Monday, September 30, 2013

Simply Ridiculous

As our staff gathered up research and discussed today's commentary idea, the fact that the U.S. federal government is less than twenty-four hours from a completely unnecessary shutdown was on everyone's mind.

As much as the right-wing media has spent the weekend trying to complicate the reasons for this fight, writer Kevin Drum on Friday nailed - in one sentence - the simple reason why Congressional Republicans are about to shut down the government:
"The Republican Party is bending its entire will, staking its very soul, fighting to its last breath, in service of a crusade to make sure that the working poor don't have access to affordable health care."
Drum was right, of course, as was The Washington Post's Greg Sargent when he said something similar on Friday.

Sargent in fact, recently proved there is no real Republican alternative to Obamacare, even more than three years after the law's passage. That fact, however, hasn't kept Republican clowns - like Nebraska's entire congressional delegation - from trying to convince the gullible rubes who elected them that Republicans have any alternatives, or that a government shutdown could, in any way, stop Obamacare.

For the record, Obamacare has already been rolling for three years now, and a shutdown of the federal government isn't going to stop the health insurance exchange markets from opening on Tuesday around most of the country. Further, a delay in the rollout of the individual mandate like Republicans in Congress are demanding would actually cost Americans billions. As Tara Culp-Ressler points out, not only would it add to the national debt, it would also leave more Americans uninsured, while jacking up insurance premiums for ALL Americans by an estimated 15 to 20 percent.

All of these arguments become moot however, when you look at the facts behind both the shutdown, and the looming debt ceiling battle.

Republicans in Congress are acting like terrorists, effectively trying to force President Obama and Congressional Democrats into giving the GOP everything Republicans lost when they blew it in the 2012 elections. President Clinton even defended President Obama's refusal to be held hostage over the weekend, noting that it's Congressional Republicans who really have no intention of negotiating.

Clinton is right of course, as is conservative writer David Frum when he notes that this shutdown - like when the Republicans shut down the government under Clinton - will only politically damage the GOP. When Republicans financially hurt millions of Americans this time, we highly doubt it will win them more voter approval in 2014.

Of course, Republican stooges in Congress like Rep. Michele Bachmann - who is conveniently retiring from Congress - keep saying they don't fear a federal government shutdown. The Washington Post's Ezra Klein even said on Friday that a shutdown now might actually be good news, as a shutdown now might shock Republican freshman into being more responsible during the debt ceiling fight. That kind of thinking assumes the tea partiers holding the rest of the Republican Party hostage will listen and understand when they lose on the shutdown - something that Klein himself ended up arguing against over the weekend.

No matter how you look at it, two facts remain: Obamacare isn't going away, and the clowns in the GOP still don't have any real alternative to Obamacare.

That Republicans refuse to accept those two cold hard facts - potentially at the expense of millions of Americans and billions of dollars - is simply ridiculous.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Smashingly Bad Behavior

We feel like parents, coming home to children or pets who've destroyed our home - and each other - while we were away.

Multiple members of our staff have been traveling in different directions across the country this week, while we've been covering some heavyweight topics for you. We'd hoped the more sensible Congressional Republicans would have reined in their extremist colleagues in the GOP by now, and that at the very least a deal to keep the government open would be in the final stages of passage - so that everyone could enjoy a nice, relaxing weekend.

Looking at the news, however, it's obvious that Congressional Republicans don't give a damn what the plans of any other American is, either for this weekend or for the foreseeable future. Hostage takers rarely do.

As people all around the world witnessed this week, Republicans in both the House and the Senate have been far too busy, destroying each other and their own party, to handle their Congressional responsibilities - things like paying the bills they already ran up or ensuring the government has enough money to continue to operate.

That irresponsible behavior has even driven some on Wall Street like Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics to finally speak out against the Republicans in Congress, since either a government shutdown or a debt ceiling default will deal lasting economic damage to the nation - and to the bottom line of Wall Street corporations.

Unfortunately, Republicans in Congress are no longer listening to anyone on this issue - not Wall Street, not each other, not Congressional Democrats, and certainly not President Obama.

After delivering a ransom note on Thursday that read more like an ultraconservative letter to Santa, House Republicans and Speaker Boehner told the media they would not accept a 'clean' continuing resolution or debt ceiling increase from the Senate. That slap in the face to both Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid and Senate Republicans like Ted Cruz almost certainly means the U.S. federal government will shut down at one second after midnight next Monday into Tuesday night.

There are many on the right still begging and screaming for President Obama to negotiate with Congressional Republicans on both the CR and the debt ceiling.  We think those people must have forgotten that the President of the United States does not negotiate with terrorists - which is effectively what Congressional Republicans have become.

Still, the damage Republicans are doing to the government and attempting to do to the nation is nothing compared to the damage they are doing to each other and their own party.

For now, even though the debt ceiling deadline of October 17th still has us a bit worried, we realize there's nothing we can do to make the situation in Congress better. Even if there were an action we could take, after a week of work and travel, we're too tired to do anything other than slump down at home, catch up on our reading, and maybe take a nap.

When we wake up, we're sure the Republican Party will still be destroying itself, while the government burns around them.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Obamacare Rolls On

When this week's bit of theatre by Senator Ted Cruz was over on Wednesday, some of our colleagues in the media were almost disappointed that Cruz' absurdist performance piece was at an end. Personally, we thought both our popcorn and Cruz' shtick went stale long before he was ushered off the Senate floor. We were actually glad to see Sen. Cruz come back for an encore, when the Tea Party Senator from Texas joined his 99 other Senate colleagues in a hypocritical vote in favor of cloture - one of the things Cruz had just spent nearly a full day railing against.

Sure, folks like Ted Cruz get a lot of attention from the cable "news" channels, but the real news that caught our attention yesterday - along with that of many of our colleagues in the media - was published at midnight on Wednesday, when the Department of Health and Human Services released the latest details on what insurance premiums will look like under Obamacare - and the rates were far cheaper than anyone expected.

How much cheaper? As Igor Volsky of Think Progress noted, rates for health insurance look to be 16 percent lower, on average, than had been predicted across the nation. That average was already lower than current rate average rates for health insurance.

To say we were bowled over by that good news would be a bit much - though we had to think the extremist Republicans standing in the path of the rollout of Obamacare had to be terrified by that same information.

Jonathan Cohn at The New Republic went in-depth, outlining the details of several plans and family sizes thoroughly. What Cohn found was that not only are the costs for many plans lower, but the number and type of plans available to most Americans under Obamacare are also surprisingly large. Dylan Scott of TPM confirmed that, under Obamacare, 95 percent of Americans will be able to choose between two or more private health insurance carriers - which is more choice than many Americans have now.

While the rates for health insurance premiums vary, based on where you live, under Obamacare those rates look to be very manageable for most Americans, averaging $774 per month for a family of four that has an annual income above $94,200. For a family of four that earns around $50,000 a year, and receives subsidies under Obamacare, that monthly cost for health insurance drops to $282 or less per month in every state. Maggie Fox at NBC News even found that bare-bones health insurance for a family of four in Indianapolis could cost as little as $11 a month under Obamacare.

Many of the negative issues anti-Obamacare advocates have rumored about for months are now finally proving to be untrue, just in time for the next phase of Obamacare to click into place. As Rick Ungar of Forbes points out, Obamacare is turning out not to be a job killer after all. Further, as Rick Newman of Yahoo Finance notes, part-timers and other workers who are losing insurance through their workplaces look to be getting a better deal through Obamacare than many of them had access to through their jobs.

The fact is, the exchanges open up in less than a week, and while there look to be some relatively minor glitches as the program gets started - glitches that we're sure right-wing media will blow up into the next apocalyptic disaster - overall, Obamacare is already shaping up to be better than the system we've had.

Of course, we know at least one group that will still see this all positive news about health insurance costs as a disaster. Our recommendation to those unhappy extremists on the right is the same it's always been: Progress is rolling right toward you.

Either get with the program, or get out of its way.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Popcorn & Sympathy

As we began our discussions last night for today's commentary, our staff members had a good chuckle at the expense of Republican Senator Ted Cruz, as we're sure many people across the nation did. Cruz was foolishly yammering on about green eggs & ham and Nazis to a nearly empty Senate chamber in what some of our colleagues in the media began calling a "fauxlibuster" on Tuesday afternoon.

After all, since there was no bill up for debate on the floor of the U.S. Senate, what Sen. Cruz was doing cannot be accurately called a filibuster.

Cruz' actions, along with those of the heavily divided Republican Party, can be called many things, these days. 'Ridiculous' or 'disaster' - or if you're Steve Schmidt, former political strategist to the GOP - "asininity."As Schmidt noted in an interview this week, people like Cruz are "the freak show that’s been running wild for four years" that has hijacked both the Republican Party and the political right in America.

If America hadn't endured more than a decade of ginned up hatred, bigotry, misogyny, class warfare, at least one unnecessary war, and the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, all at the hands of the modern GOP, we might not be laughing so hard. We might even feel a little bit of sympathy for Republicans who are getting perpetually pounded these days by their own tea party partners.

The fact is, Americans have endured growing, explosive, divisive, right-wing abuse for nearly twenty years now. As the Republican Party is reduced to watching someone they hate like Sen. Ted Cruz usurp their own party's image, some Americans are content to sit back, grab some popcorn, and watch the Republican party fall apart.

After all, for those of us on the left, we've really got it pretty good right now.

Our party leader is not only the President, but is also an amazingly shrewd politician. After the Great Recession caused by his predecessor, President Obama and his economic team were able to stop the economic hemorrhaging and put the nation on a slow and steady path back to economic improvement. Even in the face of a potential shutdown and a potential debt ceiling default, investors on Wall Street don't seem to be worried about America defaulting on its bonds right now.

Some of Wall Street's corporate criminals also finally appear to be getting caught for their crimes - though that doesn't appear to have changed their arrogant attitudes yet. Universal health care is also about to go into effect for the first time ever in America, thanks to President Obama and Congressional Democrats.

President Obama may have delivered one of his most significant foreign policy addresses ever at the United Nations on Tuesday, as John Judis of The New Republic noted. America may even be on the verge of new peaceful relations with Iran, even as our nation helps restart once again the Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations.

No one is saying everything on the political left is perfect in America. Some farther left liberals still feel minimized and somewhat ignored compared to the currently dominant center-left progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Still, the Democratic Party has had some amazing successes over the past few years, mostly by having its broad variety of members work together for common goals.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party currently pushes its rising stars to audition for Fox, by pointlessly reading Dr. Seuss' rhymes into an empty Senate chamber, all while different factions of the GOP plot the rapid political demise of those same 'rising stars.'

We don't really have a whole lot of sympathy for the GOP right now, as we warned many of our Republican friends to stay away from the crazy far right many years ago, and they didn't listen. All we can do now is sit back and watch them destroy each other.

Pass the popcorn.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Going Down Swinging, Wildly

Even though much of the political media will be hyperventilating every day this week, and for the foreseeable future - or at least until both the Continuing Resolution and debt ceiling issues are settled - we honestly don't think there's that much to freak about, yet. As we noted last Friday, the Washington Post's Greg Sargent pretty much laid out the roadmap for how the CR will move around Capitol Hill this week, and so far, he's been right.

Even before the week began, it was obvious that the efforts of the arrogant, self-absorbed, Ivy League tea party Republican Sen. Ted Cruz would fail. As expected, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid began using the Senate rules on Monday to clean the CR, and send it back to the House.

Not surprisingly, neither the rules or reality stopped Cruz from wildly swinging around his ludicrous and increasingly desperate ideas to "defund Obamacare", as he did in his Monday op-ed at Real Clear Politics. Those unrealistic ideas, however, only served to give his fellow Republicans a splitting political headache that succeeded in calling even more attention to the ongoing civil war within the Republican Party.

All this wild flailing by Congressional Republicans wouldn't be nearly so bad if they were simply willing to admit publicly what other well-known members of their party like former Sen. Judd Gregg or writer Josh Barro already have: That the Obamacare "defunders" are playing Russian roulette with their own party, and Republicans still don't have a real, passable alternative to Obamacare, three-and-a-half years after President Obama and Democrats passed their plan into law.

For their part, the American people are overwhelmingly not interested in defunding Obamacare, as a CNBC poll on Monday stated - and Greg Sargent confirmed through a stack of other polls. Only the radical extremist tea party types on the far right still want to shut down the government - an action that wouldn't stop the further implementation of Obamacare even if they were successful. In fact, as Annie Lowrey pointed out Monday afternoon, a federal government shutdown wouldn't affect mandatory spending - including Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, and unemployment insurance, among other government priorities.

There are a few noticeable items that would stop, though.

Unlike when the Republicans shut down the government in the mid-1990s, the military appropriations bill has yet to pass this time - so all members of the military will stop receiving paychecks immediately, if the government shuts down. They'll still be required to work - they just won't get their pay right away.

For Americans living in DC itself, the stench of a shutdown could get bad real quick, as garbage collection would also immediately shut down in our nation's capitol.

Still, as bad as a temporary government shutdown might seem, the looming battle over the debt ceiling is far more worrisome for us, and for anyone who truly understands the situation in Washington. That includes President Obama, who has made it abundantly clear that he will not be held hostage by Congressional Republicans this time over their responsibility to pay the debts Congress has already accrued - which is what the debt ceiling is.

If Republicans continue waving around suicidal actions over the debt ceiling like they'e doing now over the potential government shutdown, we'll be very worried then. For now, we continue watching fools like Sen. Cruz going down, swinging wildly, only politically injuring his own party members.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The New Normal

This weekend, while the Emmys rolled, and football teams did too, the news rolled on too, both in America and around the world. Not surprisingly, much of the depth of that news was missed by the major television news organizations, as is too often the case these days.

Sure, the TV news channels all covered the impending federal government shutdown that Congressional Republicans will be solely responsible for, should it occur. Many of them also covered the horrible terrorist attack at a retail shopping mall in Kenya - the kind of terrorist attack many Americans still fear here.  However, other than a wholly biased pro-gun segment on NBC's Meet The Press with the NRA's Wayne LaPierre, one of the most important events of last week was only really touched on in cliches on most TV "news" this weekend.

President Obama on Sunday, at the Memorial Service for the twelve Americans murdered at the Navy Yard in Washington, DC a week ago today, had to once again do both his job and the job our American news media should have been doing this weekend.

As the President addressed the memorial service, he asked them, and the nation, to not let these kinds of shootings become the new normal. He also addressed our collective reactions too - most notably, legislators who spout promises to do something, then effectively dump dead legislation as a weak memorial to the recently murdered.

"I fear there's a creeping resignation that this is somehow the new normal," President Obama said at the memorial service on Sunday. Events like the mass shooting last week, "ought to obsess us, it ought to lead to some sort of transformation." Indeed, the President even asked the question no member of the news seems to have had the courage to ask.

"The question is do we care enough," to actually DO something, the President asked.

As we've noted on these pages previously, it isn't as though most Americans don't want the kind of sensible, moderate gun safety reforms President Obama has called for again and again. As a poll by noted conservative and past NRA supporter Frank Luntz confirmed last year, nearly ninety percent of non-NRA gun owners, and seventy-four percent of NRA member gun owners do support requiring comprehensive background checks on ALL gun sales.

In fact, as recently recalled Colorado state senator Angela Giron pointed out in the Washington Post over the weekend, the kind of background checks most Americans want were implemented earlier this year in Colorado - and have already denied 28 criminals in her own state who might otherwise have purchased a gun.

Nationwide, however, our gun safety laws are still too open and incomplete.

As the details behind last week's Navy Yard shooter showed, that incomplete system partially worked to stop the Navy Yard shooter from getting an assault rifle. Our mental health care system also partially treated him. 'Partially' was obviously not good enough, though - something we've always said 'partially' never will be.

Nearly a year ago, in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shootings, we outlined five major components of gun violence, and noted that America must do better on all of them. For each of those components to work, they must interact with one another efficaciously - and each must also work thoroughly on its own.

While the President is correct, that we must do something, we also must make sure what we do in the service of gun safety is done completely, properly, and fully - in spite of those Congress members who are perpetually beholden to the gun manufacturer's lobby.

If we simply throw up more ineffectual gun laws, the new normal won't be just that we should still expect more mass shooting deaths in America. It will be that we'll have accepted half-assing everything in America is okay.

It's not.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Time For A Little Dancing

Our staff members have rarely been more excited about having a couple days away from the ridiculousness of the political world than we do this weekend - a feeling we bet you've had about your job, at least once or twice in your life.

It's not as though we're worried something unusual is going to happen in Congress over the weekend. House Republicans are already following the script that Greg Sargent forecast they would on Wednesday. The Hill's Alexander Bolton also confirmed on Thursday afternoon that the plan Greg described appears to be falling into place.

As of this morning, that plan looks like this. The House will likely vote today to send the Senate a Continuing Resolution with several pieces of legislation attached that neither Senate Democrats or President Obama would ever allow to pass, including language on the Keystone XL pipeline and the defunding of Obamacare.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will then use a procedural move to strip that tea party extremist language from the bill, in a way that will let Senate Republicans vote against Obamacare, while still losing the final vote to Senate Democrats anyway. Then the Senate will pass a clean Continuing Resolution, and it will go back to the House - where John Boehner and the Republicans will finally have to act responsibly, and choose either to fund the government, or be dragged off the long end of a metaphorical short pier by the tea party nuts.

As Molly Ivins used to say, you got to dance with them what brung you.

Some of our staff may indeed be dancing or at least walking down the streets of Marceline, Missouri for our favorite mid-September event, the Disney Hometown Toonfest. As one of the Toonfest's oldest sponsors, we're proud that once again the we can help promote this great event. If you're anywhere in the Midwest this weekend, we highly recommend you plot the course into your GPS, take the scenic drive, and join us.

As always, there will be the aforementioned parade, along with contests and events for both adults and kids, and a cartooning gallery with work from some of the nation's best cartoonists. This year's all-star panel of cartoonists includes Sandra Bell-Lundy of Between Friends, Steve Kelly and Jeff Parker of Dustin, and animator Stephen Silver - and those are just the official cartoonists on the docket. We're well aware that several other highly talented cartoonists from around the nation will be there too, enjoying both the camaraderie and the Toonfest events.

No matter where you're at this weekend, if you get some time away from your work, spend it with the people you love, doing things you love. Don't get dragged around doing things that frustrate you.

The people that love you, after all, are the ones who've helped you get to where you are today - and as we noted already, you should dance with the ones that brung ya.

Get your dancin' shoes on. The weekend is here.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Same Old Armageddon? Maybe Not.

You've probably seen or heard the old cliche about the definition of insanity a thousand times, so we won't repeat it again for you. That maxim has been running through the minds and off the tongues of our staff a great deal lately, as the October 1st deadline to keep the federal government open for business rushes towards Congress, and we all find ourselves in a very familiar situation.

It's not as though we haven't seen this setup before. For the umpteenth time since President Obama took office, Republican extremists in Congress are threatening to shut the government down if they don't get their way. Some Republican members of Congress have even been campaigning over the last few weeks in favor of shutting down the government if they don't get their latest political binky, the death of Obamacare. Of course, the GOP's ideas on how to actually fix the problems our government currently is facing are about as fresh and new as a polyester leisure suit from 1974.

The match this time though, isn't quite shaping up as it has in the past - including in 1995, when Congressional Republicans really did shut down the government.

For one thing, multiple policy deadlines are coming almost on top of each other. There's the October 1st deadline to continue funding the Federal government. There's also the debt ceiling deadline, which the U.S. is expected to hit in mid-October, and which President Obama has insisted he will not renegotiate.

The GOP civil war is also raging hotter than it has during any of the previous battles between Congress and President Obama. House Speaker John Boehner is also weaker than he's been at any time since President Obama was elected, as Boehner's capitulation to the tea party extremists showed on Wednesday.

Boehner's surrender to the tea party, and his agreement to tie the looney idea of defunding Obamacare - which will never pass - to the Continuing Resolution to the government has only postponed the inevitable, as Greg Sargent clearly broke down using game theory on Wednesday.

As Greg details, no matter what choice House Republicans make, Democrats have the upper hand. Every option ends up forcing the CR back to House Republicans, who in turn will be forced to choose between passing a clean CR to keep the government going - which will make their right-wing extremist constituents and right-wing media machine explode in their faces - or sticking to their insane beliefs, which will make them take the full blame for the government shutdown.

The only thing Democrats and the President have to do right now, to ensure Republicans actually face this grueling choice, is exactly what the Republicans in Congress have done to Democrats in Congress since the GOP took over in 2010: Absolutely nothing.

Of course, we'd rather the federal government didn't shut down at all. That said, since the current "leaders" of the GOP don't exactly have a great track record of decision-making, we're willing to bet there will be a government shutdown at the end of this month. That the Republicans will be almost exclusively to blame for that shutdown? Certainly seems like cosmic justice to us.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Pelini Was Right: The Problem With "Fans"

Even with the crazy stories surrounding Monday's Navy Yard shootings, and the federal government on the verge of a shutdown, our attention this week has been a bit diverted from our usual focus on politics. As we've noted previously on more than one occasion, our entire staff proudly hails from Nebraska - and for the past few days, Nebraska Cornhusker fans have been up in arms over the actions their head football coach, Bo Pelini.

Pelini's streak of bad luck began last Saturday, when he, his coaches, and his players took a 21-3 halftime lead, and turned it into an embarrassing 41-21 loss at home to UCLA. As longtime true Husker fans, we weren't as disappointed in the loss as we were in the way much of the team  - both players and coaches - behaved in an uninspired way, not appearing to give their usual 110%. We grumbled relatively quietly, and outwardly hoped that the ugly loss might serve as an educational tool to remind both the student athletes and coaches that no opponent should be overlooked.

Things got worse, though, for Pelini and Husker fans, as sportswriter and longtime media colleague of ours Steve Sipple noted on Monday. That's when a secret tape, recorded in 2011, was released. On that recording, Coach Pelini was caught venting against ungrateful and poorly behaved Husker fans in the wake of the 2011 Husker comeback win against Ohio State.

We can't defend Coach Pelini's actions on Saturday, or the less-then-gentlemanly public argument he and former Husker player Tommie Frazier got into through the media, following the game. We did, however, think the rush by Nebraska's Chancellor and Athletic Director to force Pelini to apologize for cussing out the "new breed" of Husker "fans" in 2011 was wrong.

Bo Pelini was right to be mad at the trashy, childish, spoiled behavior of "new breed" Husker fans - and if you're a fan of any sport, frankly, we think you should be as mad as he was.

Sports fans today, at almost every level, are often boorish, rude, and crass in ways they didn't use to be. They now openly cuss out players, coaches, and officials in ways that would make sailors blush - and that's just at Little League games. By the time these "fans" cheer and jeer their college and pro teams, their language is often far worse, and their attitude of entitlement to perpetual winning teams and seasons is beyond obnoxious.

In the case of Husker football fans, who have long called themselves "the best fans in college football," that kind of boorish behavior towards coaches and players has become far more common, yet it's still rarely acknowledged publicly - like when Husker fans booed their own team at halftime of the 2011 Ohio State game (which Nebraska came back from three touchdowns behind to win).

The new breed of Husker football fans, like other similar "fans" today, insist their aims are true. They complain that Pelini isn't like their historically winning coaching legends of Osborne and Devaney. Sports "fans" like that have short memories, though.

Back in the day, before Coach Devaney and his Huskers won a National Championship, fans were screaming for his head on a platter for several years. Now there's a statue of him at Memorial Stadium. Coach Osborne's story is much the same. Prior to his national titles, he was always accused of not being able to win "the big one." Now the field bears Osborne's name, and he too has a statue at the stadium.

For all of Pelini's personal faults, he is doing his job quite well. With five straight nine-win seasons to open his head coaching career, Pelini joins both Devaney and Osborne as the only Husker football coaches in the school's history to accomplish that feat. Yet that still hasn't seemed to be enough for those ungrateful "fans" - many of whom have been demanding Pelini be fired after the events of the past few days.

For that kind of screaming "fan" no achievement will ever be good enough - which makes Coach Pelini's 2011 private outburst both understandable and just, in our opinion.

True Husker fans - like true fans of any team - know: Being a fan is like being part of a family. You don't always like every member of your family, all the time. But you support your family both when they soar and when they crash - and you love them even if they act like jackasses in public on occasion.

And sometimes, when they curse you out in private, they're right for doing so.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Testing The Limits Of Sanity

Last night, as we began collecting information for today's commentary, we realized that so much of the information surrounding Monday's mass shooting in Washington, DC is still in flux, doing that story justice at this point, would be nearly impossible.

The shooter's identity has been confirmed, along with the number of killed and wounded, and the basic timeline also seems to be coalescing. That said, at the time we're putting together Tuesday's edition, investigators are far from finding a motive for the killings. Frankly, we can't help but think mental illness must have played some part.

As we stated in the wake of the Connecticut school shooting last December, there are multiple components to the gun violence and mass killing incidents in America, and our sorely underutilized American mental health care system is just one of those.

Still, stating with any certainty that the Navy Yard killer was insane is merely speculation at this point.

The nearly homicidal actions of the extremist tea partiers on the right, however, are totally nuts - especially on issues like shutting down the government and health insurance for all Americans.

As Noam Scheiber points out in the New Republic, and as Ezra Klein has been warning for some time over at the Washington Post's Wonkblog, the danger that the government will shut down two weeks from today is no crazy nightmare. As Scheiber details, sources in the White House make it clear that the President has no intention of giving in to the childish games House Republicans are attempting to play with the debt ceiling.

In fact, as Scheiber outlines, and Jonathan Bernstein highlights over at The Plum Line, Speaker Boehner is almost being incentivized to let a shutdown happen, to scare some members of the Republican caucus into realizing just how crazy the tea party extremists among them truly are.

Greg Sargent at The Plum Line takes those same GOP lawmakers, and looks at their actions through the lens of a recent Pew poll which proves that fewer than one in four Americans want Republican lawmakers to keep trying to kill Obamacare. That means that more than 75 percent of Americans either support Obamacare or they at least want Congress to make it work.

That may seem counterintuitive at first, but as Greg points out, those aren't the most important poll numbers in the batch. The key data in the Pew poll are the voting trends that prove most Republican Congresspersons and Senators aren't completely crazy. As Greg astutely points out, "Among Republicans who say they 'always' vote in primaries, 53 percent oppose the law and want lawmakers to make it fail."

In other words, that relatively small but passionate group of people who want Obamacare to fail - and indeed, want the whole federal government to shut down - are the people a key segment of House and Senate Republicans are pandering to, almost exclusively. Those members of Congress who are pandering to that elite bunch of right-wing nuts - at the expense of all their other constituents - aren't insane, so much as they are selfish.

That said, if those members of Congress allow their nuttiest constituents to blow up the federal government's finances, we certainly don't think the actions of those Congresspersons will be labeled in the history books as 'sane' or 'rational.'

Monday, September 16, 2013

Time To Bridge The Gap Again

Over the weekend two events happened that we believe signal a subtle yet important change in direction for the United States.

First, much to relief of people around the world, the U.S., Russia, and Syria reached an agreement on Syria's chemical weapons. That pact is a crucial step, and while tentative, effectively nullifies the threat of U.S. military involvement in Syria for the foreseeable future, and once again proves that diplomacy is a far more effective foreign policy tool than 'Shock n' Awe' ever was.

Second, and in some ways, even more important, was Lawrence Summers withdrawing his name for consideration to be the next Chairman of the Federal Reserve. Summers - one of the men responsible for the massive deregulation which led to the Great Recession - already had received the public opposition of several key Democrats and at least one Republican, along with what appeared to be a solid rebuke by Sen. Elizabeth Warren. So it seems almost fitting that as the season of summer ends, so too does the chance for Larry Summers to destroy the economy again.

With both of the above items firmly in mind, we thought it might be a great time to look at exactly where America is on the five year anniversary of the collapse of Wall Street and the beginning of the Great Recession. Sadly, as we noted in Friday's expanded edition, America already appears to be in a new "Gilded Age' with the gap between the richest 1% and the rest of America deeper turning into a yawning chasm that's effectively swallowed the American middle class.

President Obama's political team obviously agrees with our idea, as they're set to focus on the subject of his economic successes this week, and compare them to where America was five years ago, on the eve of the collapse. Mr. Obama and his economic team have accomplished some fairly amazing economic feats these last five years, in spite of the suicide caucus of the GOP - the group who will likely kill their own party in their feckless attempts to take down President Obama.

Consider the TARP program, the rescue of Wall Street, the stimulus, and the auto bailout that Obama took over from G.W. Bush. President Obama and his economic team were able to use all of these to stop the hemorrhaging of Wall Street, and the near-collapse of the U.S. auto industry, and turn economy in a positive direction, all with the least possible support of Congress. Chrysler is already making steps to become a public company again.

Even with all that success, most of America - except the richest of the rich - have yet to recover from the devastating gambling of Wall Street's worst. Neil Irwin and Brad Plumer of Wonkblog on Friday published a devastating series of charts that prove what most Americans already know.

For the top 1% of Americans, the recession is already over. For the rest of America - for MOST of America - the recovery has only barely begun.

It's with glee then that we note Janet Yellen, now the likely nominee to chair the Fed, has a long list of qualifications, some of which Ezra Klein pointed out Sunday evening, including her work at the Fed since 2004. Ms. Yellen also wants the Fed to concentrate on the one thing Americans now need in our financial sector more than any other: Someone at the top more concerned with putting more people back to work at honest wage levels than with protecting the interest rates of trust fund babies and corporate cronies.

President Clinton once talked about "building a bridge to the 21st Century," and as he left office, that bridge had been begun to be built, as the middle class enjoyed prosperity in equal or better measure than at anytime since the end of World War II. As we all now know, that bridge was blown up by the hubris and greed of the Wall Street barons, and the two wars of the Bush/Cheney neo-con chicken hawks. Instead of a bridge, there's a massive gap where responsibile governing and support of the American middle class should have been.

If President Obama truly wants to make the next three years his legacy, he could do nothing more important than rebuilding that bridge to the future for the middle class, over the income inequality gap we now all face.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Wishing For Safe Journeys

As we sit on the cusp of our fall travel and conference schedule, we're faced with a difficult decision today, about what topics to cover.

We'll admit this should have been a momentous last seven days. Five years ago this week, the titans of Wall Street, at the end of the G.W. Bush era, nearly destroyed the entire world's economy with their selfishness and hubris. Five years later, most of those crooks have yet to see a courtroom, let alone a prison cell. And while the rich have effectively recovered from an economic apocalypse of their own creation, virtually everyone else is still hurting.

On Capitol Hill, things haven't changed much either. Members of Congress did finally return from five weeks of shirking their duties to nominally "work" on legislation. However, between the GOP's civil war and the Democrats finding new ways to act like cowards on the budget, nothing much really ended up getting done in our national legislative branch.

The White House didn't fare much better this week. President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry - along with their counterparts from Russia - stopped the nation's rush to military action in Syria. That didn't seem to matter to critics, pundits, and members of Congress who couldn't seem to complain enough about where the President was taking our country.

Still, with multiple journeys ahead of our staff members over the next few weeks, what caught our attention most today was a story we noticed late on Thursday, about a journey of an entirely different and wonderful nature.

NASA officially announced yesterday that the Voyager 1 spacecraft officially left the heliosphere of our solar system on August 25th of last year.

The computer, tablet or phone you're reading this on right now is far more powerful than the tiny computer still running the Voyager 1 satellite. Your little machine also communicates much faster, as it takes a message from Voyager nearly seventeen-and-a-half hours to get to back to Earth from its current location aproximately 11.7 billion miles away.

For 36 years, the scientists at NASA's JPL lab in California have tracked the satellite as it recorded some of the most amazing data anyone had ever seen, including images of Jupiter and Saturn. They've been collecting data and troubleshooting a machine that only was supposed to last four years, but continue to find new ways to make old technology perform new tricks.

The journey that Voyager 1 and its sibling have already taken makes the trips our staff members have scheduled over the next few weeks look amazingly painless in comparison, and helps us put into perspective all the negativity we've had to cover this week.

If you can, this weekend, put down the computer, the tablet, and especially the cell phone. If a machine with an eight-track tape for a brain can travel without constant human assistance to the edge of solar system and last 36 years, your gadgets will certainly survive a day or two without you.

While you're taking a break from your machines? Leave your anger with humans behind, too. The people who drive you nuts? Ignore 'em for a couple days. They'll be just as stupid on Monday when you run into them again.

Instead this weekend, focus on the moments worth remembering, with the people and places you love.

We've all got a long way to go yet in life, and the universe is a huge, dark place.

Make the journey worth it.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Holding Patterns

It's been difficult lately, covering the rapidly changing events of the Syrian debate that have dominated nearly every space available for news, while equally important news stories like the upcoming budget battles in Washington or the 'One Percent recovery' have been given short shrift or been buried completely.

Thankfully it appears that cooler heads have prevailed for now. President Obama has sent Secretary Kerry to Geneva, Switzerland today to meet with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to nail down the details of the international group that will remove Syria's chemical weapons. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin is calling for caution and patience, on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times.

Whether anti-war liberals and isolationist conservatives want to admit it or not, the biggest reason the international debate over Syria is now in a holding pattern is because President Obama's threat to use American military force is still very real.

That threat appears to have given both Syria and Russia a pause for sanity - which means we can finally give one of those other important stories at least a little time today. We wouldn't exactly recommend relaxing, though, since it now looks like at least some Congressional Republicans may actually be willing to shut down the government at the end of this month.

In case you missed it, the House Republican leadership pulled their warped spending plan of a Continuing Resolution - a "CR", in Congress-speak - on Wednesday, in large part because of the GOP's own ongoing internal civil war. Without passing a CR by the end of this month, the Federal government will shut down on October 1st. As recent polling has confirmed, if the government shuts down, Americans will overwhelmingly blame Republicans in Congress, as they should.

The key problem, as Jonathan Bernstein noted Wednesday afternoon, is that the extremist tea partiers on the right continue to insist that conditions be tied to the CR that neither Democrats or more centrist Republicans will ever vote for.

As we've warned many times over the last few years, and as Greg Sargent stated perfectly again on Wednesday afternoon, the GOP's internal civil war is eventually going to come to a head - and John Boehner may indeed lose his head, politically, before this round of Republican infighting is done.

Greg goes into significant detail about how the latest budget battles will play out, and we highly recommend you read his column in total to completely understand how paralyzed Republicans in Congress now are. In short, to any sane person, Speaker Boehner's choice of what to do next couldn't be more clear if he had a Tomahawk missile literally pointed at his head.

Either Boehner's going to have to side with mainstream Republicans and a large number of Democrats in the House on any one of a number of high profile bills - or he's going to end up shutting down the government, which will effectively destroy the GOP in the 2014 election, and will certainly destroy him.

The clock is ticking Mr. Speaker. We suggest you take action now. You've been holding up progress for far too long already.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Ties That Blind

For all the horrifying descriptions of the chemical weapons attacks in Syria that President Obama gave last night, his heartfelt and surprisingly brief plea to Americans likely changed the opinion of almost no one. That doesn't mean Americans have become heartless after more than a decade of war, that began this date, twelve years ago, in New York City, Washington, DC, and eventually, a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

We believe that Americans are truly concerned about the horrific deaths of thousands of innocent men, women, and children in Syria's civil war. We also think that progress has been made on a diplomatic solution, at a remarkably fast pace over the last few days. Just yesterday, the Syrian government agreed to join the international Chemical Weapons Convention, and hand over their entire chemical weapons stockpile to an international enforcement group.

To paraphrase President Obama though, just making a declaration doesn't actually get the work done.

However, as we noted earlier this week, the United States can not and should not be expected to unilaterally enforce a worldwide standard, when our nation is only one of many parties to that standard. Ethically as well as fiscally, America can no longer afford to be the policeman for the world.

In fact, we'd say the type and level of attention that the world has demanded that the U.S. give since the end of World War II, seems to have blinded many in America to the fact that far too often, we've failed our responsibilities to ourselves here at home.

For example, allowing blind people to have gun permits in Iowa.

That may seem like a joke to some people, but we can assure you, that's a very real issue facing citizens in Iowa right now. If Iowa politicians and voters hadn't been blinded by nearly limitless campaign spending from the NRA - the kind that got two state legislators recalled in Colorado last night - perhaps the citizens of Iowa could have focused on better water management laws. Instead, some state funding is tied up fighting blind people with guns, instead of being used to help handle the massive drought the Hawkeye state is now suffering through.

The distractions of war have also blinded America to the monster our surveillance state has become, especially over the last decade. That most NSA queries of the database broke Federal privacy laws from 2006-2009 is a shocking display of Federal incompetence - one that Americans might have noticed much sooner, if the U.S. wasn't always expected to be the enforcement arm for international law by nearly every other nation on the planet.

None of that even begins to touch on America's current inability to elect sane political representatives who understand simple macroeconomics - like the fact that raising the nation's debt ceiling is simply paying the bills we've already racked up.

Infrastructure, unemployment, education, taxation, inequality, crime - the list of things that need serious attention here at home from all Americans is longer and heavier than most of us even want to imagine. Yet, too often, we've been blinded by our focus on helping everyone else around the world, before we help ourselves.

Americans do understand the Syrian problem facing President Obama, and we'd wager that most Americans - even if they are skeptical - desperately want the diplomatic solution that is being discussed at this time, by multiple nations, to be successful.

That said, America simply can't focus on the rest of the world's needs before our own anymore.

We've already become too blind for our own continued safety.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Accident Or Opportunity?

Experiments can bring about the most amazing results, especially when you're a kid - or at least, they did when our staff members were kids.

Even considering the scientific studies on kids over the past few decades - like the recent findings tying brain damage in adults to injuries suffered from playing football as a kid or teenager - many American parents today often seem a bit overprotective to us. As one of our staff members has a highly intelligent and somewhat precocious youngster running around the office, we regularly get to experience that mix of instant terror and instant thrill that parents enjoy, that otherwise is reserved for experiences like roller coasters.

The American - and international - media got to experience a similar feeling on Monday, thanks in part to Secretary of State John Kerry, in what some members of the media have termed an accidental solution to the ongoing debate over Syria.

In a nutshell, Secretary Kerry was at a news conference in London on Monday when he was asked what, if anything, Syria's President Assad could do to avoid military action. Kerry, in what some reporters initially called a gaffe, said that if Syria's Assad were to surrender his stockpile of chemical weapons to an international commission, within a week, Assad and Syria could almost certainly avoid U.S. military action.

In less time than it takes a resourceful child to take an accident-prone death-trap of an idea and turn it into a fantastic opportunity, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov offered a plan to do almost exactly what Secretary Kerry had suggested - namely for Russia to head up an international group to take control of Syria's chemical weapons.

At nearly light-speed, politically, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem - who was already meeting with Russia's Lavrov - released a statement quickly welcoming the idea of putting Syria's chemical weapons under international control. Shortly thereafter,  U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon took things one step further, proposing that the U.N. Security Council not only immediately back the handover of the weapons, but also help to destroy them as fast as safely possible.

And just like that, in one afternoon, America and much of the world may have been backed down from a potentially disastrous military engagement by the United States in Syria - and the U.S. didn't even have to play supercop to get the desired results.

Admittedly, we're less sure that this was a happy accident than a carefully planned set of actions arranged by Kerry and his counterparts, to save face for all nations involved. Still, if this plan moves forward, we believe most of the world will be happy about the results - results we're sure America and the world will hear more about Tuesday night, when President Obama speaks in prime time.

One group that may not be so happy are some of our colleagues in the U.S. political media, who've been insisting that a "no" vote by Congress on military action - delayed by Monday's diplomatic whirlwind - would be the apocalyptic end to President Obama's second term.

As both Greg Sargent and Jonathan Bernstein noted on Monday, unless America ends up getting bogged down in Syria's civil war, there's no way members of Congress - especially Republicans in Congress - are going to be any more or less likely to handle the debt ceiling and budget issues like adults, no matter what happens.

Which, for America at least, means the policy roller coaster experiment of September 2013 is only beginning. Grab your helmet and don't tell your parents.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Who's The Boss?

Congress returns to work in DC this week, and for all the hand-wringing Reid Epstein at Politico did over the weekend about the calendar pressing on President Obama, the list and gravity of tasks facing Congress is much longer, much heavier, and more complex than what the President is facing - and Congress only has nine work days scheduled to finish it all.

Of course, the first order of business in both houses when Congress returns will be the vote on whether to authorize a military strike in Syria.

The White House continued prosecuting its case in the national media over the weekend, and the President is scheduled to speak to the nation on Tuesday about the decision on Syria that Congress will pick up this week. However, neither the facts or the numbers have really changed from what we outlined on Friday, when we pointedly noted multiple polls that confirm Americans do NOT want to get involved militarily in Syria.

At his press conference at the G-20 Friday, President Obama said that the decision to strike shouldn't depend on public opinion - a comment we firmly disagree with.

If America is going to play policeman to the world once again, there are two solid questions we believe most Americans want answered before Congress votes.

First, is Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad directly responsible for using chemical weapons on his own people?

Regardless of what Secretary of State Kerry and others were pushing on the Sunday shows, the facts about the chemical weapons attacks of August 21 are anything but clear. Over the weekend, CBS's Charlie Rose interviewed Syria's President Assad, who noted that there is no concrete evidence that he attacked his own people with chemical weapons.

German intelligence sources over the weekend also confirmed that Syrian government forces may have carried out the attack without Assad's permission. Further, as Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida confirmed in both an interview with Ezra Klein, and in the Congressman's own op-ed in the New York Times, the Obama Administration has no 'smoking gun' that proves Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is directly responsible for using chemical weapons on his own people.

The second question Americans want answered is also relatively simple: Would an American strike of limited scope, durability, and duration likely stop Assad's forces from using chemical weapons - or any weapon of mass destruction - again? As multiple sources confirmed over the past few days, many at the highest levels in the U.S. military don't support military action in Syria, for a whole host of reasons, and they don't think the kind of limited military action being discussed would be effective in truly deterring future use of chemical weapons.

It's easy, then, to see why Americans are so anxious to keep our role as "World Policeman" restrained. We can't be sure the person the world claims is truly responsible actually is the guilty party. Further, the proposed punishment for the crime would admittedly be ineffective. Based on those facts, and the fact that most of America doesn't want our nation to take military action in Syria, the decision by members of Congress shouldn't be very difficult.

Then again, military and weapons manufacturers have been stuffing the campaign coffers of many, many members of Congress from both parties, for many years.

The votes on Syria by each member of both the House and Senate will tell us all a great deal about who they really think they should pay attention to. We hope voters will remember these upcoming votes in 2014 and beyond - and vote accordingly.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Sticky & Uncomfortable

We're willing to admit: When our staff members disagree with each other, or with acquaintances that we usually concur with, the feeling is a bit uncomfortable. It's like realizing, after several minutes of hollering, that you've been trying to get the attention of someone with earbud headphones on, who can't hear you.

Like Brer Rabbit screaming at the Tar Baby in the legendary American folktale, both the pro-military action and the anti-interventionist sides of the Syria deabte seem to be stuck on a similar inability to communicate and have their positions recognized as legitimate.

On the pro-interventionist side, the similarities to Brer Rabbit don't end with screaming for recognition. There's also the fact that some members of the media who may have been lumped into the pro-interventionist camp like Greg Sargent, John Harwood, and Steve Kornacki, don't really appear to agree with the idea of involving the American military in action in Syria.

Sargent, Harwood, and Kornacki simply pointed out in open discussions online on Thursday a basic fact: The anti-interventionist side is in danger of losing the overall battle by insisting no sane logical member of Congress would vote us into yet another conflict when so many Americans are against it. As Greg noted, some insiders on Capitol Hill still think there's a decent chance of passing an authorization for use of military force in Syria, even though the "No's" from their constituents keep piling up.

That danger of getting stuck - also like in the tale of Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby - means that our nation could once again easily get buried in yet another foreign war, just as we got stuck in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and Vietnam before that.

Greg's writeup Thursday afternoon on the Congressional kabuki being choreographed in Washington confirmed that some of our elected "leaders" in Washington are indeed stuck on the idea of intervention. Many more of those in both political media and politics itself seem certain that no matter what the American people say, America's military interests are going to push our political leaders to get us involved in Syria.

We don't believe that's a certainty.

The numbers of people contacting the White House and their Congressmembers' offices right now are off the charts - and as a few sources we have on the Hill have confirmed, the numbers of calls and e-mails are running hundreds of Americans against, to only a handful of Americans in favor of military action.

That kind of reaction historically is like a stick to the head of most members of Congress, that reminds them of who really controls their futures - especially with an election coming in 2014.

Still, what Greg and those like him are saying about the many different 'Whip Count' guesstimates floating around the political media isn't that they agree with intervention in Syria. It's simply that - until the final vote tallies are taken in Congress - intervention is still entirely possible, no matter what some members of Congress have already claimed publicly. If you believe President Obama is willing to risk potential impeachment from both Democrats and Republicans, intervention might even be possible even if Congress votes no.

Until the final votes are held on Capitol Hill next week, if you want your members of Congress to stick to a specific position on Syria, contact them today - loudly, firmly, and politely - and every day until the final vote, to make sure your message is heard.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Red Lines & Reality

For most of the last week, we've discussed the looming potential for military action by the U.S. in Syria, at least mentioning the subject, if not focusing on the subject every day we've published.

We've discussed the pundit class who continue to push for military action and the world that wants America to be their Supercop. We also discussed the reticence of many in Congress to get involved, and - spurred by comments from Greg Sargent - we came up with specific examples of why the American people might be skeptical of their government, outside of the disastrous and politically polarizing war in Iraq.

While we were discussing these topics with you, the Obama Administration has continued to drag a feckless and selfish Congress and a screaming American public towards the responsibilities of a very definite red line that our nation agreed to long ago.

Excluding a few of our more intelligent media colleagues, there's been very little discussion by either pundits or politicians of the reality behind that red line. President Obama however, addressed that red line reality directly during a press conference in Stockholm, Sweden on Wednesday. The President pointedly said, "I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line." Obama continued, "My credibility’s not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line."

This argument by President Obama, and those in his administration who are tasked with carrying out his instructions - including Secretaries Kerry and Hagel - may indeed be the only valid part of the argument in favor of action against the Syrian government of Bashar Al-Assad.

As Al Jazeera America outlined, everyone from the Arab League to the U.K., and from China to our allies in Europe continues insisting that SOMETHING should be done to enforce international law. Even the Pope is saying that SOMETHING should be done. Meanwhile, not a single nation or non-state actor has stepped up and offered to take the same amount of risk as the U.S. in enforcing the international law on chemical weapons.

That is the red line that the world, as a collective group of nations, has decided to go beyond; Boldly, selfishly, and with sniveling cowardice - with the exception of President Obama.

No matter what you say about Obama, the one thing you cannot honestly state is that - especially in this case - he has abandoned America's moral and ethical responsibilities to agreements this nation has previously made to its citizens, or to the world at large.

As a staff, we still vehemently oppose unilateral U.S. action in Syria. We do not think any plan that will pass Congress will achieve the goal of penalizing Syria's Assad effectively for breaking international law.

As a matter of fact and principle, however, President Obama is completely and unequivocally correct in dragging Americans to accept the reality of the red line of international law.

If a significant majority of nations around the world are NOT willing to take a significant part in enforcing what they claim to be a key international law, then that international law simply does not have any validity.

That is the real red line every nation is crossing right now, including the United States.