A solver recently wrote to express confusion over this clue from Puzzle #3316:
CHEER Coming back, get to loud ovation (5)
He understood, he said, that the clue was intended as a phonetic reversal: "reach" ("get to") read backwards ("coming back") to yield "cheer." But what was there in the clue to indicate that the reversal was phonetic?
A quick glance at the clue with fresh eyes was enough to reveal the source of his perplexity. Our solver was taking "loud ovation," quite plausibly, as the definition part of the clue; our intention was that "ovation" alone would suffice, leaving "loud" as the phonetic indicator. This was a misstep on our part. A more carefully crafted clue would have—and should have—eliminated that ambiguity.
But as it happens, this minor glitch did throw some light on an often-overlooked aspect of cryptic clues: Namely, the need for a certain amount of parsimony in the definitions. Even though a definition can be long-winded—and heaven knows we've written some wordy ones over the years—it should never risk spilling over into the wordplay part of the clue. It's bad form, in other words, to leave any doubt on the solver's part about where the definition ends and the wordplay begins (or vice versa).
Note that we're talking here about a clue that's already been solved, because up to that point, the constructor's goal is to keep the solver bamboozled. But although the location of the break can be hidden, it should never be ambiguous.
What that means in practice is that a definition generally shouldn't include words that aren't strictly necessary (and thus might plausibly be part of the wordplay) and moreover, that the wordplay shouldn't place words next to the definition that might plausibly be part of it. That was the weakness in our CHEER clue.
However, we retain the right to try to mislead solvers, as long as we do it on the up-and-up. This clue, for example, drew criticism from some unwary solvers:
SMETANA Inside, Brahms met an Austrian composer (7)
More than one person wrote to object that Smetana was Bohemian, not Austrian. But in this case, "composer" was the sum total of the definition, and "Austrian" part of the wordplay. So the clue, though tricky, was legitimate and unambiguous—because the wordplay requires the A from Austrian, and especially because the definition cannot include "Austrian" and still be correct.
This week's cluing challenge: can you to come up with a cryptic clue for PARSIMONY? Please share here. To comment (and see other readers' comments), please click on this post's title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.
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The OCD GOP yesterday held yet another hearing on the nonexistent crisis over the September 11, 2012, assault on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi. Yes, another one. Writing in The Washington Post, Dana Milbank called it “hearing number 1,372,569, give or take,” and it certainly seems that way. Even though a massive official report made it clear that there was no political conspiracy to hide the truth about Benghazi, even though an exhaustive investigative report in The New York Times laid out the sequence of events in a very convincing manner, and even though President Obama did indeed describe the assault as a “terror” attack immediately after it occurred, the obsessive-compulsives in the Republican party can’t let go.
This really is a big deal to the far right, who argue that in a nefarious plot, President Obama and his team covered up the fact that it was Al Qaeda-linked terrorists who attacked the compound in Benghazi (it wasn’t), that the CIA and Susan Rice, then the US ambassador to the United Nations, engaged in some sort of political shenanigans to convince Americans that it was no big deal on the eve of the presidential election (they didn’t) and that the White House and the Pentagon blithely ignored calls for help from the US personnel under attack (they didn’t). Still, on every Fox News broadcast, on the right-wing blogs, at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference and elsewhere among the hard-core GOP faithful, “Benghazi” is a code word for Obama’s alleged fecklessness and perfidy.
At yesterday’s hearing, Michael Morell, the former deputy director of the CIA, bothered to testify at a hearing convened by Representative Mike Rogers, the GOP chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who’s about the leave Congress to become (wait for it!) a talk show host. Not surprisingly, but with some restraint, Morell patiently explained that there was no conspiracy. Saying that the CIA compiled the “talking points” on the Benghazi attack, immediately after it occurred, based on the “best available information at the time,” Morell added:
I never allowed politics to influence what I said or did—never. None of our actions were the result of political influence in the intelligence process—none.... The White House did not make any substantive changes to the talking points, nor did they ask me to.
Did he have a conversation with anyone at the White House about the nature of the talking points?
His thoughts on the false information Susan Rice gave on TV the Sunday after the attacks?
“What she said about the attacks evolving spontaneously from a protest was exactly what the talking points said.”
How about the claims that somebody in the administration told the military not to assist on the night of the attack?
“I am aware of several requests by CIA for military support that night, and those requests were honored and delivered.”
Milbank adds that Representative Peter King (R-NY) “let loose a string of insults,” Representative Michelle Bachmann said that she believes (sans evidence) “that there was an intentional misleading of the public,” and that Representative Frank LoBiondo “shouted virtually his entire statement,” in which, hilariously, he said:
We get on talking points, and we get about who said this and whether the station chief said that. And the bottom line is that we’ve got people running around who killed Americans, who are sipping mai tais or whatever they’re sipping, and we can’t do anything about it.
Mai tais? Unless the Al Qaeda people he is worried about were drinking virgin mai tais, it’s unlikely that the strict Islamists who did assault the Benghazi compound had suddenly found a decree from some drunken imam that alcohol was no longer haram.
Politico, which appears to have taken the whole thing way too seriously, in its report quotes Rogers, King and others extensively, as if they were a bunch of Sherlock Holmeses who had finally gotten to the bottom of some mystery. But Morell quietly explained that he didn’t even know that Susan Rice would be appearing on Sunday morning talk shows, and that he didn’t know she’d be using the CIA-generated talking points, which anyway were subject to changes and updates as new information became available. As to whether the attack, which was first described as a protest over the Internet-circulated video about the Prophet Mohammad, and then as a pre-planned terrorist assault, was one or the other, Morell explained to the shouting committee members:
I believed what my analysts said, that there was a protest. I also believed it to be a terrorist attack. You see, we never, we never saw those two things as mutually exclusive, and so I believed both of those at the same time.
Before yesterday's hearing, Bill O’Reilly, the noted foreign policy expert, had this to say:
Now, the big picture: President Obama was running for re-election when the terrorists hit Benghazi and his campaign was touting his effective policies on terrorism. So there could have been a political motivation to keep terrorists out of the Benghazi debacle. If the Obama administration lied, that's an abuse of power. If the CIA cooperated in the lie, that's an abuse of power. As we all know from Watergate, abuses of power can lead to very bad things.
So Benghazi is a big story whether the left wants to admit it or not. To be fair we need to hear from Mr. Morell tomorrow under oath, and people should not be making blanket accusations against the President or anyone else. But this whole thing is very suspicious. If that CIA memo counters what Ambassador Rice said, all hell should break loose, even with apathetic media.
But it’s obvious that hell, even among the apathetic media, isn’t breaking loose.
Don’t worry: to be continued. And continued.
Read Next: Tom Engelhardt on how sensational news stories distract us from real crises.
The NFL traffics in rank hypocrisy often without consequence. Profess concern about head injuries, while demanding an eighteen-game season? Decry racial slurs while profiting off of a team called the Redskins? Say you are role models while ignoring domestic violence? Profit from publicly funded stadiums while maintaining nonprofit status? This is Roger Goodell's shield and you can smell the rot from outer space.
Stepping into this moral vacuum we have Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman. Sherman is more than a breath of fresh air. He's oxygen in a moral corpse.
After spending Super Bowl week compelling the media to recognize what they are actually saying when they call young black athletes "thugs," Sherman called out a different hypocrisy. Even better, he did it for a friend.
The NFL world roiled last week when Philadelphia Eagles star wide receiver DeSean Jackson was abruptly released. News then leaked that a reason was that Jackson had "gang ties." It is unclear whether this was whispered by the Eagles to justify the cost-cutting move, but there was definitely a whiff of something that did not sit right. The cutting of Jackson and subsequent leaking of the "gang ties" accusation also happened after Eagles re-signed their N-bomb dropping wide receiver Riley Cooper.
In normal NFL times, acts of hypocrisy such as this go unchecked. But DeSean Jackson grew up in South Central Los Angeles with Richard Sherman. In Sherman's words, "we come from the same dirt" and he felt compelled to write a response to all the rumors.
Sherman's piece in Sports Illustrated about DeSean Jackson should be read in its entirety but here is the core of his argument. He writes:
I’m not going to tell you that DeSean Jackson isn’t in a gang, because I can’t say unequivocally that he isn’t.... I can only tell you that I believe him to be a good person, and if you think, say or write otherwise without knowing the man, you’re in the wrong. And if it’s true the Eagles terminated his contract in part because they grew afraid of his alleged 'gang ties,' then they did something worse.... But go ahead and judge DeSean for the company he keeps. While you’re at it, judge me, too, because I still live in Los Angeles, and my family does, too. We didn’t run from where we grew up.
He then commented directly on Riley Cooper writing:
"This offseason [the Eagles] re-signed a player who was caught on video screaming, 'I will fight every n— here.' He was representing the Philadelphia Eagles when he said it, because, of course, everything we do is reflective of the organization. But what did they do to Riley Cooper, who, if he’s not a racist, at least has 'ties' to racist activity? They fined him and sent him to counseling. No suspension necessary for Cooper and no punishment from the NFL, despite its new interest in policing our use of the N-word on the field. Riley instead got a few days off from training camp and a nice contract in the offseason, too."
Altogether it is a remarkable statement about the double standards of race and class that stain the league. It stands as a rebuke to the relentless, unending stigmas young black men endure based upon not only how they look but where they are from.
Sherman's article also speaks to an NFL that alternates between protecting or demonizing its own players, depending upon the financial imperatives of the moment. (The Washington football team, in need of a receiver, wasted no time in scooping Jackson up.)
As for Richard Sherman, he is something we have not seen in a long time: an athlete who is perilous to his own paymasters. What makes him dangerous is that he is both untouchable as an athlete and merciless as a critic.
I think I started thinking Richard Sherman was truly special when a reporter compared him to Muhammed Ali and he would not hear it.
He said, “It’s very humbling to be compared to Muhammad Ali because...he had to really stand his ground and almost go to jail because he wanted to stand up for what he believed in. So I think his situation was a lot more brave and a lot more serious than my situation is now, obviously, and he had to deal with a lot more scrutiny and just headache and criticism."
Richard Sherman is now officially risking more than just "headache and criticism." We have had more than a few athletes over the last thirty years who refused to "know their place." But we've had few who also knew their history. That's what makes Richard Sherman so dangerous to the NFL and that's also what makes him so valuable to the rest of us. By defending his dirt, Sherman shows how much the league acts in a manner that can only be described as dirty.
Read Next: Dan Snyder's anti-public relations and #CancelColbert.
Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
As the United States marks the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the civil rights revolution he helped spur is in peril. The progress African Americans forged has stalled. Will the United States once more turn its back on civil rights?
It has happened before. The first Reconstruction began with the Civil War and ended with the passage of the civil rights amendments ending slavery and guaranteeing equal protection under the law. Newly freed slaves pushed to exercise their rights. They won local elections and served on juries. They helped create what were the first public school systems in the South.
The reaction was brutal. The Ku Klux Klan terrorized African Americans across the South. Democrats became the party of the Confederacy. Barely 15 years later, Reconstruction was abandoned. In the Compromise of 1877, Republicans got Democratic support for ratifying the election of Rutherford B. Hayes to the presidency in exchange for removing federal troops from the South, betraying the newly freed African Americans. As W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, “The slave went free, stood a brief moment in the sun; and then moved back again towards slavery.”
Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
On his show last night, Stephen Colbert dedicated a whole segment to the death penalty, skewering the cloak of secrecy shrouding many states’ execution protocols.
“Americans support the death penalty, but don’t want to know how the sausage is made,” the Comedy Central host said.
Colbert focused on Tennessee, where death row inmates sued to uncover who is supplying the drugs that will be used to carry out their executions. Tennessee is one of several states, including Georgia, Missouri and South Dakota, with laws granting anonymity to lethal injection drug suppliers.
Watch the full segment:
After months of haggling—and months of suffering by the long-term unemployed—the Senate is finally set to pass a bill Thursday afternoon that will reauthorize benefits for Americans who have been out of work for longer than six months.
Republicans have demanded the cost of the extension be offset, and legislators have devised a pay-for known as “pension-smoothing,” which tweaks the formula employers use to fund their pension plans. But some analysts have raised concerns that this seemingly benign formula change could also endanger the solvency of single-employer pensions, particularly those that are already on shaky ground.
In short, the provision will allow companies to contribute less to their pension plans in the short- and medium-term. This raises federal tax revenue in the near-term because employer pension contributions are tax-deductible. While there are some convincing reasons to do this, it’s possible Congress is assuming too much about the health of corporate pensions and allowing some underfunding that could come back to bite both workers and taxpayers in the years ahead.
The detailed reasons are complicated, but important. Federal rules dictate certain levels at which employers must fund their pension plans to ensure that workers still get their promised retirements even if the company runs into financial trouble. The formula is predicated on interest rates, because they determine how much the pension fund will yield.
Low interest rates naturally mean pension plans don’t have a particularly good long-term outlook, and when the long-term outlook is poor, the formula dictates that companies must contribute more money to the pension funds right now. With interest rates near all-time lows, that’s exactly what has been happening.
But many companies argue that since interest rates are being kept unusually low by the Federal Reserve in order to stimulate economic activity, they shouldn’t actually have to be forking over all this cash to their pension plans.
Accordingly, the pension-smoothing provision in the unemployment bill tweaks the formula to allow companies to contribute less money now, and more later on. (The provision applies only to corporate, single-entity pensions, not state or local pension funds. Also, the “more later on” part of this means it’s not really a revenue- raiser but an accounting gimmick, as we’ve noted before.)
The proposed change has gotten virtually no public attention, but behind closed doors, has been the subject of serious lobbying by business interests. “The businesses always lobby very hard to keep more of their dollars now and not have to put them in those pensions. Many of those businesses are now trying to get out of the pension business altogether,” said Romina Boccia, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation who has worked on this issue.
“The way that they’re convinced, of course, over on the Hill is these companies come in and they say ‘We want to use this money to create jobs in your district and expand our business there,’ and of course that’s very appealing to lawmakers, especially in an election year,” she said.
There is no doubt merit to the business argument here, and having more cash on hand isn’t a bad thing in this economy. For companies with a good long-term profit outlook and well funded pensions, the pension-smoothing provision makes a lot of sense.
And in fact, the corporate pension gap—which was thought to be an enormous ticking time bomb for much of the recession—rebounded remarkably in 2013. The Towers Watson firm studied the Fortune 1000 pension plans and found they rebounded to pre-2008 levels last year. This chart shows a dramatic increase in the number of companies with well-funded pensions:
But many dangers lurk. Analysts credit two primary factors for the rebound: strong equity returns and increased employer contributions.
So a pension-smoothing plan that reduces contributions rolls back a key reason for recent progress—as would any unforeseen decrease in equity returns. Only one year removed from a perilous corporate pension-funding gap, it is perhaps unwise to immediately give companies a pension-funding pass. (It’s also perhaps unnecessary—as interest rates begin to rise, as they are now, company obligations will begin to decrease anyhow.)
Also, the pension-smoothing provision applies to all pension plans, not just the ones on stable financial footing. So those seven percent of pension plans that are funded below 70 percent—which is already dangerous—will also be able to contribute even less going forward. This dramatically increases the risk of pension fund failure at those companies.
Not surprisingly, those troubled companies have been the ones lobbying hardest for the smoothing change, according to Boccia. “They lobby even harder because they need the cash more than the companies that are doing fairly well right now, and have a pension that’s well-funded,” she said, adding that she raised the issue in a meeting with lobbyists who were pushing for the pension-smoothing fix. “They argued with us that ‘Well, [those troubled companies] need it even more because we need to free up cash now to make sure we’re better off down the road, that we’re more profitable than we are now.”
A final danger is that Congress will just keep extending the pay-less periods of pension-smoothing. The provision in this week’s unemployment insurance bill is actually just an extension of a similar provision in the transportation bill two years ago, which was about to expire.
Any failure of a pension fund would result in a taxpayer bailout via the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation—along with the serious benefit reductions for workers that usually come along with a bailout. That’s not to say the unemployment relief bill shouldn’t be passed because of this provision, but the possible implications shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Read Next: John Nichols on a resounding vote against the Koch brothers
Jeb Bush—along with three sitting governors, Chris Christie, Scott Walker and John Kasich—spent last weekend in Las Vegas for the “Sheldon Primary,” appealing to the uber-wealthy, ultra-conservative Sheldon Adelson at the annual meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition. Adelson, a casino magnate, is wondering where to place his bets in 2016—and with Christie in deep trouble, Bush is getting a close look.
There’s been a flurry of Bush-is-running pieces in the media since mid-March, a clear sign that Bush’s team is orchestrating something, sending up a trial balloon. Fox News notes that if he runs he might have to go up against a protégé, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, but that nevertheless:
A powerful network of Jeb Bush loyalists, from previous high-ranking campaign staffers to top donors, increasingly have been communicating and coalescing as they await a decision from the former Florida Republican governor on whether he will run for president in 2016. "We are keeping our powder dry."
Over at the Washington Post, a piece on Bush’s incipient campaign provides a number of details on the who’s who on Jeb’s team. Here’s the intro, in the piece by Philip Rucker and Robert Costa:
Many of the Republican Party’s most powerful insiders and financiers have begun a behind-the-scenes campaign to draft former Florida governor Jeb Bush into the 2016 presidential race, courting him and his intimates and starting talks on fundraising strategy.
According to the article, Bush is keeping in touch with key politicos around the country, such as Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, and he’s in regular touch with Sally Bradshaw, his political aide, strategist Mike Murphy and fundraiser Jack Oliver. He’s also brought on board a spokeswoman, Kristy Campbell, and travels alongside Josh Venable, an official as Bush’s education foundation who “serves on the side as Bush’s liaison with big donors,” the Post reported.
Like Christie, Bush would be the candidate of the GOP’s Establishment. It’s the millionaires and billionaires—literally the 1 percent of the 1 percent—who’ve been courting both, as likely opponents of the Tea Party wing of the Republican party. And like Christie, who’s alienated some on the far-right for his relatively mainstream positions—accepting the Medicaid provision of the Affordable Care Act for New Jersey, slamming critics of “sharia law,” acknowledging the need for gun control, and avoiding taking hard-right positions on issues such as immigration and gay rights—Bush has annoyed far-right Republican and Tea Party types on a number of fronts, including immigration and education, where Bush (like President Obama) supports the Common Core for schools.
I ran for office three times. The pledge was presented to me three times. I never signed the pledge. I cut taxes every year I was governor. I don't believe you outsource your principles and convictions to people. Ronald Reagan would have, based on his record of finding accommodation, finding some degree of common ground, as would my dad—they would have a hard time if you define the Republican Party—and I don't—as having an orthodoxy that doesn't allow for disagreement, doesn't allow for finding some common ground.
George Will, writing April 2 in the Washington Post, worries that hard-line, compromise-hating folks among the “flammable Republican base” will blow up Bush before he gets started:
[Bush] wisely favors immigration reform responsive to the needs of the US workforce and the realities of the 12 million who are not here legally but are neither going to “self-deport” or be deported. His enthusiasm for the Common Core is misplaced, but conservatives, in judging it, should judge Bush with a generosity he has earned by his exemplary record as an education reformer favoring school choice.
Unfortunately, there are too many Republicans who, honing their knives and lengthening their lists of unforgivable heresies, seem to derive more satisfaction from burning Republicans at the stake than from defeating Democrats.
If anyone is honing their knives to attack Bush, however, they ought to take a look at Bush’s involvement with the failed firm, Lehman Brothers, whose collapse helped precipitate the 2008 financial crisis. Jeb Bush had the unfortunate timing to sign on as a consultant to Lehman Brothers just before its fall, and not only that: the state of Florida may have lost, and lost big, with Lehman. All this is certainly worth looking at.
The Florida State Board of Administration, which oversaw an investment fund of $26 billion dollars on behalf of over 1,000 school districts, towns and local agencies in the state lost hundreds of millions of dollars because it invested in sub-prime mortgage derivatives sold by Lehman Brothers. The SBA was supposed to keep its money in safe investments because it was used to pay teachers, repair roads and other everyday needs of the towns and schools. For years it was invested in safe Treasury bonds, other government debt and corporate bonds.
That started to change in 2007 just when the sub-prime mortgage crisis exploded and the housing market was collapsing. At the start of the year the SBA started first to tiptoe into mortgage-backed securities. But when headlines blared that Bear Stearns was liquidating its $4 billion dollar hedge funds because the mortgage-backed securities they held collapsed, the SBA did the opposite and started buying hundreds of millions of dollars worth of such investments, mostly from Lehman Brothers.
That summer, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was hired as a consultant to Lehman Brothers. Bush claims that he had nothing to do with the sale of the bonds to the state, that he was involved with the private equity side of the bank, but he has not answered questions about how his connections with the SBA and other officials might have facilitated the transactions. Until he left office in January 2007, Bush, as governor, was one of the three board members of the SBA and obviously knew its executives well.
In November of that year, as more and more of the fund’s holdings were downgraded to below acceptable risk levels for its investments, school districts and local agencies that had money in it took it out. By the end of November they had liquidated about $12 billion of the fund. But it still lost significantly when Lehman tanked.
Read Next: Christie Watch reports on Jeb Bush and the ‘Sheldon Adelson primary’
Even as the US Supreme Court attempts to expand the scope and reach of the already dangerous dominance of our politics by billionaires and their willing servants, Americans are voting in overwhelming numbers against the new politics of dollarocracy.
The headline of the week with regard to the campaign-finance debate comes from Washington, where a 5-4 court majority has—with its McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decision—freed elite donors such as the politically-ambitious Koch Brothers to steer dramatically more money into the accounts of favored candidates, parties and political action committees. The decision makes it clear that the high court's activist majority will stop at nothing in their drive to renew the old Tory principle that those with wealth ought to decide the direction of federal, state and local government.
But the five errand boys for the oligarchs who make up that majority are more thoroughly at odds with the sentiments of the American people than at any time in the modern history of this country's judiciary.
We know this because the people are having their say with regard to the question of whether money is speech, whether corporations have the same rights as human beings and whether billionaires should be able to buy elections.
In every part of the country, in every sort of political jurisdiction, citizens are casting ballots for referendum proposals supporting a Constitutional amendment to overturn US Supreme Court rulings that have tipped the balance toward big money.
In so doing, these citizens are taking the essential first step in restoring democracy.
On Tuesday, thirteen Wisconsin communities, urban and rural, liberal and conservative, Democratic-leaning and Republican-leaning answered the call of constitutional reform. Even as groups associated with billionaire donors Charles and David Koch were meddling in local elections in the state, voters were demanding, by overwhelming margins, that the right to organize fair and open elections be restored.
It even happened in Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s hometown of Delavan, where voters faced the question:
Shall the City of Delavan adopt the following resolution:
RESOLVED, the City of Delavan, Wisconsin, calls for reclaiming democracy from the corrupting effects of undue corporate influence by amending the United States Constitution to establish that:
1. Only human beings, not corporations, unions, nonprofit organizations nor similar associations are entitled to constitutional rights, and
2. Money is not speech, and therefore regulating political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting political speech.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that we hereby instruct our state and federal representatives to enact resolutions and legislation to advance this effort.
76 percent of the Delavan residents who went to the polls voted “Yes!”
They were not alone. A dozen other Wisconsin communities faced referendums on the same day. Every town, village and city that was offered a choice voted to call on state and federal officials to move to amend the US Constitution so that citizens will again be able to organize elections in which votes matter more than dollars.
The Wisconsin votes provided the latest indication of a remarkable upsurge in support for bold action to renew the promise of American democracy. Since the Supreme Court began dismantling the last barriers to elite dominance of American politics, with its 2010 Citizens United decision, sixteen states and more than 500 communities have formally requested that federal officials begin the process of amending the constitution so that the court's wrongheaded rulings can be reversed.
Last fall, John Bonifaz, the co-founder and executive director of the reform group Free Speech For People, calculated that “In just three years since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, we have come one third of the way to amending the US Constitution to reclaim our democracy and to ensure that people, not corporations, shall govern in America."
Since the start of 2014, however, the movement has seen a dramatic acceleration in the grassroots pressure for action. During the first weeks of March, forty-seven town meetings called for a constitutional amendment—in a move that put renewed pressure on the New Hampshire legislature to act on the issue.
It is the experience of big-money politics that has inspired renewed activism for reform.
Wisconsin has had more experience than most states with the warping of democracy by out-of-state billionaires, "independent" expenditures and SuperPAC interventions. Governor Walker’s campaigns have reaped funds from top conservative donors, including the Koch Brothers. And a Koch Brothers-funded group, Americans for Prosperity waded into contests this spring for the local board of supervisors in northern Iron County, where mining and environmental issues are at stake; and in the city of Kenosha, where school board elections revolved around questions of whether to bargain fairly with unions representing teachers. In other parts of the state, business interests poured money into school board contests and local races Tuesday, providing a glimpse of the role corporate cash is likely to play in local, state and national elections in the months and years to come.
The Koch Brothers had mixed success Tuesday. Three Iron County Board candidates who were attacked by Americans for Prosperity mailings and on-the-ground "field" efforts in the county won their elections—beating incumbents who were promoted by the outside group. But in Kenosha, two school board contenders who were seen as anti-union zealots won.
There were, however, no mixed results when voters were given a clear choice between dollarocracy and democracy.
The signal from Wisconsin is that grassroots politics can and does still win.
In fact, it wins big.
Encouraged by groups such as United Wisconsin and Move to Amend, activists went door to door in the depths of winter to place amendment questions on local ballots in towns, villages and cities across the state. Many of the communities were in heavily Republican regions of Wisconsin. Yet, the pattern of support was strikingly consistent; in no community did an amendment proposal win less than 60 percent of the vote, and in several the support was over 85 percent.
“Citizens United opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate spending in our elections. Now, Wisconsin voters are standing up to the corrupting influence the flood of special interest money has had on our elections and in our state and national capitols where laws are made,” says Lisa Subeck, the director of United Wisconsin. “Tuesday’s victories send a clear message to our elected officials in Madison and in Washington that we demand action to overturn Citizens United and restore our democracy.”
Whether all those elected representatives will get the message remains to be seen. Several of the communities that voted Tuesday are in the district of Congressman Mark Pocan, D-Madison, who has already introduced an amendment proposal and has been an ardent backer of reform. But many other communities are represented by recipients of the big-money largesse of Wall Street traders, hedge-fund managers, casino moguls and billionaires looking to cover their bets.
Communities in the home district of House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, voted by margins as high as three to one to support an amendment strategy. The results were similar in conservative Waukesha County, which has historically been a Republican stronghold; in the city of Waukesha, for instance, 69 percent of the electorate called for action to amend the constitution. In Wauwatosa, the Milwaukee suburb where Governor Walker now maintains his voting residence, the vote for an amendment was 64 percent.
Wisconsin has several legislative proposals to put the state on record in support of a constitutional amendment. But they face uphill climbs in the current Republican-controlled legislature. And Walker shows no enthusiasm for reforming the system that has so richly rewarded his campaigns. Yet, grassroots activists like Ellen Holly, who helped organize the amendment vote in Walworth County—the heart of Paul Ryan's district and Walker's old home turf—is not blinking. She says it's essential for the Move to Amend campaign to take the fight into even the most conservative areas and to deliver messages to politicians like Ryan.
The widespread support for overturning Citizens United, especially from rural and Republican-leaning areas offers a reminder that the reform impulse is bipartisan and widespread. The same goes from the broad coalitions that have developed. Among the loudest voices on behalf of the referendum campaign in rural Wisconsin was the Wisconsin Farmers Union, which hailed Tuesday’s voting as “a clear message that we the people are ready to take back our democracy."
“Citizens United has allowed big money to drown out the voices of ordinary people and created an environment where, too often, our elected officials are sold to the highest bidder,” says Subeck, a Madison city council member who this year is running for the legislature on a promise to focus on campaign-finance issues. “To fully restore public trust in our democracy, we must return control of our elections to the people through common sense campaign finance reform, starting with the reversal of Citizens United.”
The trappings of power are so aptly named. So many of the mini-controversies of Bill de Blasio's young mayoralty have been the byproducts of power's privilege: the Findlayter phone call, the motorcade blowing stop signs, the hush-hush AIPAC speech. None of these incidents deserved the ink it got (though some of the excess can be blamed on the way de Blasio handled them). But strung together the kerfuffles etch out a deeper truth, which is that the perks that come with a big job can be as much liability as luxury.
This week, with the charter and budget battles fading, the mayor is trying to turn a corner and shed some of the formality that came with the office he took three months ago. He held a roundtable with City Hall bureau chiefs, where he jocularly chided them for not wanting to meet outside and, when he did get snippy, at least prefaced it with “dude.” Bro, that's pretty relaxed! He also reportedly wants to be called “Bill” more often, and at a press conference at a Brooklyn school on Tuesday, schools Chancellor Carmen Farina did so refer to hizzoner. He's holding an off-the-record press get together at Gracie Mansion on Friday, where he and the corps will play Twister and down a few of the mayor's trademark cherry Jello-shots.
OK, the last bit probably won't happen on Friday, but you do get the idea that a little less formality will suit de Blasio, who on becoming public advocate in 2009 dismissed the security team and driver that came with that office. So far, de Blasio's goofy sense of humor has been a poor fit with some of the staging that comes with his current office, like the airless Blue Room at City Hall.
I write this blog clad in parochial-school style slacks and a tweed sportscoat with elbow patches that my late Dziadzia might have found a little stuffy, so I'm not suggesting that all decorum go out the window. Government is a serious thing and being mayor of a city of 8 million people requires some symbolism of authority, especially since much of the mayor's power comes not from statute but from his bully pulpit. But there's a point where the accessories of an office actually undermine its value because they make it impossible to communicate clearly with the public.
For instance, there's the mayoral podium. It's a very impressive thing, wrapped in rich blue fabric and displaying on its front a large bronze city seal—the thing just sort of says “mayor.” De Blasio travels with it to events; it was there in a tiny classroom at the P.O. Suarez school in Bushwick yesterday. Bloomberg traveled with a podium, too. But according to people who remember this stuff, mayors before Mike didn't regularly do so. This might be a tradition de Blasio lets go. For one thing, because he is so tall, he's constantly toeing into place a step for shorter people whom he invites to the podium. This can look like the mayor is trying to scrape something off his shoe. For another, he doesn't need it. He's a tall guy and, especially since he shaved off de Beard, looks like a man who's in charge. He's the mayor wherever he goes and whatever he stands behind.
This is the kind of ephemera I'm constantly nagging the mainstream press about focusing on, so shame on me. But I do feel the way we've come to package our politicians has real-world implications. Take the apparently inescapable trend of having a politician stand in front of a screen patterned with a logo describing the thing the politician is talking about, e.g. Obama talks about strengthening America in front of a backdrop that says “Strengthening America” over and over, so that anyone who's just glancing at a TV screen in a Jiffy Lube waiting room or glancing at a front page while looking for the weather forecast will know, if nothing else, that Obama is strengthening America. (Wouldn't it be great if we could go back through history and insert these backdrops behind earlier leaders? Lincoln in front of “Freeing the Slaves” or Nixon with “Secretly Bombing Cambodia” behind him?)
The thinking behind this stage-management is that people won't understand or take the time to learn what a politician is doing or saying unless you spell it out for them in Crayola. A progressive vision of government has to have a little more faith in its message and its ability to communicate with people. That's why de Blasio has stressed transparency as part and parcel of his progressive agenda: Inclusion is an antidote to inequality, and stripping away some of the wax that's built up on our public offices is a way to invite people in. The mayoral podium seems a little waxy, to me... dude.
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You have to hand it to the Wall Street Journal. They do it cleverly and between the lines, but in an editorial today they pinpoint as the main reason for yesterday's shootings at Fort Hood by a mentally-troubled soldier the actions and inactions of agencies under the Obama Administration (with no mention of the easy purchase of the weapon or any other factors):
And as military officials seek lessons from the tragedy to try to prevent similar events in the future, they should expect no help from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, known as Samhsa. According to a Journal editorial this week, this arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services "uses its $3.6 billion annual budget to undermine treatment for severe mental disorders."
Samhsa bureaucrats spend much of their time and taxpayers' money opposing efforts by doctors to promote medical intervention in such serious cases. Among the reforms sought by health professionals—and impeded by the bureaucracy—are "'need for treatment' standards in civil-commitment laws, or assisted-outpatient laws so courts can require the mentally ill to receive treatment to avoid hospitalization."
Military officials might also wish to consider the work of E. Fuller Torrey, who last year described in our pages how the federal government spends far too much time and money treating "the worried well," rather than the truly ill—and the truly dangerous.
Torrey, in fact, is a well-known advocate of returning to the days of institutionalizing the mentally ill against their will. Here's a piece at Scientific American criticizing a recent "60 Minutes" segment after the Naval Yard massacre that featured Torrey. You can find online much other criticism of Torrey from top professionals and journals.
Of course, it's absurd that the shooter would have been locked away before the attack. Latest reports reveal that he had a clean record, a psychiatrist had indeed seen him in the past month and found no threat of violence, and simply prescribed a sleep aid.
The assistant managing editor at Bloomberg's Businessweek.com, meanwhile, largely blames the media for 'fueling" copycat shootings even as they exaggerate the number of mass killings in America which he claims are not increasing at all. (At least he mentions the problem of maybe not quite enough gun control.)
Fox & Friends, of course, places the blame on soldiers not being able to have arms at the ready to defend themselves—when attacked by other soldiers with arms at the ready.
“There you have our soldiers not being able to arm themselves,” host Elisabeth Hasselbeck opined. “Still, if they have a weapon, they are to register it within five days of purchase, and obtaining it. But then that must be stored away in these lockers so that it cannot be carried on their person, therefore leaving them vulnerable.”
Co-host Steve Doocy noted that the military had decided to restrict sidearms on bases during President Bill Clinton’s (D) administration.
Doocy then pointed to the current Democratic president by quoting a conservative blogger: “Gateway Pundit, which is a way right-leaning blog, what they write this morning is, ‘The Obama administration is responsible for this mass shooting. They witnessed this before, they didn’t learn a thing. Gun-free zones are death zones. It is time to stand up to the lunacy.’”
Jon Stewart, your move.
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