Archive | January, 2010

Obama’s Moment

30 Jan

It’s like the media wasn’t listening to a word President Obama said during his respectful and compelling dialogue with the House Republican Caucus yesterday.  Immediately, MSNBC, DailyKos, Huffington Post, and the left-of-center blogs began bleating about the President slaying lions and eviscerating his critics and taking it to the Republicans.  The right wing chatter (aside from RNC Sponsored Fox News) seemed to be shockingly open minded about the whole affair, including right wing demagogue Michelle Malkin.

What happened yesterday mattered and not just a little bit.  It mattered because it was not only great political theater, but because it was the first honest dialogue we’ve had about our national issues in quite some time.  It was the manifestation of what Andrew Sullivan wrote about Obama and his potential Presidency in December of 2007.

Obama’s candidacy in this sense is a potentially transformational one. Unlike any of the other candidates, he could take America—finally—past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us. So much has happened in America in the past seven years, let alone the past 40, that we can be forgiven for focusing on the present and the immediate future.

At its best, the Obama candidacy is about ending a war—not so much the war in Iraq, which now has a mo­mentum that will propel the occupation into the next decade—but the war within America that has prevailed since Vietnam and that shows dangerous signs of intensifying, a nonviolent civil war that has crippled America at the very time the world needs it most. It is a war about war—and about culture and about religion and about race. And in that war, Obama—and Obama alone—offers the possibility of a truce.

Obama’s constant efforts towards bipartisanship can be intensely frustrating for liberals to watch.  I often want him to govern from the left and stop with his pandering to the center or his outreach to Conservatives who simply slap his hand away.  However, Obama seems to sense that further dividing ourselves along deeply partisan lines will only destabilize our republic beyond repair.  Perhaps he is right.  Maybe we need to change the tone of the debate to get to a point where we can have real discussions about left and right politics.

What he is right about is that this nation is in desperate need of serious discussion about issues of import.  We no longer have the luxury of the extreme in our government.  We need respectable debate about our national defense, economic system, long term entitlement costs and our general national priorities.

As in the SOTU, he addressed partisan political statements with his own, but then asked to change the tone.  Obama was trying to coach the Republicans to be more careful with their tone as they are backing themselves into a corner from which it is almost impossible to govern.  If they tell their constituents that Obama is dangerous and essentially out to destroy America, how can they then explain that they decided to support an idea Obama advanced that might be centrist and practical?  They can’t.

We’ve got to be careful about what we say about each other sometimes, because it boxes us in in ways that makes it difficult for us to work together, because our constituents start believing us.

Based on Obama’s actions in the past couple of weeks, it seems like he might have finally gotten around to reading The Art of War.  I’m intrigued by many of the parallels in his current strategy with themes from Sun Tzu’s tome…especially these ones, keep them in mind when you think of the State of The Union address, his meeting with the Republican Caucus and what will surely unfold in the coming weeks:

To a surrounded enemy you must leave a way of escape

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

and most importantly…

For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.

We’ll see if Obama can continue with his efforts to improve the debate and smarten up our politics.  Hopefully, he’ll also make a visit to the Progressive Caucus and make this interaction a semi-annual affair.

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RIP Gabrielle Bouliane

30 Jan

There is an old proverb which reads, “Death cancels everything but truth.”   Gabrielle, a passionate artist and Buffalo expat, has passed after a battle with cancer.  She left some words of wisdom behind for us to remember.

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Truth

The Peace Bridge Post for 2010

29 Jan

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Yes, we need a new Peace Bridge.

Why?

Because the 90 year-old steel thing we have now is unsafe.

I realize that we’re talking about a companion span and not a replacement, but a replacement wouldn’t hurt anyone’s feelings now, would it?

All done discussion about Peace Bridge. You go build now.

Otherwise, we may end up with a Lake Champlain Bridge situation:

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How to Eat Like a Child, Redux

29 Jan

Andrew Breitbart, chief sponsor/benefactor of “Liddy Jr.” James O’Keefe III, shows how to argue like a 3 year-old. And I don’t mean that as a joke. I literally mean that’s how a petulant, immature little child argues. Changing the subject, repeating the same unpersuasive line over and over, and otherwise behaving like a petulant twat*.

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*twat is funnier and possibly mildly less offensive when pronounced as the British do, so it rhymes with “at”. Not the American way where it rhymes with “rot”. Thank you.

Obama and Alito

29 Jan

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The Supreme Court is a co-equal branch of government. It is not a delicate menagerie of ultra-fragile prices and princesses who are above the law, above reproach, above criticism, above anything.

The Court majority’s recent decision in Citizens United may be constitutionally valid, but that doesn’t make it right or good. As Obama quite correctly pointed out, that holding will result in unlimited corporate political advocacy without restriction on time, money, or message. Yet corporations don’t have the vote, and their personhood is a convenient legal fiction and nothing more.

For Obama to have criticized the decision as bad for our political system is perfectly valid. The notion that the delicate Court is above criticism at the hands of a President is as ridiculous as suggesting that the Congress is above criticism or discussion in that venue. Every time a Republican President stood up at a State of the Union address and criticized Roe v. Wade, that was the same damn thing, and no one batted an eye.

Because it’s perfectly valid for the chief executive to criticize the judiciary, and vice-versa.

By the same token, it’s no secret that the Court has become supremely politicized in the last few decades. I find nothing wrong with Justice Alito shaking his head or mouthing something back at Obama. Hell, let them stand and cheer if they want to. Decorum for decorum’s sake is stupid, and we should stop playing make-believe.

Money

29 Jan

Adama makes a good point in this post about the difference between progressive activists and conservative ones.

Conservative activists, agitators, and provacateurs can find easy funding and comfortable subsidies from everyone from creepy parafascist billionaires to deep pocketed business interests.

Progressive activists, for the most part, don’t have a pot to piss in. Some wealthy donors fund certain projects – George Soros comes to mind – but there’s no liberal version of douche vandal James O’Keefe III.

Spitzer Comes Clean

29 Jan

At first, I didn’t like Eliot Spitzer.  I liked Tom Suozzi until Spitzer inevitably kicked his ass in the primary.  Then, I gave Spitzer another look.

I had hopes that Eliot Spitzer, the politician, would match up to Eliot Spitzer, the candidate.

Turns out, he wasn’t the politician or the man we thought he was.

Spitzer is a flawed guy, but he’s still a smart analyst and a damn good interview.  Now that he has nothing to gain nor anything to lose, he’s much more interesting to me than he was in those slick Jimmy Siegel campaign commercials back in 2006.  My favorite of those ads?  This one:

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I digress…

In an introspective and compelling interview, Spitzer talks about the financial meltdown, “too big to fail”, Kirsten Gillibrand, David Paterson, advice for Democrats, his own failings and whether he wears socks while banging hookers.  If you can hang with the lengthy interview, it’s worth it.

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I’ll be straight, if he ran for Governor in 2010, I’d vote for him.  Yes, our other options are that bad.

Screwed!

28 Jan

You wouldn’t know it from the grand-standing and glad-handing reported in today’s Buffalo News, but New York just got screwed.

$2.5 billion, a down payment on $45 billion, to Nancy Pelosi’s California.

$1.25 billion to connect Tampa and Orlando, 4.7 million people, in swing state Florida.

$1 billion to connect Chicago and St Louis, 12.5 million people, in the President’s home state of Illinois.

$400 million to connect Columbus and Cleveland, 4.6 million people, in swing state Ohio.

$151 million to connect 22 million people in New York.

If that’s not a slap in the face, I don’t know what is. My (albeit tenuous) support of Rep Louise Slaughter has hinged on her leading the charge for High Speed Rail in New York. I may disagree with her on nearly everything else, but I believe the high speed rail opportunity overshadowed the rest.

She has failed, and we should be in the market for a new representative. $151 million is a pitiful and paltry amount of money that should make it obvious to everyone that high speed rail is not coming to our community anytime soon.

“I think this is wonderful,” said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, who organized the 11-member Upstate New York Caucus early last year to push the rail project.

“I was hoping for a half-billion, but I’m happy with what we got. They’re not going to start it and not finish it, and I’m going to make sure of that.”

Yeah, I’m not sure about that. The money goes for maintenance and repair, to keep the status quo, and little new construction. In fact, the only money coming to WNY itself is to make the Depew Amtrak station compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act – shouldn’t it have been already? Florida, California, Illinois, and Ohio got sums that ensured the job would get done. New York got a sum that ensures the trip from Buffalo to NYC will be 8 hours for many years to come.

Rep Chris Lee, who has been getting high marks for his freshman term, joined Rep Slaughter in this initiative. Is he going to call a spade a spade, and be the only member of the delegation to admit we got screwed? We’ll see.

Obama 2.0

28 Jan

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On Tuesday, WBEN’s Dave Debo called me and asked what I thought Obama had to do during his SOTU speech yesterday.  I don’t think it made it to air because the Collins withdrawal took over the news cycle.  My take was that Obama had to reassure people that we were on the right track, reassert himself into the political process, and remind people that change and progress aren’t easy.  

Clearly the Massachusetts Senate results have people spooked – or cheered, depending on who they are.  While a 100,000 vote margin in an election in which almost 4 million people cast votes isn’t as big a deal as people are making it out to be, it is significant in the Senate.

In recent history, Presidents have followed a cliched pattern when delivering state of the union addresses.  They recite the prior year’s successes, gloss over the defeats, and set forth a legislative agenda for the year to come.  Obama did that to a certain degree, but he is in a rather unique position.

While the Democrats have majorities in both the House and Senate, not all Democratic Senators are there to help push Obama’s agenda.  The Republican opposition has made the tactical decision to basically act like Obama isn’t president.  They will filibuster everything, give an inch on nothing.  Obama can scold them all he wants about how that is not the hallmark of a functioning democracy, and how saying “no” to everything is not leadership, but they don’t care.

That’s why they remained seated even when Obama called for such typically Republican platform planks as tax cuts, capital gains tax cuts for business, incentives for entrepreneurship, the notion that TARP recipients should pay the money back, and innovation in green energy.  The only items that I saw them cheer for were calls to drill for more oil, (because God forbid we invest in technologies that will move us away from fossil fuels), and nuclear power.

But much as Bush liked to portray himself as a “war president”, Obama is not just that, but also a president who has to preside over an economy obliterated by what he called the “lost decade” where savings, home values, incomes, and investments all stayed the same or went down.

Obama inherited a late 2008 descent into economic depression.  With the help of TARP and a watered-down stimulus which included the largest tax cuts in American history, we avoided depression and instead are trying to dig out of a very deep recession.

Many were predicting that Obama would strike a more populist tone last night, but I didn’t really hear it.  He certainly glossed over health insurance reform, giving it almost no time, but thankfully exhorted Democrats not to run in retreat.  Yes, he wants a jobs bill.  Yes, he wants more investment in smaller businesses and extension of credit to those businesses.  Yes, he would take the $30 billion from TARP repayments and use them to invest in, and stimulate small business.  But he did acknowledge the fact that people have somewhat short memories about the deficit and spending:

So let me start the discussion of government spending by setting the record straight. At the beginning of the last decade, America had a budget surplus of over $200 billion. By the time I took office, we had a one year deficit of over $1 trillion and projected deficits of $8 trillion over the next decade. Most of this was the result of not paying for two wars, two tax cuts and an expensive prescription drug program. On top of that, the effects of the recession put a $3 trillion hole in our budget. That was before I walked in the door.

Now if we had taken office in ordinary times, I would have liked nothing more than to start bringing down the deficit. But we took office amid a crisis, and our efforts to prevent a second depression have added another $1 trillion to our national debt.

I am absolutely convinced that was the right thing to do. But families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same. So tonight, I’m proposing specific steps to pay for the $1 trillion that it took to rescue the economy last year.

Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years. Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will not be affected. But all other discretionary government programs will. Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don’t. And if I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will.

We will continue to go through the budget line by line to eliminate programs that we can’t afford and don’t work. We’ve already identified $20 billion in savings for next year. To help working families, we will extend our middle-class tax cuts. But at a time of record deficits, we will not continue tax cuts for oil companies, investment fund managers and those making over $250,000 a year. We just can’t afford it.

When he called for changes to the student loan system, Obama said that, “no one should go broke because they chose to go to college”.  Democrats cheered.  Republicans sat silently.  Republicans want people to go broke?  WTF?

When he called for deficit reduction, he brought up not only the gimmicky spending freeze on discretionary spending (for which Republicans remained seated and silent), but also made the case for health insurance reform by stating that healthcare is a big chunk of that deficit in future years.  He pleaded with Congress that we must stop shunting costs to future generations.

I campaigned on the promise of change — change we can believe in, the slogan went. And right now, I know there are many Americans who aren’t sure if they still believe we can change — or at least, that I can deliver it.

But remember this — I never suggested that change would be easy or that I can do it alone. Democracy in a nation of 300 million people can be noisy and messy and complicated. And when you try to do big things and make big changes, it stirs passions and controversy. That’s just how it is.

Those of us in public office can respond to this reality by playing it safe and avoid telling hard truths. We can do what’s necessary to keep our poll numbers high and get through the next election instead of doing what’s best for the next generation.

As he delivered that line, he was looking right at the Republican side of the aisle.  They remained seated.

Because Obama needs to cut the bipartisan thing.  I think his gentle scolding of the Republicans on the filibuster issue, and telling them that just saying “no” to everything is not leadership sets him up to be the grownup in the room, but in the end the Republican platform is to (a) oppose Obama; (b) despise Obama; and (c) betray their core beliefs and policy positions in aid of (a) and (b).

But what frustrates the American people is a Washington where every day is election day. We cannot wage a perpetual campaign where the only goal is to see who can get the most embarrassing headlines about their opponent — a belief that if you lose, I win. Neither party should delay or obstruct every single bill just because they can. The confirmation of well-qualified public servants should not be held hostage to the pet projects or grudges of a few individual senators. Washington may think that saying anything about the other side, no matter how false, is just part of the game. But it is precisely such politics that has stopped either party from helping the American people. Worse yet, it is sowing further division among our citizens and further distrust in our government.

So no, I will not give up on changing the tone of our politics. I know it’s an election year. And after last week, it is clear that campaign fever has come even earlier than usual. But we still need to govern. To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills. And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions. So let’s show the American people that we can do it together. This week, I’ll be addressing a meeting of the House Republicans. And I would like to begin monthly meetings with both the Democratic and Republican leadership. I know you can’t wait.

While the policy proposals were sort of all over the map, mixing liberal agenda items with traditionally conservative ones, as well, none of this will matter when it comes to congress.  If the past year has revealed anything, it’s that congress and the legislative process in Washington is pretty dysfunctional.  Special interests and petty political concerns tend to trump any discussion of whether policy being debated is good for the country.

As a special aside, during a recitation of changes he’d propose to make government more responsible and accountable, he criticized the recent Citizens United SCOTUS decision, predicting that it would open the floodgates for special interests to assert themselves in the political process in a more wide-reaching and insidious way, with unlimited money being used even by foreign corporate entities.  Rarely has a President taken on the Court in such an address.  Rarely has a Supreme Court Justice, in this case Alito, reacted by shaking his head and mouthing, “it’s not true”.

I think the speech’s tone was good, the proposals were good, and I think he managed to reassure people that his agenda will help them, reassert himself as a leader, and remind everyone of what he’s trying to do. Clearly, in 2010, jobs will be the main focus – not health care.

Obama missed the opportunity to explain how the two might be inextricably linked.

Let’s see how year two goes.

Lynn Marinelli Interview

25 Jan

As part of our ongoing interview series with Erie County Legislators, Marc and I turned our camera on Legislator Lynn Marinelli.  We spent about an hour with her and covered dozens of topics ranging from the “reform coalition” to the pending budget crisis in Erie County.

We’re asking each legislator the same basic set of questions and we hope through this interview series, you can juxtapose the responses from each and get a feeling for what’s important to them and get a perspective on their ideas for governance and politicking.

After we got through the basic set of questions about the “reform coalition”, reductions in urban-centric service programs, urban/suburban divide issues, regional planning/coordination, and general politics, we went with a few additional questions about the ECIDA, Collins for Governor and the upcoming decision to maintain or repeal the municipal share of the additional sales tax levied in 2005.

There was a lot of ground covered and it was pretty tough to edit the interview down to under 10 minutes, but I think we got most of the important topics covered.

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We’re scheduling an interview with Legislator Kozub later this week and we hope to hear back soon from Legislators Hardwick and Rath.  If you have questions you’d like us to look into, let us know in the comments section.