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William Greider | The Nation

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William Greider

William Greider

The fragile and faltering state of American democracy.

What’s the Difference Between Sheldon Silver and Jamie Dimon?

New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver/JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon (Seth Wenig/Haraz N. Ghanbari, AP)

I have a legal question citizens of New York might wish to ponder. What is the difference between Sheldon Silver and Jamie Dimon? Representative Silver is speaker of the State Assembly in Albany, and federal prosecutors want to put him in prison for taking kickbacks for doing political favors. Dimon is CEO of JPMorgan Chase, the nation’s largest bank, which has richly rewarded him for political manipulations that saved the megabank billions in regulatory fines for defrauding investors and saved fellow bankers from criminal prosecution.

Something about this comparison doesn’t smell right.

“Shelly” Silver is accused of steering plaintiffs to two law firms who sue big companies in behalf of people injured by asbestos or other cancer-causing substances. He arranged state research money for a couple of nonprofit health projects that deal with such issues, In return, the indictment charges, Silver received $3 or $4 million spread over ten or fifteen years. As political corruption goes, this is pretty small beer.

Jamie Dimon, by contrast, is political nobility, a leader of the Wall Street gang that raped the nation (financially). Trillions were lost by millions of families in the mortgage-securities racket that brought down the US economy. Dimon’s kickbacks were from his board of directors, grateful that he used his skill and influence to dodge the legal consequences.

Yet when it came time to punish financial wrongdoers, the scandal did not go before a grand jury. Dimon instead sent squads of corporate lawyers to negotiate with the government on how much the bank was willing to pay for its misdeeds (Dimon called them “mistakes”). When the negotiations stalled, Dimon traveled to Washington for a personal conversation with the attorney general. The final deal announced by Eric Holder was a bit fraudulent itself. Holder claimed to have won a record penalty of $13 billion, but lawyers who read the fine print and did the accounting said it was actually closer to $6 billion—a pittance compared to the horrendous damage Wall Street bankers profitably did to the nation.

The sordid mismatch of crime and punishment was displayed in the pages of The New York Times, though the newspaper seemed unaware of its contradiction. The Times editorial page demanded Representative Silver’s immediate resignation, never mind the trial and jury verdict. US Attorney Preet Bharara accused Silver of holding “titanic political power.” the Times wanted a prompt hanging. Silver did not resign but did agree to delegate leadership to senior assembly members on a temporary basis. “I hope I will be vindicated,” he said.

Meanwhile, on the same day back in its business section, the Times was reporting that for his efforts Dimon would get “a sweeter pay package in 2015.” The board of directors decided Dimon’s total compensation would remain at $20 million and he would get $7.4 million in “easier-to-access cash” rather than restricted stock shares.

The business story said, “Among the directors, the people briefed on the matter said, Mr. Dimon has been bolstered by a widely held view that he took on a crucial role in JP Morgan’s settlements with the federal authorities.” The story said directors “see the government’s extraction of money from the banking industry as driven more by a desire to take a tough line against Wall Street than any actual problems at the banks.”

In other words, the boys at JPMorgan did not learn their lesson. They did not take the government’s complaints seriously because they assume Washington was just putting on a show to appease angry citizens. After all, $6 billion is a mere asterisk on JPMorgan’s balance sheet, although Dimon continues to whine in public about the unfairness of the government regulators.

In fact, the Morgan Chase directors may be right about the feds. Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone wrote a blistering critique of Holder’s claim that criminal prosecutions still might be possible. The AG gave a tortured explanation of how difficult it is to pin down individual responsibility in corporations. “Responsibility remains so diffuse and top executives are so insulated,” Holder told an NYU audience, “That any misconduct could again be considered more a symptom of the institution’s culture than a result of the willful actions of any single individual.”

Taibbi responded: “In other words, people don’t commit crimes, corporate culture commits crimes!” Perhaps Sheldon Silver’s lawyers should put the blame on New York political culture.

I should acknowledge my own bias in this matter. I have family (children and grandchildren) who live in Sheldon Silver’s Assembly District 65 on the Lower East Side. They are not naïve and they oppose corruption. But they also see “Shelly” Silver as a pretty good guy. He plays hard ball in behalf of certain interests and issues, they know, but he also involves himself in stuff that matters to ordinary people, like defending rent-control apartments against the ever-encroaching grasp of the real-estate lobby.

Shelly Silver lives in their neighborhood, and not in grand style, contrary to the heated insinuations of editorial writers. During Hurricane Sandy, when power was out, trucks showed up around Grand Street, where people could recharge cell phones and laptops. Without really knowing, residents heard or just assumed that Representative Silver had something to do with that.

In the legislature, he pushed the gay rights legislation, but also the default speed limit of twenty-five miles per hour so old folks and joggers could cross broad streets without getting run over. He demanded more building space for the new downtown high school my grandson attends. Shelly legislated a school holiday for the Lunar New Year (2015 is the Year of the Sheep), so Chinese kids could stay home and celebrate with their families without being recorded as absent. These are small matters, but people notice and remember.

Farther south, Silver’s district also includes the financial district. Like most New York politicians, Representative Silver attends to Wall Street too. But he is an old-school politician, and the tension between neighborhood life and powerful money interests is a very old conflict in New York politics, still very active in current events.

Silver’s reputation as the powerful boss who looks out for the folks is a model descended from the olden days of the Tammany machine but also the great social reform movements that arose on the Lower East Side in the early twentieth century—the popular politics that eventually evolved into the liberal-labor agenda of the New Deal era.

Tammany Democrats used to speak unapologetically of “honest graft,” which meant politicians could take care of the public interest and take care of their own interests without legal contradiction. Of course, many bandits hid gross corruption behind that logic. But determining criminal motivation is not as self-evident as righteous prosecutors assert. The overly zealous pursuit of bad guys might “criminalize” what is the standard practice of bartering and trading in everyday politics.

The US Attorney must have noticed, for example, that a lot of money changes hands in politics—big money given to politicians by private interests—and a lot of that money comes from Jamie Dimon’s gang. These exchanges are called “campaign contributions” but that dodges the real question: What’s being bought and sold? Is Jamie Dimon bartering private deals with our elected representatives over how public funds will be spent or which laws will be altered to benefit Dimon’s bank? Of course he is. We just don’t know what he is buying or selling.

The US Attorney for Lower Manhattan should convene a grand jury to explore these questions, because very little is ever revealed about the dark-side transactions. The FBI, as it sometimes does with criminals it has caught, should put a “wire” on some middle-level bankers and collect recorded glimpses of who’s trading away public assets behind closed doors—deals more secretive than anything Shelly Silver engineered.

Of course, that kind of investigation won’t happen. The corporate justices who control the Supreme Court would never allow it. Examining the private motives behind Wall Street’s political manipulations would violate the free-speech rights of Jamie Dimon and his crowd. Money is speech, the Court says. Therefore, the more money that pours into the hands of politicians from the corporates the better our democracy will become. What a hoot.

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My essential question is this: Who gets to decide how public resources are going to be spent or which laws should be altered to satisfy certain private interests? Democracy promises (in theory) that the people have a right to participate in the decisions governing their lives.

But whatever the law and Constitution require, these decisions will in the end always be determined by people, mere mortals who may get things wrong and will always be influenced by self-interested motivations. That applies to elected representatives like Sheldon Silver. But it also applies to private bankers like Jamie Dimon, whose gang expends billions to buy members of Congress and high-level government appointees and to field thousands of lobbyists who help rewrite the laws for us to observe. Democracy’s promise is still unfulfilled, but people are working on it.

In this imperfect world, I would rather have the Shelly Silvers decide things than the Jamie Dimons.

 

Read Next: Can Wall Street take down Big Pharma?

Can Wall Street Take Down Big Pharma?

Prescription drugs

(Photo by Derek Gavey/CC BY 2.0)

Here is a man-bites-dog story that might give comfort to those many Americans being gouged by the drug industry’s larcenous prices. A Dallas hedge-fund operator named Kyle Bass who made a fortune attacking over-priced stocks now says he is going to attack Big Pharma for over-pricing drugs. Bass’s announcement set financial industry bloggers aflutter because hedge funds are not usually known for public-spirited motives. Citizen Bass is in it for the money, of course. But he intends to do well himself by doing good for the rest of us.

His firm, Hayman Capital Management, won fame and fortune back in 2008 by “shorting” mortgage securities just before the crash. Bass recognized those packages of mortgage bonds would crash once investors realized the banks were peddling phony paper with false valuations. Now he wants to do roughly the same for fifteen pharmaceutical firms selling drugs based on phony patents.

“The companies that are expanding patents by simply changing the dosage or the way they are packaging something are going to get knee-capped,” Bass boasted. This may make him rich all over again and fellow investors he recruits for Hayman Capital. But Bass added, “This is going to lower drug prices for Medicare and for everyone.”

For industrial sectors like drugs, the mangled US patent system has become a well-known scandal—a sick joke in which lawyers and lobbyists get the last laugh. Through political manipulations in Congress, leading companies win the power to double or triple prices by extending their legal claims to exclusive production of widely prescribed and essential drugs. Normally, the patent expires after twenty years or so and generic substitutes come on the market with much cheaper prices.

Inventive capitalism finds ways to subvert this system. A drug company will reformulate a new version of the old drug and claim a new patent that renews their protection from competition. Or the big company essentially bribes or buys the smaller upstart rival that is threatening to upset its monopoly pricing. This is called “pay for delay”—a reverse patent settlement that gets challengers to postpone their intervention. These gambits are ostensibly legal, but an aggressive government would put a stop to them if it put the public interest ahead of drug profits.

Big, big money is at stake. Bass says the inflated stock prices of fifteen large drug companies reflect a combined capitalization of $450 billion. He wants to poke a hole in that balloon. Short-sellers like himself could reduce that by half, he thinks, as stock market investors begin to grasp that company profits are derived from fallacious patents. Hayman Capital intends to show them.

“We’ve dedicated half of our resources over the past six months to this,” he told an investment conference in Oslo, Norway. “We are going to challenge and invalidate patents through the Inter Partes Review process…[and] we are not going to settle.”

The IPR process was created in 2012 at the behest of big technology companies fighting off copy-cat producers in laborious and costly lawsuits. The new rules create a fast track for challenging dubious claims, instead of the court cases that can take years to resolve, postponing rulings and eroding profits in the meantime. Bass and possibly others have come to realize you don’t have to be a drug company to use this new system to great advantage.

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Could Wall Street buccaneers force Big Pharma to clean up its act? Bass is not naming any corporate names or yet revealing his strategy. But he clearly is taking aim at a monstrous public injury. Just the other day, Peter Bach, a physician and director of health policy at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, had an op-ed in The New York Times bemoaning the pain and injury of outrageous drug prices for patients and healthcare providers.

Drug companies, Bach explained, not only suppress cheaper competitors but keep raising their own prices. In 2001, he said, Novartis charged $4,540 a month for a leukemia drug called Gleevec. Now it charges $8,488. Or drug companies simply buy up cheaper generic brands and raise their prices. Albendazole, a drug for parasitic infections, was approved in 1996 and sold for only $5.92 per day as recently as 2010. Three years later, the wholesale price was $119.

The Obama administration “reformed” the healthcare system to reduce costs but somehow managed to overlook drug prices. Of course, Europeans get the very same drugs, only much cheaper. As Bach cited, prescription drug prices in Europe are 50 percent cheaper than what Americans pay. The Novartis drug Gleevec sells here for $8,488, but costs $4,500 in Germany and only $3,300 in France.

But, hey, we Americans get to have a “free market,” and they don’t.

 

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Can Warren and Pelosi Lead Democrats to High Ground?

Elizabeth Warren and Nancy Pelosi

(Reuters Pictures)

The sordid business of closing out the do-nothing 113 Congress—giving the Wall Street bankers one more bite of the apple and a friendly kiss for the CIA torturers—has stained President Obama indelibly. We will never forget what he did and failed to do. He deserves our contempt. The president marginalized himself with his unreliable weakness.

The recent events in Washington are nonetheless clarifying. They tell us that the worst is yet to come. When McConnell-Boehner take charge of Congress in the New Year, the president will be standing with them on the wrong side of some fundamental issues, ready to make bad deals with the Republican wrecking crew.

In the past week, he lamely allowed the CIA to carry on as though the criminal behavior of torturers was merely a policy mistake. He called them “patriots.” History will recognize this is a damaging lie that undermines our nation’s values, not to mention our reputation.

Simultaneously, Obama collaborated in the piecemeal destruction of his own financial reform legislation. His White House advisers are no doubt surprised by the bitter objections, since they are Wall Street–trained themselves and think it is no big deal to give a regulatory break to JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and other malefactors of wealth. Besides, they explain, the president got more money for little children and the poor.

Obama will doubtless make other bad trade-offs in the final two years of his presidency, but he has already defined his own irrelevance. Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell will do the deal-making between them, joined by House Speaker John Boehner and a few old salty dogs from both parties. The president will be kept informed. At every step, he will tell himself this was the best he could get.

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The congressional showdown, however, has given us an exciting glimpse of what the future might look like if Representative Nancy Pelosi and Senator Elizabeth Warren lead the way for a liberal insurgency. Both stood up and fired back at the stink of what Obama and many Dems had accepted. Warren and Pelosi did not personally attack their party’s doggedly passive president. But both essentially declared their independence from him. Their willingness to confront and counter the cynicism that passes for policy debate is a hopeful marker for larger change ahead.

Their independent-minded opposition could be the start of something big now that the Dem party is in the wilderness again, wondering why they aren’t loved. Senator Warren has been trying to tell them for years. Pelosi is a team player who in the past went along with the Obama White House when she should have rebelled. Maybe the public will now hear more of her eloquent dissents. .

It’s a starting point only. No one should imagine either Pelosi and Warren or other like-minded Democrats have an army ready to march and restore meaning to the Democratic party. What they do have, however, makes them potentially powerful. They have authenticity and sophisticated knowledge. In different ways, both know how the corrupted political system does great damage to American life. It makes them disgusted too.

Read Next: “Why President Obama Needs to Renew His Pledge for a Nuclear Free World”

Will the Supreme Court Help Mitch McConnell Destroy Obamacare?

Mitch McConnell

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

Mitch McConnell, the soon-to-be anointed Senate majority leader, wants a “mulligan” on Obamacare, and he’s counting on the Supreme Court to give him one. For those who are not golfers, a “mulligan” is getting a second chance when a duffer hits a lousy tee shot. In this case, McConnell means Republicans want to tear up the Affordable Care Act and rewrite it in their own terms. But the Republican-controlled Congress will not have the power to achieve this, so it wants the Supreme Court’s right-wingers to do the dirty work for them.

“Who may ultimately take it down is the Supreme Court of the United States,” McConnell told an audience of corporate CEOs assembled by Murdock’s Wall Street Journal. In that event, McConnell explained, “I would assume that you could have a mulligan here, a major do-over of the whole thing.”

His cynical expectations seem to confirm the illegitimate power alliance elected Republicans have fashioned with the supposedly non-political Supreme Court justices. But McConnell tucked an awkward message in his comments—an admission of his own weakness.

Forget his blustery campaign vows to destroy the ACA, which McConnell falsely characterized as an effort to “Europeanize” American healthcare (too bad that’s not the case). McConnell is belatedly conceding the GOP still won’t have the votes to break Senate filibusters or to override Obama vetoes in House or Senate. Has Mighty Mitch begun to mellow?

Throughout the Obama era, he starred as the belligerent Senator No, uncompromising and grimly effective. He and his party smeared Obama relentlessly, both the person and his policies, often with latent racial coding. But McConnell told the captains of industry the only hope for unraveling Obamacare depends upon Chief Justice John Roberts and the Right Wing Five.

The political landscape for 2015 is not about a nicer Mitch, but about the utter reversal of political priorities confronting the triumphant Republican party. To put it crudely, Mitch McConnell is like the dog who caught the bus he was chasing. What’s he going to do with it? The reactionary factions in his backward-leaning party are eager for a grand ideological tear-down; but most folks are looking for shelter from the storm, not more chaos and upheaval.

I suspect Mitch McConnell recognizes this. That’s why he wants the Supreme Court to step up and take the blame for dismantling Obamacare. That’s why he is suggesting small-ball legislative tactics—unravel ACA one step at a time, repealing the medical devices tax or the thirty-hour-week coverage for small business workers or other unpopular provisions like the health-insurance tax and penalty. These issues might pose tough votes for Senate Democrats even if Obama intends to veto them.

McConnell’s first problem, however, is persuading the “red hots” in his own party to slow down. In their overwrought opposition, House Republicans “repealed” Obamacare something like fifty times (a free vote for them, since they knew their negative measures were not going anywhere). Trouble is, Republicans fell in love with their own propaganda. People “hate” Obamacare, don’t they? Isn’t that why Republicans won their big victory? Surely, the populace will cheer when the GOP slays this dreaded socialist monster.

They are dangerously mistaken. The “smart politics” that won elections for Republicans could suddenly look like very dumb governing policy if McConnell and company actually go ahead and do what they promised to do. The first result will be a major crisis in government if the complicated wiring of the ACA is suddenly torn out. But the much larger political crisis will be the personal shock and injury experienced by many millions of American families who discover the government has just cancelled their health insurance. Likewise, the insurance industry would be in turmoil, with companies scurrying to protect themselves if the ACA’s delicate framework of subsidies and insurance premiums is abruptly thrown out of balance.

Who would most likely be blamed for the pain and chaos? Republicans, I predict, whether they are the right-wing justices on the Roberts Court or the GOP majorities in House and Senate. McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner seem to assume that, if the Supreme Court disables Obamacare, that will force the need for new legislation and their new majority power can dictate the terms. They’ve got it backwards.

If the right-wingers provoke this national crisis, trying to reverse the legislative battle they lost five years ago, President Obama will have the high ground once again. He can explain what happened in the clearest terms: the McConnell Republicans or the Roberts Republicans on the Supreme Court did this to them. Yes, there are problems with the ACA that need to be fixed. But it was impossible to make ordinary corrections because Mighty Mitch always refused to cooperate and compromise.

Now the McConnell co-conspirators in Congress and the High Court want to throw the American people back to the wolves—the insurance industry and drug industry and other special interests that gouged or neglected very ill people before Obama’s healthcare reforms stopped them from cherry-picking their customers. In fact, healthcare companies were treated quite generously by the ACA. Insurers were essentially given millions of new paying customers subsidized by the federal government. In exchange the companies had to abandon cruel practices like banning customers with pre-existing conditions.

I bumped into an old friend who happens to be an industry lobbyist and asked him: Who will get the political blame if the Roberts Court kills Obamacare? “The Supreme Court could turn the country upside down on this issue,” he said. He loathes the ACA and knows its flaws, but said that if you are going to take something away from people, you better have something to replace it.

A victory for Mitch (or the Right-Wing Five on the Supreme Court) is basically a decision to restore the old healthcare system that profitably abused or ignored so many sick people and poor people. That political decision is for elected politicians, not jurists. If McConnell doesn’t have the votes or the nerve to force the issue, the Supremes should keep hands off. Chief Justice John Roberts upheld the ACA’s constitutionality two years ago and was bitterly denounced as a sellout by many right-wingers (though not by McConnell, who has been closely aligned with Supreme Court conservatives on its money-in-politics decisions). Now right-wingers are pushing Roberts to make up for his “error” by killing Obamacare on ridiculous grounds. McConnell has joined them.

This squeeze play could be fateful for the chief justice and his lasting reputation. As I wrote recently, he is flirting with an “impeach John Roberts” campaign if he cooperates with politicians like McConnell. Roberts is clearly sensitive to the accusations of political bias and has frequently objected. That’s why it is so important for people to make loud complaints now and make sure Roberts hears them. Precious purists will object that this politicizes the Supreme Court, but it is already politicized. The deed was done by the Right-Wing Five and their Republican party.

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The new post-election landscape challenges another familiar political deformity—the passivity of the Democratic party. We can understand why the president is reluctant to aim critical comments at the Supreme Court. But why are other Democrats and allied groups so silent? If they fear the political fix is in at the Supreme Court, they should say so now, not wait until a decision that sets off the chaos and crisis. Deferring to the White House is not an excuse. Indeed, that is a familiar element of the party’s decrepitude—hiding behind the president, failing to resist dumb politics from the White House.

This will sound naïve, but a modest first step toward Democratic revival should involve telling the truth a little more often about the party’s intentions. The mess in healthcare reform is a ghastly example of why. The White House couldn’t admit that Obama’s ACA was really a copy-cat version of moderate Republican ideas. Republicans pretended Obama’s plan was socialism. From these initial fictions, the two parties stacked up simple-minded distortions and evasions. The sincere result was Rube Goldberg complexity.

Yet what never a got serious debate was the “public option,” though a majority of House Democrats favored it. That would have authorized genuine trials for the “single-payer” systems resembling the ones functioning in Europe. Obama killed those alternatives or traded them away to conservative lawmakers. If the Roberts Court decides to destroy Obamacare beyond repair (I hope it doesn’t), Democrats should start over and this time tell the truth about what they think and what they want.

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How One Woman Tried—and Failed—to Stop the Fed From Driving the US Into Recession

Federal Reserve Bank

The headquarters of the Federal Reserve Bank in Washington (AP Photo/J. David Ake)

The death of Nancy Teeters was properly noted last week (November 17), since she was the very first woman to serve as a governor on the Federal Reserve Board in Washington. But I remember Teeters for more poignant and powerful reasons—her personal courage in stubbornly resisting the harsh and devastating recession the Fed imposed on Americans.

This was thirty years ago in the early 1980s when Paul Volcker was the formidable Fed chairman and his conservative convictions triumphed. Volcker is remembered reverently in the annals of finance for saving the country from inflation. Nancy Teeters, the lonely dissenter, was soon forgotten but she understood some things about human society and arrogant power that her male colleagues failed to appreciate.

Those long-ago events during the Reagan presidency were at the dawn of the conservative era and—due especially to the Federal Reserve—began the triumph of finance capital over the broader economy. I wrote a book in 1987 that described the historic watershed, called Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country. Teeters was right. If other Fed governors had listened, this country might have been saved from a lot of pointless pain.

This is what I said about her unique role:

Nancy Teeters, almost alone, resisted. Month after month, as the economy spiraled downward, she repeatedly urged her colleagues to back off. The largest corporations were shutting down more and more of their production. As loan failures accumulated, the financial sector was threatened with crisis. The Fed’s single-mindedness, she warned, was inflicting deep wounds that would not soon be healed.

“I gave the Federal Open Market Committee a lecture.” Teeters said. “I told them: You are pulling the financial fabric of this country so tight that it’s going to rip. You should understand that once you tear a piece of fabric, it’s very difficult, almost impossible, to put it back together again.”

Her metaphor, she pointed out to me, was understood by women. “None of these guys has ever sewn anything in his life,” Teeters said. [page 465]

The objections she expressed thirty years ago in the closed-door meetings of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors are still highly relevant to our current national condition. The “social fabric” has been torn asunder, first by Volcker’s deep recession, then by deregulation and Wall Street’s high-risk adventures, and then by globalization and finance capital’s hegemony over labor and production. These destabilizing forces led eventually to the collapse. They are driving the grinding deterioration that continues to afflict the society.

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Contemporary politics is still blind to the gravity of our situation. Even the Democratic president is still resisting the kind of big, bold actions that Keynesian economists like Nancy Teeters might have proposed in these circumstances. Defending the “social fabric” remains an inadmissible argument in the mechanistic logic of conventional economics. As Teeters argued then, innocent people are being sacrificed to crude abstractions. Meanwhile, some people are still getting richer and most other people are still getting poorer.

There is one great change in the landscape, however. The Federal Reserve Board is now chaired by a woman. Janet Yellen is perhaps not so upfront in her social concerns as Nancy Teeters was, but she is clearly trying to move the boys in that direction. Yellen met recently with a network of activist community organizations who are pushing for concrete action on work and wages. If the very masculine Federal Reserve can break free of the reactionary past, maybe there is hope for the country.

 

Read Next: Should we impeach Chief Justice John Roberts?

Should We Impeach Chief Justice John Roberts?

Chief Justice John Roberts

Chief Justice John Roberts (AP Photo)

Republicans like to talk about impeaching President Obama, but there is a far more deserving candidate for impeachment—Chief Justice John Roberts of the Supreme Court. While the Republicans in Congress have blocked Democrats from enacting much of substance, the GOP majority in control of the Court has been effectively legislating on its own, following an agenda neatly aligned with their conservative party. Step by step, the five right-wing justices are transforming the terms of the American political system—including the Constitution.

They empowered “dark money” in politics and produced the $4 billion by-election of 2014. They assigned spiritual values to soulless corporations who thus gained First Amendment protection of free speech and religion. The justices effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, even as they allowed state governments to create new obstacles for minority voting. The High Court made it okay to take guns to church and more difficult to keep guns from dangerous people. It rendered a series of decisions that collectively shifted political power from the many to the few.

This power grab by the unelected—and supposedly non-partisan—justices has already produced a historic rewrite of America democracy. But it was done by blatantly usurping the decision-making authority that belongs to the elected government in Congress and the executive branch. The Republican justices are not finished with their undeclared revolution. They will continue unless and until people rise up and stop them.

The Roberts Court’s latest target is once again President Obama’s singular achievement, the Affordable Care Act. Under peculiar circumstances just three days after the midterm elections, the Court announced it will hear another legal challenge that threatens to disable and perhaps destroy the new healthcare system.

The timing of this new intervention has a distinct odor of political collusion. The Republican takeover of the Senate is already invoked by Court allies to suggest the justices are merely responding to the will of the people. Some conservative Court watchers tout the new case as a chance for the chief justice to make amends and get with the program. The latest challenge was fashioned in Washington by the same club of right-wing legal foundations and pricey corporate lawyers who have been attacking affirmative action and other liberal reforms since the Reagan administration.

Michael Carvin of the Jones Day law firm is a cocky veteran of the right’s long crusade and the lead lawyer for the new case. He is already boasting of the outcome, even though the intermediate DC Circuit Court of Appeals has not yet ruled up or down as would normally occur before the Supreme Court agreed to consider it. Carvin dismissed the DC Circuit Court, now dominated by Democratic appointees, as a meaningless anomaly. He told a Talking Points Memo reporter he doubts that Supreme Court conservatives “are going to give much of a damn about what a bunch of Obama appointees on the DC Circuit think.” Goodbye to deference and regular order.

But might Carvin’s case still lose at the Supreme Court? “Oh, I don’t think so,” he said. That was his cute way of saying this time Chief Justice Roberts will be on board with the other four conservative justices. Carvin didn’t say why he is so confident, but he and Roberts seem to be old chums. At a Federalist Society event last year, Michael Carvin indulged in a bit of classy namedropping. The admiring conservative society reported that Carvin “told an anecdote in which Chief Justice Roberts approached him and jokingly chided him for having favored appointing Samuel Alito before Roberts.” What does this say about their relationship? Maybe nothing, but one would like to ask a few follow-up questions.

Roberts himself takes offense at accusations that the Roberts Court renders politicized decisions. He has frequently denied the charge. “We’re not Republicans or Democrats,” Roberts told students at the University of Nebraska law school. Unlike some of his right-wing colleagues, Roberts wants to have it both ways. He’s not an ideologue, just an earnest umpire calling balls and strikes.

Baloney. If Carvin and other conservative legal eagles are correct that this time the Chief Justice will rule against the healthcare law, that should give people a prima facie case for considering impeachment. At a minimum, people should demand a thorough public investigation into whether surreptitious political interference occurred (who said what to whom offstage?). If politicians are reluctant to go down that road, people can start their own inquiries. The chief justice should be forewarned what will likely happen if he does scuttle the ACA. I expect “Impeach John Roberts” signs and billboards to start popping up all over America as people finally figure out who did this to them. Hint: it was not Barack Obama.

A prime witness should be Linda Greenhouse, who for decades was the influential New York Times correspondent covering the Supreme Court (now at Yale law school). Greenhouse was admired for her fair-minded analysis and great clarity in explaining esoteric legal arguments, She finds the current state of affairs “profoundly depressing.”

Greenhouse explained in her blog posted at NYTimes.com: “In decades of court-watching, I have struggled—sometimes it seems against all odds—to maintain the belief that the Supreme Court really is a court and not just a collection of politicians in robes. This past week I found myself struggling against the impulse to say two words: I surrender.” (Linda Greenhouse has not herself called for impeachment.)

The new case against Obamacare reads like “a politically manufactured argument,” Greenhouse wrote. She called the maneuvering “a naked power grab by conservative justices who two years ago just missed killing the ACA in its cradle.” As evidence, she cited the unusual twists in Supreme Court behavior. Normally it waits to see if there are conflicting views among circuit courts of appeal before taking a case for consideration. This time, the Fourth Circuit based in Richmond, Virginia, upheld the law. The DC Circuit in Washington has all twelve judges reviewing and seems very likely to uphold the law, since that court is now top-heavy with Democratic appointees. The Supremes went ahead regardless.

Greenhouse cited Michael Carvin’s confident boasting as suggesting the political flavor. She also invoked remarks by Professor John Yoo of UC Berkeley—famous in Bush years as the “torture lawyer” who defended brutal interrogations and a former clerk for Justice Clarence Thomas. On National Review Online, Yoo felt sure Roberts will now support the ACA challenge because the case “gives him the chance to atone for his error upholding Obamacare.” Yoo wrote: “What judge can resist the chance to reach the right legal result, fix mistakes from the past and act with popular support? It’s a Supreme Court trifecta.”

Over-confident Republicans naturally assume the public will be grateful if the Supreme Court rescues them from Obama’s healthcare system. But the first result is bound to be utter chaos and confusion and millions of people—mostly in red states—who discover they are the losers. If the GOP legal challenge succeeds, the High Court will rule that the federal exchanges—created for states that declined to create their own state exchanges—operate illegally because the ACA does not give them explicit authority to dispense the tax credits that subsidize health insurance.

A blizzard of low- and moderate-income buyers of insurance would be suddenly stripped of government assistance—around 5.2 million of them. But there is a cruel twist Republican leaders fail to acknowledge: their own red-state constituents will be the most victimized. Leading right-wing politicians have endorsed the very lawsuit that will punish the Southern and Western states if it prevails, while blue states and northern cities that are operating their own state exchanges may not suffer at all.

The lawsuit now before the Supreme Court, for example, has been formally joined by Senators Cornyn and Cruz of Texas, Hatch and Lee of Utah, Portman of Ohio, Rubio of Florida, Representative Darrell Issa of California and the state governments of Oklahoma, Alabama, Georgia, West Virginia, Nebraska, South Carolina and Kansas. If these politicians win, their states are the big losers.

But of course the citizens who will be screwed in the red states are mostly working poor or moderate-income families. Republicans are okay with that. They ostensibly believe that belt-tightening helps build character. The GOP may have a time with blowback from the insurance industry and other providers in the healthcare system. While it’s not widely understood, many billions in federal subsidies help people of limited means buy health insurance but they never actually see the dollars themselves. The money flows directly from the Treasury to the private enterprises. Insurance lobbyists are already on the case, explaining real life to clueless conservatives.

Up to this point, I have barely mentioned the logic of the conservative assault on Affordable Care. Because there isn’t much logic to it. It depends entirely on a narrow-minded reading of the original legislation—so ridiculously literal that only gnomes in a medieval castle could take it seriously. In a nutshell, the right-wing lawyers claim that the law describes how state-run exchanges will be able to dispense federal subsidies to people in need, but the law fails to say explicitly that federal exchanges have the same powers.

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Okay, the drafters could have repeated the requisite language to reassure fly-specking lawyers, but really there was never any doubt about the congressional intent. As the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has ruled, the logic of the entire system over-rules any blurred language. The law says explicitly that the secretary of Health and Human Services has the authority to create federal exchanges when and where states don’t want to do it. In other times, any such ambiguity would have been quickly eliminated with a technical fix, routinely adopted by mutual consent.

But the new Republican Party refuses to go along with anything that resembles cooperation and might shine a good light on Democrats. What the right-wingers really hope to achieve is a total breakdown of the ACA’s complex architecture. Throw sticks in the spokes. Force the Obama administration to open the legislation for Republican tinkering. The Supreme Court appears to be pursuing a similar strategy In other words, right-wing senators want Supreme Court right-wingers to accomplish by edict what GOP legislators could not accomplish for themselves.

Barack Obama can win this fight by not giving in to the Supreme Court, even if he temporarily loses there. The president has to call out his opponents and tell the hard truth about their illegitimate abuse of power. People may listen if he genuinely fights for them.

People may recall the last time Americans wanted to impeach a Chief Justice was in the 1950s, when Earl Warren—a liberal Republican from California—championed Brown v. Board of Education in the long legal battle to defeat Jim Crow segregation. Chief Justice Roberts has been leading in the Court in the opposite direction. Instead of comforting the afflicted, he is comforting the comfortable.

Read Next: Thanks to the Roberts Court, corporations have more constitutional rights than actual people

When Did Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo Go to Medical School?

Governor Andrew Cuomo and Governor Chris Christie announce a mandatory quarantine for people returning to the United States through airports in New York and New Jersey who are deemed "high risk" for contracting Ebola on October 24, 2014, in New York City (AP/Mark Lennihan)

Just when you thought the Republican slime-ballers had run out of muck, you discover, no, they have more mud to throw at honorable people. And they are not just smearing Barack Obama. This time, they are disparaging the doctors and scientists at the National Institutes of Health and depicting them as weak-willed tools of the Democratic Party. If Americans fall for this, they may get the government they deserve—stripped of honest science and trustworthy decisions.

Republicans are not stupid, but they are shameless. They know people are rattled by the stealthy emergence of Ebola and that media hype has reflexively pumped up the danger and public confusion. NIH experts calmly explained what has to be done to defeat the disease and assured nervous citizens that healthcare teams are on the case. The GOP saw opportunity in unfolding tragedy and rushed to exploit it.

A political hack named Ed Rogers, corporate lobbyist and White House insider under Republican presidents, chortled gleefully over the political twist. His op-ed in The Washington Post hailed the brave governors of New York and New Jersey—Democrat Cuomo and Republican Christie—for intervening with a common-sense response. Any doctor or nurse who had gone to West Africa to treat Ebola victims should be automatically locked up in quarantine when they return home.

Rogers boasted, “If there is a Republican wave in the elections next Tuesday, pundits may well claim that it fully formed when Christie and Cuomo decided to go their own way with an Ebola strategy, despite objections from the White House.” People will be reassured by their common-sense intervention, he said, because “voters don’t trust the president to do the right thing and they are less likely to vote for those who echo the president’s blasé response.”

Actually, this know-nothing attack was launched by two well-known cynics of politics, both of whom lust after presidential ambitions. What Ed Rogers left out of the slime ball aimed at Obama is that it actually smeared some of the most experienced, knowledgeable and principled employees of the federal government. The real question at stake is whether the GOP demagoguery will succeed in destroying yet another citadel of advanced science and public values.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, who played a significant role in the successful war against AIDS/HIV, has explained patiently and repeatedly why rigid quarantines of healthcare workers would actually increase the dangers. “The best way to protect the US is to stop the epidemic in Africa and we need those healthcare workers so we do not want to put them in a position where it makes it very, very uncomfortable for them to even volunteer.”

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If political pollsters were more devoted to the public interest than their political clients, they would ask people this question: Whom do you most trust to handle the battle against Ebola—Dr. Fauci, the longtime leader of the national Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, or Chris Christie, the author of political vendettas against Jersey mayors who failed to support him? Or do people think Andrew Cuomo knows more than Anthony Fauci about how to organize the global counterattack against this dread disease?

The questions sound ludicrous, but they need to be asked. Once these guys finish with New York and New Jersey, they want to run the country. Let me restate the question in a harsher way people can understand: Who do you think will manage to kill more people with Ebola—Dr. Fauci or Governors Cuomo and Christie, the political twins?

Senator Elizabeth Warren, as she often does, is pushing back hard against the irresponsible politicians. On CBS This Morning, she said Christie “should bring out his scientists who are advising him on that because we know that we want to be led by the science. That’s what’s going to keep people safe—science, not politics.”

She went further and suggested the Republican party may have blood on its hands because it has pushed hard to cut NIH spending and thus research on the Ebola virus. “So now we’re in a position where instead of making those investments upfront, we wait until people die and now we’re going to spend billions of dollars and some real risk to our country.”

Good question. Why don’t reporters ask Dr. Christie and Dr Cuomo?

 

Read Next: Misguided media hysteria pervades the 24/7 news cycle.

What Would Bernie Do?

US Senator Bernie Sanders

(AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Whether or not Senator Bernie Sanders decides to run for president in 2016, we can count on him to serve as creative provocateur. The political gremlins hired to manage candidates and campaigns set out to limit the content of public debate so as not to inconvenience their clients with awkward questions. The media cooperate in this process by taking their cues from the pols and polls. Unsanctioned ideas that people care about are safely ignored.

Bernie Sanders, you might say, is Senator Inconvenience. He caucuses with Senate Democrats and generally votes with them, but he has built his career on raising issues and reform ideas that party regulars avoid. Vermont voters seem to like his style, since they keep electing him. He operates in Congress with considerable shrewdness, carefully picking fights that can resonate with a broad base of popular needs and desires and even draw bipartisan endorsements.

The current inertia of the Democratic party is part fear, part resignation. The marching order for 2014 is “don’t rock the boat.” Hillary Clinton’s agents say they already have it locked up for 2016, so don’t make problems for her. Democrats decided to lay off heavy stuff (like big ideas) in the interest of short-term survival. They are counting on those goofy-scary right-wing Republicans to preserve the Senate majority for Democrats.

Senator Sanders provocatively proposes a different question to consider. Who are the Democrats, anyway? What does the party actually stand for? The senator doesn’t put it that bluntly, but he slyly invites Democrats to ponder their own answers. If the elections results next month are razor-thin close and additional independent senators are elected, should Sanders continue to caucus with the Democrats or perhaps explore some other arrangement? The question gives Sanders a platform for describing what he wants in a political party. Here is his answer:

I intend to caucus with that party that will most likely support a major federal jobs program putting millions of Americans back to work rebuilding our rumbling infrastructure, supports overturning the disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision, supports raising the minimum wage to a living wage, supports pay equity for women workers, supports a single-payer national health care program, ends our disastrous trade policies, addresses the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality, and is prepared to aggressively address the international crisis of global warming.

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His response is a bit of a tease, as the senator coyly acknowledged. “I could be wrong,” Sanders added, “but my guess is that will not be the Republican party.”

Nor does it sound like the Democratic party we have known for many years. Senator Sanders has given us an excellent litmus test for choosing a presidential nominee in 2016 but also for imposing fundamental changes on the risk-averse Democratic party. We are told to be “ready for Hillary,” but is Hillary ready for us? People should start asking her how she reacts to Bernie’s list. He succinctly describes many of the missing parts of what a genuinely progressive agenda will require. For the time being, call it “Bernie’s Party” and find out who will sign up.

Read Next: Did Elizabeth Warren just change her tune on running for president?

Why Jim Webb Could be Hillary Clinton’s Worst Nightmare

Jim Webb

Jim Webb speaks at a rally for President Obama in 2012 (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

When Jim Webb announced he is thinking seriously about running for president in 2016, it did not exactly excite hearts and minds among the Beltway crowd. The former senator from Virginia was widely regarded as an odd duck who does his own thinking, stubbornly goes his own way. He dropped out of electoral politics after one term in the Senate and resumed his successful career as a writer. Webb’s best-selling novel, Fields of Fire, captured the reality of “the blood-soaked battlefields” of Vietnam where he had fought as a young Marine platoon leader.

When others of his generation were mounting massive protests against that war, Webb was throwing grenades at up close Vietcong fighters trying to kill him and his men. He was wounded twice in battle. He was awarded the Navy Cross for his extraordinary heroism. After Vietnam, Webb wrote books and continued his scholarly studies of war-making and national defense. Ronald Reagan appointed him secretary of the Navy though Webb is a working-class Democrat, descended from hardscrabble country people in Arkansas.

Instead of becoming more hawkish as defense intellectuals often do when they acquire status and influence, Jim Webb has become more skeptical and critical of how US military force is being used and misused. His biography is what gives his candidacy potential significance. It is not that he has much likelihood of winning the nomination, but Webb has a chance to do something far greater for the country. Given his resume and valor in war, Webb has the authority (and the guts) to provoke a profound national debate about the nature of US militarism.

Given the events dragging the United States toward wider war, Americans surely need to hear his insights and arguments. Most politicians and military leaders would not dare touch Webb’s assertions. Their patriotism would be questioned, their careers likely ruined. But no one can challenge Webb’s patriotism or suggest he is driven by careerist ambitions. Military people, both the uniformed ranks and veterans, could recognize Webb is speaking for them and their patriotic commitments. People on the anti-war left, if they listen carefully, can see how Webb’s vision could give political traction to their ideas for shrinking the war-making engine.

Webb’s unique perspective may be familiar to political insiders or readers of his books but probably not to the broad public. Seven months before George Bush’s invasion of Iraq, Jim Webb prophetically warned against it. “Those who are pushing for a unilateral war in Iraq know full well that there is no exit strategy if we invade,” Webb wrote in The Washington Post. Twelve years later he is still right. Webb called Bush’s war “the greatest strategic blunder in modern memory.”

In 2007, Chris Matthews dubbed him “the anti-war warrior.” That’s a clever label, but it fundamentally misconstrued Jim Webb’s position. He is not anti-war in the classical sense—war fought for history’s long-established justifications or real threats to the nation. What Webb opposes are reckless and limitless interventions the United States has initiated during the post–Cold War era of the last three decades.

Presidents of both parties, including Barack Obama, have strayed from the old principles and the country has been deeper into foreign conflicts without clear purpose or strategy. “It is not a healthy thing when the most powerful and capable nation on earth has a foreign policy based on vagueness,” Webb observed. He had in mind George W. Bush but also Obama’s vague purpose in entering the bloody civil war in Syria. “There is no such thing,” Webb has asserted, as “humanitarian war,” a feel-good concept popularized by some of Obama’s national security advisors. Webb has not challenged Obama’s authority to bomb Syria but “the question of [his] judgment will remain to be seen.”

Webb has laid down caveats for foreign interventions that probably would have kept the United States out of some wars if political and military leaders had listened to him. “An important caveat on how our country should fight the terrorists if they are a direct threat to our national security is: do not occupy foreign territory.” Another Webb warning: “Never get involved in a five-sided argument.” Obama has stumbled into one in the Middle East, unable to state firmly who is on our side and who is our enemy.

A glimpse of Webb’s broader intellectual framework can be found online in the stirring book review he wrote for The American Scholar in praise of historian Andrew Bacevich’s seminal work The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War. Bacevich and Webb disagree on some points in the critique but they are kindred spirits. Both served in Vietnam, both have sons who went to war in Iraq. Bacevich’s son, Andrew, a 27-year-old platoon leader, was killed there by a suicide bomber. Father and son share the same fate of “picking the wrong war at the wrong time,” the professor wrote afterwards.

Webb saluted Bacevich’s book for describing the confusion and corruption of military values that followed Vietnam and for revealing the profound confrontation within the military institution itself. “One side,” Webb explained, “is represented heavily by those with a classical training in America’s past wars (and frequently with experience in having fought them) who would send American forces into harm’s way only if the nation is directly threatened. The other side is dominated by a group of theorists, most of whom have never seen the inside of a military uniform, who adhere to an essentially Trotskyite notion that America should be exporting its ideology around the world at the point of a gun.”

This buried conflict in national purpose is the essence of America’s dilemma in the world—a self-made trap in which the nation can neither win the endless, borderless conflicts nor get free of the impossible obligations claimed for the US military. As a presidential candidate, Jim Webb would be uniquely positioned to bring this confrontation out of the shadows. He could teach people how to understand the real choices the US faces in its foreign policy and national defense. Like many Vienam veterans, both Webb and Bacevich still harbor smoldering resentment toward their peers who avoided military service. Efforts to reeducate the public are not likely to succeed if they simply revives bitter arguments that divided their generation forty years ago.

Webb’s ideas may sound old-fashioned but are actually about changing the future. My expectations for him may just be wishful thinking. But in the broad sweep of American history this is often how fundamental change has occurred. Disruptive new thinking does not usually come from the top down but more often is put in play by fearless individuals like Webb who think for themselves and are sure the people will be with them once they understand what’s at stake. This requires political skills that Webb may or may not have. How does he make himself heard if big media ignores his message?

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Jim Webb, I acknowledge, is probably not going to become our next president. But he has the possibility of becoming a pivotal messenger. I think of him as a vanguard politician—that rare type who is way out ahead of conventional wisdom and free to express big ideas the media herd regards as taboo. With luck, the country might have two such characters in the 2016 primaries—Jim Webb and Bernie Sanders. In different ways, both are expressing unsanctioned ideas that Americans need to hear.

If you follow media chatter, the 2016 contest is already decided for Democrats. The people are ready for Hillary, we are told repeatedly. She has staked out a pro-war position more hawkish than the president’s but smartly aligned with the public’s current enthusiasm for more bombing in the Middle East. But how might folks feel two years from now? Will they turn against war and warrior politicians If plans and promises go unfulfilled? If this new war also begins to seem interminable?

Albert Hunt of Bloomberg, a wise old head in the Washington press corps, offered this forecast: “Jim Webb could be Hillary Clinton’s worst nightmare.”

 

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Why Threats Against Obama Speak Volumes on Race in America

Secret Service

Secret Service officers patrol the White House. (AP photo/ Evan Vucci) 

Reading details of the Secret Service’s failure to protect the president, I was jolted by a sudden premonition. Our country is once again risking “the fire next time.” James Baldwin’s dreadful prophecy—a phrase he borrowed from an old Negro spiritual—was published in 1963 when the civil rights movement was approaching its climactic triumph. Yet the novelist’s resonant warning came true a few years later. Cities across America were in flames. This is not a prediction of what is coming, but my fear. We should talk candidly about this risk before it is too late.

Let me be explicit about what I imagine might occur. If something bad should happen to hurt President Obama or his family, the “fire” could be ignited again by people’s rage and sorrow. Some will object that my warning is inflammatory, but I see silence as a greater danger.

The basic fact is this: there are demented Americans who do want to harm the president and have repeatedly threatened his life. Nobody knows how many or how dangerous they might be. Threats are a standard circumstance for the presidency, but the alarming difference is that threats against Barack Obama have been three times higher than for his predecessors, according to The Washington Post, which first revealed the Secret Service lapses. The explanation is obvious. This president is black, so is his family.

“Michelle Obama has spoken publicly about fearing for her family’s safety since her husband became the nation’s first black president,” Post reporter Carol Leonnig wrote. “Her concerns are well-founded. President Obama has faced three times as many threats as his predecessors, according to people briefed on the Secret Service’s threat assessment.”

After the Post reported this elevated risk assessment, The New York Times was told by a Secret Service spokesman that the threats against Obama have subsequently subsided to more typical levels. Given recent episodes in which the agency withheld embarrassing facts, even from the president, it is hard to judge which estimate to trust.

My larger point is this: the country is again becoming a racial tinderbox. We have witnessed many warning signs in places like Ferguson, Missouri, where another white cop shot an unarmed black teenager. Politicians mostly look the other way, perhaps fearful of provoking stronger emotions. But some politicians have actively encouraged racist resentments. The political system is implicated in stoking social discontents, white and black, because it has been unwilling (or unable) to do anything about the economic distress. It feels as though the society is stymied too, people waiting sullenly for some triggering event that might express their pain and anger.

Specifically, I accuse the Republican Party of adroitly exploiting racial tensions in the age of Obama in order to mobilize its electoral base and gain political advantage. Black Americans know what I mean. They have endured such political tactics for many generations. Indeed, as black leaders told Peter Baker of The New York Times, many African-American citizens are suspicious of the Secret Service failures that exposed the black president to danger.

When Barack Obama was elected six years ago, I wrote a short editorial for The Nation, “This Proud Moment,” that celebrated his historic achievement and the country’s. “Racism will not disappear entirely,” it said, “but the Republican “Southern Strategy’ that marketed racism has been smashed.” That seemed true at the time, but now sounds foolishly premature.

The Republican Party has not given up on racism. It has developed new ways to play the “race card” without ever mentioning race. With Obama in the White House, the GOP does not need to run TV ads featuring “black hands” taking jobs from “white hands” or the one that shows Willie Horton, the black rapist. Obama’s own face on television is sufficient. It reminds hard-core supporters why they hate the man.

Instead of obvious race-baiting, the GOP plan was to demonize Barack Obama right from the start. He was portrayed as an alien being, a strange character and not truly an American. Maybe he was African like his absent Kenyan father. Where is the birth certificate? And he’s a socialist like those foreigners in Europe. Iowa Senator Charles Grassley revealed that Obama’s health care reform includes “death panels” that will decide when old people must die. The half-baked Donald Trump was invited to Republican forums to mock the black guy.

When the “birther” movement ran out of steam, the ideological accusations hardened in its place. Fox News and other TV talkers upped the ante. Obama wasn’t just a political issue. The black guy was a threat to America’s survival as a nation of free people. The “takers” were the lazy Americans (read: blacks on welfare) who lived off virtuous Republicans who are the “makers.”

Barack Obama was uniquely prepared to liberate politics from its racial taboos, and he had the courage to try. He had grown up biracial and at home in both cultures. He understood that he could not prevail if he became the “black candidate,” since that would inflame some voters and make the election about race. Obama adroitly avoided that pit—but perhaps did not anticipate that white Republicans would find ways to demonize anyway. He kept searching sincerely for compromise. They kept pinning inflammatory labels on him.

The clearest evidence that agitating racial malice was the Republican subtext for brutally disparaging Obama’s intelligence, character and loyalty was reflected in the behavior of their Senate leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. On the eve of Obama’s first inauguration, McConnell informed fellow Republican senaors that there would be no working relationship with the Democratic president—none. The GOP would oppose everything and block every measure the White House proposed.

“If he was for it, we had to be against it,” said Senator George Voinivich of Ohio. “All he cared about was making sure Obama could never have a clean victory.” Vice President Joe Biden, who presided in the Senate, was taken aback by McConnell’s hard line. It crippled the Obama presidency, but also did great damage to the country. Biden heard from seven Republican senators who told him the same thing. They said, “Joe, I’m not going to be able to help you on anything. We can’t let you succeed.”

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This take-no-prisoners strategy does not by itself prove that McConnell was purposely agitating racial resentments but the fact that his leadership style was so stubborn and single-minded suggests that Republicans had committed to a strategy that would exploit the racial memory of white Southerners and other conservatives. McConnell was not himself racist when I knew him slightly in the early 1970s, when he was then a young staffer on Capitol Hill and an upfront liberal Republican, especially on civil rights. I expect his views on race are not changed.

But as a white Southerner, he cannot claim to be ignorant of what he was doing. With his hard-nosed strategy, McConnell was shamefully agitating old racial stereotypes, hoping to make the black guy a one-term president. He failed at that, but he still poisoned the political atmosphere for the country. I am not accusing the Republican Party and its leaders of plotting to harm the president physically. I am accusing them of deliberately inflaming racist attitudes that might inspire others to commit malicious acts by others. They deserve shame, however the elections turn out.

Even more shameful in my book, the Supreme Court and its right-wing majority have collaborated in this partisan effort, aiding and abetting the Republican party’s racial politics. The Justices Roberts, Kennedy, Scalia, Thomas and Alito are, measure by measure, destroying rights that citizens won in years of hard struggle. In the process, they are also destroying the Court’s honorable reputation.

The party of Lincoln moved south forty years ago and embraced the die-hard remnants of white supremacy. The country will not restore two-party representative democracy until the southern segs are once again overcome.

 

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