CPI” and the austerity agenda.
Meanwhile, Darrell Issa and company ramp up their assault on the Postal Service. Read Allison Kilkenny's take.
A USPS van. (Joseph Barillari)
Can Americans beat the austerity agenda of Wall Street Republicans and compromise-prone Democrats? Can we prevent deep cuts to essential services? Can we preserve the commons in the face of a full-frontal assault from politicians and pundits who are ever at the ready to attack the public sector and public employees on behalf of their crony-capitalist patrons?
Yes, sometimes in the David versus Goliath struggle, David wins.
That happened Wednesday when the board of governors of the US Postal Service abandoned an announced plan to eliminate Saturday delivery of the mail.
"Today's announcement that the USPS has cancelled its plans to end Saturday mail delivery is a victory for our middle class families, our rural communities and our small business owners… who rely on this critical service,” declared Congressman Mark Pocan, a Democrat who just two weeks ago rallied in frigid weather outside a Wisconsin post office as part of the national campaign to block the cut.
Pocan’s right on every point, except one.
The saving of Saturday delivery is not just “a victory for middle class families, our rural communities and our small business owners.” It is an important reminder that it matters to mobilize against the austerity agenda, even when the odds are daunting.
The battle against austerity has many fronts, all of which trace back to the question of whether necessary services will be maintained or diminished. That’s certainly the case in the debate about whether to cut Social Security benefits with President Obama’s “chained-CPI” undercutting of cost-of-living increases. The same goes for proposals to means-test Medicare and Medicaid, and of course to implement House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan’s voucher scheme.
But nowhere has the austerity threat been more evident in recent months than in the attempt by Postal Service managers—and their allies in Congress—to eliminate Saturday delivery. When the Postmaster General announced the move from traditional 6-day service to 5-day service, anyone who knew anything about the USPS knew what was happening. By creating a delivery void that would extend from Friday morning to Monday afternoon, the Postal Service was being rendered so dysfunctional that Americans would turn toward private carriers.
The American Postal Workers Union, the National Association of Letter Carriers and other unions explained that elimination of Saturday service would so undermine the system that privatization of the most attractive mail services would be virtually inevitable. Communities across the country organized to save post offices, sorting centers and jobs. Small business owners, weekly newspaper publishers, election officials and advocates for the elderly and people with disabilities spoke up for affordable and regular delivery of everything from prescription drugs to absentee ballots.
In late March, they rallied in communities, from New York City to small towns on the Great Plains, as part of a “National Day of Action” organized by the Letter Carriers and other unions. It was the highest profile protest of a months-long campaign that got Congress—which is charged by the Constitution with maintaining the service—to call for the retention of Saturday delivery. But the Postmaster General kept pushing for the cut, until Wednesday, when the USPS board of governors announced it would “delay this implementation at this time.”
This is a big deal. Services will be maintained. Jobs will be saved. Rural communities and urban centers will retain their vital cores.
But what happened Wednesday is not the end of the fight.
Maintaining Saturday delivery is important, arguably vital, to the future of the USPS. But, says Pocan, maintaining 6-day service “does not end the need for comprehensive reform at the USPS.”
The definitional battle is the one to free the postal service from the onerous burdens placed on it by Congress, especially the congressional mandate that the USPS prefund 75 years of future health-care benefits for retirees. In his new budget, President Obama proposes temporary relief for the Postal Service by reducing payments into the funds by $10.6 billion over the next two years—along with more flexibility so that the service can compete.
That’s a place of beginning for a real discussion about stabilizing the service.
But the Obama budget is not going to be approved anytime soon. And there are immediate threats.
Postal managers continue to hack away at the service. Indeed, as American Postal Workers Union president Cliff Guffey notes, “While Saturday mail delivery has dominated recent discussions, little attention is being paid to other drastic measures the USPS is taking that will significantly delay mail and permanently damage the nation’s mail system. Since 2012, the USPS has closed 114 mail processing plants, one third of the nation’s mail processing capacity... These closures will eliminate jobs, harm communities, and delay mail delivery every day—Monday, through Saturday.”
Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, who has taken the lead in the anti-austerity struggle—not just as the Postal Service’s stalwart champion but as the most ardent critic of scheming to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid—recognizes that the fight is not finished.
Sanders and Congressman Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, have introduced legislation to repeal the pre-funding requirement, which they refer to as “the crippling law responsible for 80 percent of the mail system’s funding woes.”
But they and their allies—including Pocan—are not merely dealing with fiscal matters. They're proposing a Postal Service Protection Act that would:
* clear the way for the Postal Service to help customers take advantage of email and Internet services.
* lift legal bans on services such as notarizing documents.
* create a commission composed of successful business innovators and representatives from small business and labor to make recommendations on other ways the Postal Service could generate new revenue and thrive in the 21st century.
The Postal Service, like most public services, can survive and thrive in the 21st century. But that will never happen if the austerity agenda is extended. It will only happen if that agenda is challenged—with not just one “Day of Action” but with days and days and days of activism on behalf of the sound economics and social responsibility that is the opposite of austerity.
What would a healthier, wealthier and wiser tax policy look like? Read Mattea Kramer's take.