Monday, March 31, 2014

Americans Striking Out On Real Priorities

Regardless of how Mother Nature chooses to act today, the priorities of millions of Americans will be focused on the Opening Day of Major League Baseball, rather than whatever they're supposed to be doing at work. That simple fact only serves to drive home the point - priorities matter.

That truism was incredibly obvious over the last few days in states from Washington, to Nebraska, to New York.

In Nebraska, as we'd warned back in January, the priorities of the Republican Governor became blisteringly apparent over the weekend. Nebraska's Gov. Dave Heineman took out his veto pen over the weekend and gutted funding for job training and development in order to get a shiny new plane for the governor's office as well as tax cuts for the state's wealthiest landowners.

Unfortunately, the Democratic Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, wasn't really much better than his GOP counterpart in Nebraska. Cuomo and New York's state legislature did approve a state budget on Saturday that would provide $300 million for prekindergarten in New York City - a laudable accomplishment. However, Cuomo and his state legislature also approved tax rebates and tax cuts for some of the wealthiest people in New York state, while allowing most of New York state's highly corrupt campaign financing laws to continue.

Meanwhile, in Washington state, the death toll continued to rise, as volunteers and authorities continued to dig for the bodies of friends and loved ones buried by the massive mudslide last week. Even as more bodies have been unearthed, so have details proving the priorities of 'Evergreen State' officials have been more about greenbacks than green thumbs. Warnings about building and logging in the valley where the mudslide occurred go back decades. Yet, unsurprisingly, both developers and loggers were allowed to work and build in areas that scientific studies said they should have left alone - resulting in yet another completely preventable tragedy for dozens of families.

Don't even get us started about how unprepared L.A. is for another major earthquake - or how GM could have prevented a whole series of deaths years ago, but thanks to the corporate culture in America, hid their deadly defect instead.

That politics in America is broken should surprise no one. That Americans seem so ready to let our collective priorities slide so easily as we slip into a hereditary oligarchy, however, surprises even us. If you don't believe it, just check the horse race predictions for 2016. Rich Republicans are once again pushing to have Jeb Bush run for President in 2016, while Democrats are counting on Hillary Clinton to run - and win. The backup candidates for each major party aren't much better, as they include the son of longtime libertarian hero Ron Paul, and Andrew Cuomo, who we already mentioned.

From New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's gratuitous groveling before billionaire Sheldon Adelson, to the billionaire Koch Brothers pushing a wave of restrictive voting laws because Republicans today can't win fairly run elections with their extremist rhetoric, the new billionaire political bosses are trying to buy Democracy outright, and kill it.

Sadly, the stomach-turning reality too few have the courage to admit is that millions of Americans seem willing to let the top one-hundredth percent of the wealthiest buy their government out from under them - just as long as that 99.99% aren't prevented from watching their favorite sports or fantasy entertainment.

We understand and even laud the need to get away from the realities of life for a mental health day every once in a while - and opening day is a better time than many to play hooky in the collective opinion of our staff. Too many Americans aren't just playing hooky, though - they've almost permanently abdicated their responsibilities as citizen legislators.

As all the examples we focused on today clearly display: Americans need to get their priorities in order. The future of the country, and indeed the world, depends on it.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Pluses & Minuses Of The Modern World

In political news-speak, Friday used to be known as "trash day." That was the day of the week when - if you were involved in politics or government - you tended to release information you'd rather the public didn't see. With the 24/7 internet media cycle we all live in today, however, stories about almost anyone's latest stupid, ugly, or unfortunate actions won't just be buried in the late edition of the Friday afternoon newspaper - the one almost nobody would read - and forgotten.

That means that whether you're a Democratic politican in San Francisco getting arrested in corruption raids, or a Republican Governor of New Jersey trying to sell an obviously fictionalized legal defense, your dirty laundry isn't going to be easily swept under the proverbial rug.

As both journalists and citizens, that's a change from how things used to be - one that all our staff members tend to think of as a positive development.

Sadly, for every 'yin' there's a 'yang', and in the world of media, that 'yang' remains the incredibly destructive 'Citizens United' decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has allowed the billionaire political bosses and their flood of nearly unlimited campaign propaganda.

As Americans all over the country have already been finding out this election year, the peace and quiet of their own homes is already being disturbed by the disgusting, filth-and-lies oozing monster of effectively unlimited campaign contributions buying ad after ad on our televisions, radios, and computers.

From the Koch Brothers and their ads which have been repeatedly debunked, to billionaire Sheldon Adelson who outwardly is admitting he's trying to buy the best candidates to win in 2016, the corrosive effects of too much poorly regulated money in our political system is all over our media. That kind of oozing media monster isn't always effective - as the ridiculous castration ad from Joni Earnst in Iowa, and the incredibly out-of-touch Duke-over-Kentucky ad of Mitch McConnell have already proven this cycle.

Not all stories about money and politics in America today are bad, however.

What if we told you there's a young man, who has instant access to one of the richest men in the world, and who's aiming to get money almost completely out of politics in America. His plan would include getting all those political ads off your TV...in the next seven years.

That young man's name is Jonathan Soros, son of well-known multibillionaire George Soros - though, as he's displayed in more than one arena, he's more than just the scion of one of the wealthiest persons on Earth.

David Freedlander, in Politico Magazine, just published a fantastic focus piece on the younger Soros, and his efforts with the Friends of Democracy PAC. That's a political action committee the young private investment operator is aiming to use to get money almost completely out of politics here in America. While the younger Soros is working on legislative efforts both in Congress, and in his own home state of New York, he has no problem taking on unsavory oligarchs like Tom Perkins, as Soros did in Reuters just last month.

Of course, we're skeptical of whether he'll be successful - but we're actually more than a bit hopeful he will be, for all kinds of reasons, both personal and professional.

One of the biggest reasons we hope Jonathan Soros is successful...? We'd like to watch a little bit of TV, sometime in the near future, without having to face the monster of bad political advertising in our off time.

At least we have a wonderful tool known as the remote control to help us avoid those silly ads, for now.

Ahhhh, the wonders of the modern world.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Eating Their Own

As we mentioned on Tuesday, Democratic candidates across America are looking at this year's elections with some anxiety as they face multiple structural problems - not the least of which is a tradition of low voter turnout for Democratic voters in midterm elections.

That's really no surprise, especially in the U.S. Senate races. Six years ago, in 2008, it was a wave election for Democrats. Not only did Americans elect our first mixed-race President ever, they also elected large numbers of Democrats to both houses of Congress, many from places Democratic candidates rarely-if-ever have success. Six years later - one short Senate term - Democrats now have to defend many of those same Senate seats in geographic regions that haven't seriously favored progressive candidates since the 1960s.

That doesn't mean Republicans will have a problem-free election season. Outside of the normal racism, classism, and misogyny that modern Republicans have become known for, Republicans have several other serious challenges this year - especially in typically reliable "red" states.

As extremist right-wing ideology has continued to take over the GOP during the past decade, much of the mass media, including cable "news" channels have chosen to pander to those same extremists, due to the many millions of dollars in right-wing propaganda advertising. That ideological slant has, in-turn, driven more moderate, sensible Republicans away from politics.

For Republicans, that's often left a pile of candidates - like the six Republicans now competing to become Nebraska's next governor - that either believe the extremism they preach, or pretend to be extremists, so as not to be "outed" as somewhat sane.

That fact alone already makes many of the Republican primary races this year appear more like a dinner party for cannibals.

Another major problem Republicans are facing is the challenge of not cannibalizing their voters by focusing exclusively on a single subject that - frankly - voters don't want to hear about anymore. Following that campaign plan could leave Republicans with one of the same major problems Democrats are now worried about: Turning off potential voters enough that they won't get out and vote.

For a political party that was planning on having their candidates run exclusively against Obamacare, that single-subject shutdown could become a major complication for Republicans.

Indeed, as Dylan Scott of TPM noted yesterday, the latest Kaiser Family Foundation survey confirms - Americans are increasingly making it clear they're done talking about Obamacare. According to the survey, about half of Republican voters, and more than fifty percent of all Americans of any other political affiliation have said the topic no longer needs to be discussed, as it's been settled.

What's even more problematic for Republicans, as Kevin Drum made clear in Mother Jones on Wednesday, is that as problems with the ACA get resolved, opposition to Obamacare continues to shrink, and Americans are liking it more. That means the issue has been settled - but not in a way that benefits those on the political right.

That leaves Republicans running for office this year chomping at the bit, with no accomplishments to brag about, no serious policy distinctions to bite into - and only personal attacks on each other as a topic they can sink their teeth into.

All we can say to that is 'Bon appetit.'

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

On Obamacare, Substance, Not Smoke & Mirrors

While some of the media will try to bamboozle their audience today into thinking they know how the Supreme Court will decide the contraception-rights case heard on Tuesday, as our longtime readers know, we're not charlatans and we prefer to operate from known facts.

That doesn't mean we're not concerned with how the case will be decided this summer, or what it will means for this fall. The potentially disastrous outcome for the nation if the biased and intellectually dishonest corporate faction of the court wins is not hyperbole. Pointless speculation though, would only make us look as idiotic as many of our colleagues in the national media did last week, talking about the missing plane.

There have been plenty of facts coming out this week, on the fourth anniversary of Obamacare, about how the program is doing. Those facts may have as much to do with the outcomes of this fall's elections as either the Supreme Court decision, or all the money being poured into propaganda campaigns by right-wing billionaires.

One of those facts includes the announcement made late Tuesday night by the Obama Administration, that they will allow all those Americans who've begun enrolling in private health insurance plans through the Obamacare website, until mid-April to finish or file a formal extension. Next to the news that - unlike Nebraska - New Hampshire has decided to do the wise thing and pass Medicaid expansion, the news surrounding Obamacare seems to just keep solidifying into a positive, tangible outcome Democrats can campaign on this fall.

That's a far cry from the empty promises and complete lies about healthcare that Republicans and their supporters have heading into the 2014 election season.

As Sahil Kapur noted last Sunday, and as many of our colleagues have noted for years now, four years after claiming they would repeal and replace Obamacare with their own plan, Republicans still don't even have an alternative health care plan that their own members of Congress are willing to vote for.

What's more, as both Greg Sargent and Brian Beutler pointed out this week, the Republican sob stories and ads about how horrible Obamacare is keep evaporating. Multiple fact checkers keep revealing the lies in the multiple propaganda ads from Koch Brothers-supported groups. Even right-wing hacks like Matt Drudge are exposing themselves as frauds and charlatans on the issue of Obamacare.

The facts, as our friend Rick Ungar noted this past week, continue to roll in - and those few who are honest on the right will have to eat crow about Obamacare. The young people are indeed signing up - at the last minute, of course. Not surprisingly, women have proven better at men at navigating the tough decisions. Individual penalties have motivated a substantial number of Americans to push through the array of insurance choices and sign up.

For those Americans who have been underinsured, or who were uninsured and didn't get cut short by Republicans in their states, most Americans are now happy with the health care system in America, thanks in large part to the fact that millions finally have affordable health insurance.

That Obamacare has succeeded as well as it has is not a small accomplishment. It's a massive feat of political skill, applied to a huge problem that Democrats pulled off almost entirely on their own. What's more, Democrats used a Republican idea to accomplish this task over the last four years, while being attacked by extremist Republicans the entire time.

Democrats should be proud they have a major, substantive accomplishment to show voters this fall.

Republicans only have smoke and mirrors to show voters - along with millions of dollars in fruitless propaganda.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Hitting 'Em With The Truth

In political media, there's been a huge amount of carping and sniping since Nate Silver's announcement this past weekend that Republicans have a slightly better than fifty percent chance to take over the U.S. Senate this fall. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee even blasted Nate's forecast yesterday - though how they did it seemed more than a little ridiculous to both our staff and Alex Roarty over at National Journal.

Elections this year - if run fairly and legally -  aren't going to be like the arcane, closeted decision-making process the Supreme Court will be going through starting today. There, nine people will decide, behind closed doors, if for-profit corporations can enforce a religious belief on their employees, and effectively be exempt from any U.S. law the corporation's controllers don't like.

In looking at the potential outcomes of the elections this year - which are still more than 220 days away - Nate's forecast isn't out of line with what anyone else is saying, as Jonathan Bernstein clearly noted over at Bloomberg on Monday. While it is true that Republicans could win control of the Senate, Democrats could also keep control - or maybe even gain a seat.

The key to clarifying the political forecasts of any of these number crunchers and experts is the same key that voters should be using to tell if politicians who are promising everything under the sun will actually deliver on those promises if elected: Ask one simple question - "How?"

For the professional political handicappers, "How" can usually be answered fairly easily. Folks like Nate Silver will often tell you how they achieve their forecasts, and virtually all of them will agree: Their forecasts are simply a snapshot, given the current conditions of the races TODAY. Just as meteorologists do, when the conditions change an hour from now, their forecasts can change too.

As for the politicians, asking them "How" they're going to fulfill their promises is actually far more important, in our estimation.

Politicians may promise the world when trying to get elected, but as the records of failed legislative proposals keep piling up, most of the politicians that billionaires like Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers helped to get elected have consistently failed to deliver on issues that have been key to right-wing ideology, like banning gay marriage or outlawing abortion.

Bans against same-sex civil marriage contracts continue to be found unconstitutional, in state after state. Further, complete bans on abortion - a constitutionally legal medical procedure - continue to also be knocked down in the courts, by judges who care more about the law than they do their political patrons.

For all the rhetoric by extremists like Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and others like him, that they're going to repeal Obamacare, they never tell you how, exactly, they're going to get President Obama to sign a bill overturning his own signature legislation.

Even if Republicans do win the Senate this fall by a slim majority, Republicans in the House and Senate won't have the kinds of supermajorities needed to override the nearly constant stream of vetoes certain to be coming from President Obama's desk.

The truth, if you ask the right question, is actually very easy to discern - both from the politicians running the races, and from those handicapping the outcomes of those races.

Whether Americans really want to know the truth, however, remains a mystery that won't be solved until at least this fall.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Some Things Rarely Ever Change

Even as we took a week away to be with family, friends, and just generally relax, the world didn't stop turning. You could be forgiven thinking it had come to a stop, though, as all the so-called "news" channels on cable appeared to be stuck in the same loop for a week, repeating that they still don't know where the lost Malaysia Airlines plane is.

Some things in other news changed slightly last week. Vladimir Putin and Russia pushed forward and illegally annexed Crimea. Now, the Russians and Ukrainians are holding in a tense standoff over Eastern Ukraine, even as sanctions from the U.S. and Europe begin to really hurt Russia's economy.

Back in the U.S., most things didn't change. The spring weather was volatile. Congress did almost nothing. Democrats are still worried about the 2014 elections, but left-leaning Americans aren't actually doing much to change that. Meanwhile, the right-wing extremist and extremely wealthy Koch Brothers are still continuing to try and buy the 2014 elections, and politics in general - including the upcoming  decision over the Keystone Pipeline. Republicans all over the country are still proving they're misogynists, and racists, and - like Nebraska Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Shane Osborne - still unable to tell the whole truth.

Unfortunately, over the break, one important thing did change. Republicans in Nebraska's legislature, led like a dog on a leash by right-wing, Koch Brothers-funded groups like AFP, defeated the most recent effort to expand Medicaid to Nebraska's poorest citizens.

In short, the outside groups choked off an effort to help their fellow Nebraskans led by Nebraska Republican state Senator Kathy Campbell - and now Nebraskans will have to deal with the effects of that poorly made, outside-influenced decision.

Rural Nebraskans only have to look to rural Georgia to get a glimpse of what the future of local health care looks like when you prevent hospitals from getting paid to do their duties.

For the fourth time in two years, yet another rural Georgia hospital is closing, this time the Lower Oconee Community Hospital in Wheeler County. It's the eighth rural hospital in the Peachtree State to close since 2000. As many who understand how Medicaid expansion under the ACA warned, without helping the poorest Americans to get insurance coverage, hospitals in rural areas inundated with poor patients simply can't keep their doors open.

As Steve Benen noted last week, the real-world effects of such partisan obstinacy aren’t pretty - but they are pretty stupid.

Decisions like those in Georgia & Nebraska fly in the face of the facts on health policy, in the era of the ACA. As health policy wonks like Robert Reich & Rick Ungar showed last week, the numbers about Obamacare are coming out now - and they look very favorable for both Americans and the politicians who've supported the ACA. While Republicans and scaremongers should be eating crow in the media, it's doubtful the cable "news" media will ever force them to honestly account for their lies on the issue.

Meanwhile, millions of poor, often rural Americans - including the 54,000 Nebraskans too poor to afford health insurance - are looking at a health care landscape that increasingly looks more like that in a third-world nation.

It shouldn't take an outbreak of ebola - like that going on in West Africa right now - to prove to rural voters that a third-world standard of health care isn't something to be emulated. It will likely cost a few more lives though, needlessly lost due to a lack of proper health care, for poor rural voters in places like Nebraska and Georgia to finally realize that voting for politicians who are the lap dogs of wealthy outside influences might not be in their best interests.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Time For A Break

Even as there are still a few chilly days in the long term weather forecast - at least for our DC and Nebraska offices - the season of spring is finally beginning across most of the Northern hemisphere. For millions of young men and women, this time of the year used to mean a trip back home, or maybe even a trip to Mexico or Florida. More than a few of those kinds of trips ended up in slightly embarrassing situations we're certain that more than a few people would rather forget.

These days, with the massive amounts of debt college students take on, this time of year now more often means a few days free from school responsibilities, maybe to work a few extra shifts at a job, read a book, or simply walk around outside in temperatures that aren't insanely cold.

No matter how it's celebrated, the tradition of spring break as a way to celebrate the end of winter is one our staff members have always enjoyed. Conveniently, it's a tradition we'll be enjoying again next week, along with Saint Patrick's Day, some Florida sunshine, and some extra time with our families.

It's not as though no one will be watching the website. We wouldn't be surprised if the CIA or NSA peeked in on either site, and of course, Paul will still be checking in to post new Oklahoma Gazette Cartoons and new Cap News Toons as well.

We empathize with our readers who will also be missing their daily fix of cultivated links and news information. For that kind of great content, we highly advise you check out Greg Sargent's Plum Line at The Washington Post. We also recommend you check the Post's 'Wonkblog', now being run by the very capable Puneet Kollipara.

On Monday, we also highly suggest you click over to Nate Silver's relaunch of FiveThirtyEight.com, for more of the great writing, charts, and commentary we've relied on for guidance for many years here at The Daily Felltoon.

We'll be keeping our eyes on a few key topics of note, including the restoration of unemployment insurance in Congress announced yesterday. We'll also be watching the next steps in the President's efforts to restore the Federal laws surrounding overtime pay to the mostly balanced and fair mode it was in prior to 2004. That's when President Bush used Executive Power to expand the exemptions to the overtime law, which has since allowed all kinds of corporations to abuse workers. Of course, we'll also be keeping our eyes on the CIA/Senate fight, and the conflicts overseas in Ukraine and elsewhere.

Mostly though, we'll be taking a week away from our regular responsibilities here to get our bearings, clear off some of the other tasks on our desks, watch some basketball or spring baseball, or maybe just take the dog for a walk outside, without having to put on five layers of clothes first.

We don't know about you, but we've never wanted to celebrate the end of winter so badly in all our lives.

We hope you get a chance to rest and recharge this next week.
We'll resume our regular publishing schedule on March 24, 2014.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The GOP Prescription: Lyin', Cryin', & Snake Oil

When you take in as much media as our staff does, you tend to see trends that the average American who might read one newspaper, or only looks at a small handful of news websites, would likely miss. One of those trends has been the growing sounds of desperation coming from the Republican Party as their extremist, tea-tinged wing continues to drag the rest of their party to the edge of oblivion.

The worried cries of Republicans were evident Wednesday, after the special election in Florida. As many legitimate ethical journalists forecasted they would, Republicans read too much into the results and hyped a minor win -  a "win" that cost Republicans the lion's share of $12.7 million to retain for eight short months a U.S. House seat that the GOP had held comfortably for over 40 years. The stink of fear, rank as it was, didn't seem to stop a flood of hypocrisy from Republicans like House Speaker John Boehner, who - even as he spun the Florida race like a top in a tornado - told Democrats they shouldn't be spinning the race.

As journalists like Brian Beutler, Steve Benen, and E.J. Dionne plainly noted Wednesday, Republicans' foolish attempts to peddle snake oil about the Florida election didn't stand up to the historical facts of special elections.

Another topic that also hasn't been standing up to facts is the right-wing's futilely screamed claims that Obamacare still isn't working, and that Americans don't want something so liberal.

In fact, as Greg Sargent pointed out Tuesday - using CNN's latest poll on the Affordable Care Act - a majority of Americans actually favor Obamacare or think it isn't "liberal" enough.

While the enrollment numbers for the exchanges may not reach the ambitious goals originally set by the Obama administration, as Jonathan Cohn noted earlier this week, the numbers of enrolled Americans are about what experts had predicted all along. So far, thanks to Obamacare, more than 4.2 million Americans have enrolled in private health insurance they can afford, with another 4.4 million enrolling in Medicaid.

That's more than 8.5 million Americans who now have affordable health insurance, who didn't have health insurance just a few months ago, who now won't be simply stumbling into emergency rooms, expecting taxpayers to foot their bill.

That kind of success is exactly the medicine that President Obama and some Democrats prescribed for America's previously exploding health insurance and health care cost problem - and it appears to be working.

It should have been no surprise then, that President Obama's attempt to get even more young people to sign up for health insurance this week, with the humorous and satirical interview video made with actor Zach Galifianakis, made those on the right cry out in anger and frustration.

According to White House spokeswoman Tara McGuinness, the web video directly led to a 40% increase in visits to Healthcare.gov, and was the single biggest event or action to drive web traffic to the health insurance website since it began less than six months ago.

As with the race in Florida, Republicans may be able to scream their empty policy prescriptions on health insurance louder, and they may be able to scream them in more places, thanks to the conservative-dominated media. However, Democrats and those on the left need to stick to the facts, which are in their favor - and unlike Alex Sink in Florida, don't be shy about promoting the fact that progressives and liberals currently have the right medicine for what ails America, while Republicans have nothing but the snake oil of anger, hatred, and selfishness.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Long-Range Forecast: Stormy

It's always a nice feeling to find yourself in good company. Our cartoonist and Editor-In-Chief Paul Fell did just that this week, when his work was featured in NPR's 'Double Take' Cartoon feature, as were cartoons from our friends Gustavo Rodriguez and Gary McCoy.

It's also a good feeling to be proven correct. Judging from the pieces written by Greg Sargent, Sean Trende, Jonathan Bernstein, and Ed Kilgore about the Florida special election yesterday, we'd say our work is in good company in both prose and pictures.

The news, however, doesn't care much about what we did yesterday.

From the explosive revelations about the CIA spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee exposed by Sen. Diane Feinstein yesterday, to the pathetic attack on campaign financing that passed the Senate on Tuesday, to the generally positive news about Obamacare signups, new stories just keep on coming.

One story that you may have missed though, involves the weather - and it may make a big difference in your mood for some time to come.

Right now, the bear that's been the season of Winter is bigfooting all over the start of Spring throughout the Ohio Valley, on the way to our DC office, and up the coast to New England. Spring is indeed coming - and if meteorologists and climate scientists are correct this year, it's going to bring El Niño with it.

While we won't know if a true El Niño pattern has developed in the Pacific for another couple of months, after a winter that's included amazingly high temps in Alaska, desperate drought in California, and repetitive waves of snow and cold for most of the nation East of the Rockies, most of North America is likely ready for an El Niño year.

What that means in real terms is simple - wetter conditions in California, fewer hurricanes for Florida, Gulf Coast, and East Coast states, and generally more stable weather for much of the rest of North America.

Of course, we may not be able to get final confirmation that an El Niño weather pattern is in effect as soon as we'd like. Why not? Austerity and poor governing.

According to Brian Sullivan at Bloomberg.com, the National Weather Service is set to start repairing 70 massive weather buoys scatted throughout the Pacific Ocean this month, that specifically track El Niño and La Niña weather patterns. That system right now, though, is only operating at about 40 percent effectiveness.

That lack of effective investment in our weather forecasting infrastructure may not mean much to you right now - but it means millions of dollars to farmers, commodities investors, and emergency management officials. If the forecasts are wrong, due to poor information, that may mean high prices for you later this year, from the grocery store to the gas pump.

All of that may mean that while most of America may enjoy the weather this spring, that joy might get stomped on later in the year - in large part, due to unwise, austerity-based government spending restrictions, put in place by Republicans in Congress.

If the quality of the weather forecasts turn parts of the economy dark and stormy later this year, don't say we didn't warn you. Investing responsibly in our government - through paying tax money, giving our attention to real news, and getting out and voting - may seem expensive at times.

Austerity and ignorance of reality is actually far more expensive.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Having A Leg To Stand On

As we noted last Wednesday, the election season is upon us. Today, Tuesday, nowhere will that be more apparent than in the special election for U.S. House being held in Florida's 13th district, in the area around Sarasota.

While many in the media have already been saying things like 'this election will offer clues for 2014', as most of the honest political media has already admitted, no matter who wins, the special election won't really be a bellwether for either party for the rest of 2014. Most of the national media is insiting this race will simply be a test of the party's strategies surrounding Obamacare. That said, it's almost guaranteed that no matter who wins the race, that candidate's party will ignore the facts, and claim the victory in Florida is a sign of things to come the rest of the year.

The facts so far as we have them don't say much.

Even though Sink is taking a slight lead into today, and she has a solid lead in early voting, she's made it clear throughout her campaign she's a moderate on many issues. In a district that's traditionally voted for a moderate Republican, her position is hardly a surprise. Her counterpart, Republican David Jolly - a former DC lobbyist with a troubling history - has been making a desperate attempt to appear moderate as the election has drawn to a close, even going to so far as to alienate the National Republican Party who have made it clear they don't approve of Jolly's sudden moderation.

In short, Republicans appear willing to shoot their own candidate in the foot, and politically take his legs out from under him if he won't march to the beat of the extremist drum. Frankly, that may be both the craziest and most honest thing the GOP has done in quite some time.

In contrast, Alex Sink's absence from one of the largest events in Florida on Monday shows that Democrats also still know how to shoot themselves in the feet with those who may be on the fence about supporting them.

The event on Monday was the massive march in Florida's state capitol of Tallahassee to call for changes to Florida's disastrous 'Stand Your Ground" law. That law has, in a manner of speaking, blown the legs of Florida's gun rights supporters completely off. In multiple different cases, the law has been twisted, both against those who were shot - like Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis - as well as those who held the guns, like Marissa Alexander and Michael Giles.

While there are still many calling for the law to be scrapped completely, many more seem willing to accept the idea that the law won't likely be overturned. Many of those marchers say the law should be fixed, changed, and made more just, if it can't be eliminated altogether.

That idea of fixing what you can, making progress where you can, finding common ground and moving forward is an idea Alex Sink has supported in other areas of governing previously. However, she was nowhere near the protest Monday. She didn't even issue a press release stating her support for the efforts of those marching for a just and positive change.

We know for those of our readers in Florida this doesn't exactly leave you with a great decision to make today: It's a choice between a fraudulent and craven Republican in Jolly who's obviously pandering for whatever votes he can scrape together, and in Alex Sink a Democrat who has chosen to be low-profile, instead of courageous enough to boldly come out in favor of changing an unjust law.

That, in a nutshell, may be the most likely part of the Florida race that's duplicated elsewhere this year - desperate pandering from Republicans, with muted stands on every issue from Democrats.

If those dynamics are what's copied in other elections later this year,  both major parties may just be shooting themselves in the feet come this fall.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Testing The Limits Of America

Even as the patience of our neighbors was tested this weekend by our staff cheering for our favorite men's and women's college basketball teams, the Nebraska Cornhuskers, we thought about another kind of test, the SAT, and the news announced last week that the exam was changing once again.

While the test was adjusted in 2005, the adjustments made nearly a decade ago are effectively being wiped out next year, making the essay optional once again, while ending the penalty for wrong answers.

As a staff with children, and led by a former college professor, education has always been an important topic to us - and one that we think much of the media gets wrong. While the biggest unaddressed problem with education in America remains the growing disaster of the Student Loan Crisis, the lack of investment in our public schools nationwide has also become a major problem - in large part due to the age of austerity that's been imposed on America by Republicans in Congress.

Still, as Chris Hayes and other education and testing experts pointed out last Friday, the SAT test, along with its competitor, the ACT, has unfortunately become ubiquitous as a shortcut for often overburdened college admissions boards. This latest version of the SAT nominally is supposed to put the test more in line with the basic sets of skills American high school students should be graduating with, instead of the kind of obscure vocabulary lists the current SAT has focused upon for many years.

The real problem with the test, however, along with many of America's current educational standards, is that neither are currently preparing students for the world they face beyond high school. What's worse, in an American economy already suffering from the greatest economic inequality since the 1920s, the SAT has become a defacto test of a teenager's family income - not the meritocratic appraisal it claims to be.

It gets worse.

As Bloomberg Businessweek Economics Editor Peter Coy confirmed last October, the SAT and ACT tests have in fact become barriers to post-high school education for many Americans. Poor scores today keep students from receiving the ever-dwindling number of grants and scholarships. As the tests have become a massive crutch for colleges of all types, poor SAT and ACT scores now may also prevent community and junior colleges from accepting students for more skill-based post-secondary education, like the training needed for traditional blue-collar jobs like plumbers, electricians, and factory line workers.

That lack of post-high school education, teamed with the appalling lack of critical thinking skills has become standard in American K-12 education - thanks in large part to 'No Child Left Behind'. As such, the less educated American workforce has become easier to take advantage of by management, especially in standard blue-collar jobs, as Lydia Depillis confirmed over the weekend.

That less educated, less informed populace has also become easier to scare about union influence over the last twenty years, thanks to the nearly omnipresent right-wing media, and the greatest propaganda victory radical right-wing ideology ever won.

Events in the real, post-high school work world, however, may be shifting both schools and tests like the SAT and ACT back towards reflections of more applicable academic standards.

Those events include both the recent effort by Volkswagen to unionize their own manufacturing plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the announcement on Friday from Ford, that they'll move truck production back to a union shop in Ohio from a non-union shop in Mexico.

Global companies want workers who can think originally and critically, and apply that knowledge to their work. If the SAT, ACT, and U.S. educational standards don't match up to that demand in the real world, there shouldn't be any confusion by American parents and students as to why those companies won't bring more jobs back to The States.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Poking The Bear

As the week ends, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in DC is going on - or as Jonathan Chait called it this year, "the Republican 'Hunger Games'."

We did think for half a second about covering that insane event today, but we realized we'd already discussed clowns and cowards yesterday. We also don't think anyone needs more hate in their lives. We'll let you read the news accounts of media folks who had to be there in our expanded edition later today, if that's something you feel you absolutely must do.

What might actually help you today is a bit more clarity, especially on the fast moving story surrounding Ukraine, the Crimean region of Ukraine, and Russia.

On Thursday, President Obama and Russian President Putin spent another hour on the phone, continuing to discuss diplomatic solutions. Both the United States and the European Union have begun leveling sanctions on Russia for their invasion. For what it's worth, those sanctions seem to be primarily leveled at some of the wealthier, more powerful members of the Russian oligarchy. If anyone can have influence over Vladimir Putin, they may be able to.

The fact is, however, any sanctions the West makes towards Russia can't really be all that effective. Anyone who says otherwise -  as the right-wing media has been doing for much of this week - is ill-informed and doesn't really know what they're talking about.

As professional oil trader Dan Dicker noted Thursday, the idea being bandied about by the right-wing, of drilling for oil and natural gas and shipping it to Europe from America is absurd. Not only is the cost astronomical, but the sheer amount of Russian-generated natural gas that Europe uses, that currently goes through the pipeline system in Ukraine, can't possibly be replaced long-term by anyone who doesn't have a direct pipeline system to Europe.

As we noted on Monday, the cold truth about this entire conflict is what the people of Ukraine - including the people in the Crimea - really want to do.

For their part, the legislators in the Crimea did pass a call for a referendum next week, on whether they should stay as citizens of Ukraine or become citizens of Russia. As President Obama reminded Putin and the rest of the world, however, that referendum vote by just the Crimean populace would not be legal, either under Ukrainian law or international law.

That said, President Obama and Western leaders may want to pay close attention to a recent survey, reported in the Washington Post yesterday by political scientists Grigore Pop-Eleches and Graeme Robertson.

In short, when asked what the people of Ukraine and Crimea considered their homeland, the answers were stark and revealing. Most Ukrainians are proud of their young nation, regardless of where they're from. The glaring exception was the people of Crimea, who thought of themselves as Crimeans first. They didn't really even consider themselves Russians.

We still think sanctions from the U.S. and EU are the right thing to do, at this point, as is the continued push for diplomatic efforts by Sec. of State Kerry and President Obama. That said, anyone looking at the facts can clearly see - those sanctions are like swatting the nose of a bear with a newspaper.

Meanwhile, what we said on Monday remains true: Regardless of what any other nation does, the people of Ukraine, including those in Crimea, will be the ones who ultimately must make the final decisions about their own futures.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Clowns & Cowards

As we've done for many years now, we give credit & kudos when they're due, and condemn ridiculous and spineless actions when we see them as well.

Wednesday afternoon held perfect examples worthy of condemnation for both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, and reminded us clearly why so many voters are so disgusted with politics in America.

There have already been more than a few examples this week of influential Republicans acting like clowns. From the idiotic tweet of Sen. Lindsey Graham blaming the Ukraine conflict on Benghazi, to the hypocritical whining about how to handle conflict from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, to the asinine ravings of the half-term quitter Sarah Palin, to the completely disrespectful conduct by Rep. Darrell Issa toward Democratic House Congressman Elijah Cummings - all buffoonish, crass, and clownish behavior worthy of scorn.

Not surprisingly, while they've been acting like clowns, Republicans have also been bawling to their favorite right-wing media outlets all week that Democrats and President Obama don't listen to or respect them, and don't take them seriously.

Meanwhile, as Jonathan Chait pointed out in Tuesday at New York Magazine online, it doesn't seem to matter that President Obama once again gave Republicans many of the things they've been whining about for years in his 2015 budget, like an increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit.

In short, no matter what Democrats do, it appears modern Republicans aren't going to be happy with them, unless the Democrats - or anyone else who disagrees with today's Republicans - remove themselves from planet Earth. Since that's unrealistic, we ask very directly: Why the hell should anyone care what Republican politicians want? When they insist on acting like ungrateful, unhappy clowns or screaming babies with a full diaper, and there's no satisfying those Republicans, then there is also no point in even giving those Republicans or anyone who sides with them the time of day.

Unfortunately, much as there have been plenty of examples of strong, ethical action, some specific Democrats on Capitol Hill once again displayed on Wednesday how gutless and worthless certain individuals can be.

Of course, we're talking about the seven Senate Democrats who voted against President Obama's nominee to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. As Ari Berman of The Nation noted, the "Willie Horton Politics" used by Republicans to scare those seven Democrats into voting against the highly talented Debo Adegbile are an embarrassment to Democratic legislators. As many of those Democrats who voted out of fear are also up for election this year, we fervently hope the Democratic voters in those Senators' states do the right thing, and give those legislators a solid reason to be scared. Maybe even vote them out in the primary elections - and vote in better, stronger, more progressive candidates who can win in the fall.

Even with all the clowns and cowards on Capitol Hill, there are those who stand up for the right things. We want to commend Rep. Elijah Cummings for facing down Rep. Issa and demanding that Issa show his fellow Congressperson the respect due to anyone who serves as a member of that body.

We also have to give partial credit today to now-former RT Anchor Liz Wahl. Wahl went to work for Russia Today knowing that it's a propaganda media outlet funded by the Russian government. She worked there for some time, yet - in the midst of the actions going on in Ukraine, and a fellow RT staffer standing up to the corporate censorship being foisted upon RT's staff, Wahl found her ethical core, and did some standing up of her own. Live, on-air Wednesday, she called out the yellow journalism of her own network - and she quit.

Not everyone involved in politics or media in DC is a clown or a coward. For those who work hard to do the right thing and have integrity, they deserve every accolade, benefit, and opportunity that comes their way.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Hot Air And Hard Questions

Yesterday might not have meant much to you personally, however, in places from Massachusetts to Texas, yesterday was primary election day - the first regular primary of the 2014 elections.

In other words, for anyone involved in politics, it's 'Go Time.'

For those "on the field" - the politicians, political organizations, and volunteers - now is often the time when candidates seeking to separate themselves from all the other political hopefuls in their own party begin to make promises about all the things they'll do if elected. The problem, of course, is that some of these claims are simply hot air, bluster and promises that one person elected to office could never realistically achieve by themselves.

Not surprisingly, the more desperate a candidate is - even if they're running for reelection - the more likely they'll say or do something stupid. Senator Lindsey Graham was a perfect example of this yesterday, when he made a fool of himself on Twitter, blaming the often debunked right-wing ideological chew-toy of Bengahzi for Russia's invasion of the Ukraine.

When a candidate is forced to explain exactly where they're getting their crazy ideas, or how - exactly - they expect to put into action the claims they float during election season, many candidates simply have no clue of how they'll answer. Most candidates today are thankful then, since many of today's media members are either starry-eyed or incompetent and won't ever ask them the questions that might burst their election balloons.

Thankfully, some of our more talented colleagues in the media like Greg Sargent at The Plum Line have been watching the electoral baseline for 2014 for some time now, in preparation of this year's elections. Frankly, we don't think the election looks as good for Republicans as many other pundits are claiming.

As Sargent pointed out Tuesday morning, and as Alan Abramowitz pointed out last Thursday, Republicans enter the 2014 midterm elections with a significant structural advantage. Six years ago, President Obama and a wave of Democratic candidates swept into office - and many of the elections they won were in seats that only marginally leaned towards those Democratic candidates. Now, many of those same Democratic politicians have to defend the seats they won six years ago - and it's likely they'll lose more than a few of them.

That said, as Sargent also noted, Democrats hold a significant advantage on both key issues and overall image. In other words, as the most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll confirmed, Americans agree more with Democrats than Republicans on a host of key issues.

One of those issues for Republicans - in fact, the single biggest issue they've built their 2014 campaigns on - has been Obamacare. Unfortunately, as Sargent has also been noting lately, Republicans are now in a serious bind on that very issue.

In short, with every day Obamacare is in effect, Americans continue to like and accept Obamacare more. In addition, after five years of floating their hot air about "repeal and replace", Republicans still don't have a realistic replacement for Obamacare - and most Americans are no longer in favor of repealing the law.

As Sahil Kapur of TPM points out, that may mean Republicans' biggest single political weapon may be effectively worthless in the 2014 races - a prospect that could significantly change a large number of final outcomes by the time this fall's General Election rolls around, as the hot air and trial balloons holding up Republicans bursts.

We might suggest that Republicans - and the media pundits blowing hot air up their shorts - start planning on a different strategy for the fall. Somehow, we just don't think candidates constantly asking members of the media "What kind of question is that?" is going to end up with them winning big in November.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Bird-Brained Expectations

After the latest - and hopefully last - blast of winter from Mother Nature that had the nation's capitol on lockdown Monday, Congress and most of Washington, DC will technically get back to work today. We're not expecting much in the way of actual accomplishments though, in large part because the outcome of today's big announcement by President Obama has already been written - literally.

Like the whining we've heard from billionaires lately, the cliched way many on the right are questioning Obama's "toughness" in handing the Ukraine/Russian conflict, or the way some airlines are changing their passenger benefit plans, neither the outcome or the events themselves should be particularly surprising to anyone who has paid any real attention to current events.

In case you're someone who doesn't travel much, recently Delta airlines announced some big changes to their frequent flyer program. In short, their program will no longer reward those who fly the most miles. Instead their new program will benefit those flyers who spend the most money, regardless of how many miles they fly. United made a similar change that just went into effect last month.

Frankly, the way the corporate structure of the airlines has become, this frequent flyer change shouldn't be surprising to anyone. The airlines want more money from fewer people - and the market incentives have been adjusted to reward those airline corporations for acting that way.

Like being surprised that birds who fly through the air occasionally poop on the people below, no one should be surprised that airlines are focused almost entirely on profit these days. In a similar way, some of our colleagues in the national media seem unusually excited about the President's budget announcement, though we're not sure why.

In case you hadn't heard, President Obama and his White House team are rolling out yet another major policy prescription today, namely the 2015 White House budget proposal. The President's budget will call for an end to austerity, and a significant increase in investment in America's infrastructure, which would create a significant number of short- and mid-term jobs.

Not surprisingly, Republicans in Congress have their own budget plan, which screws the poor and working class and rewards the rich, much like the frequent flyer programs from the airlines. Of course, there are those who will tout that both President Obama and Rep. Paul Ryan's plans include expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit. However, only President Obama's plan will include proven efforts to boost jobs and boost the minimum wage - an idea even Warren Buffett noted in supportive comments this week.

With all these good ideas flying around, and politicians on Capitol Hill getting back to work, if you're an optimistic person, you might think something - even something small - might get accomplished in Washington, DC.

As we noted at the start of today's commentary, that's not likely going to happen.

Lori Montgomery reminded us in Wonkblog on Monday, when Congress signed the latest budget deal, they signed a deal that set the spending levels for two years, through fiscal 2015. Montgomery noted this while also reminding anyone wise enough to pay attention that Senator Patty Murray announced on Friday that Senate Democrats see no need to waste time drafting a budget this year, since the deal they just signed with Republicans was for two years.

In short, nothing is going to happen on the federal budget - which really shouldn't surprise anyone who's been paying attention to the budget battles in our federal government.

To have any other kind of expectations about how our government "works" right now is, sadly, to have completely unrealistic expectations.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Cold Truth Can Be A Bear

What's happening both inside the U.S., and around the world in the Ukraine, is a bear of a situation today.

Here at home, the Eastern half of the country, from Kansas and Oklahoma to Washington, DC, and northward up the Atlantic Coast, began experiencing what is hopefully the last blast of bitter cold and snow this weekend. The predicted snowstorm in Washington, DC today already gave Congress yet another excuse for not doing anything, as the nation's capitol is almost completely shut down today. To say this weather is a bear is a serious understatement - at least from the half of the country that's had more than its fair share of winter this year.

What's happening abroad, however, is a whole different kind of bear - a Russian bear, specifically, that some journalists like Russian experts Julia Ioffe and Fred Kaplan have been expecting for some time.

In case you missed the news this past weekend, Russia invaded Eastern Ukraine, an area of the world current Russian President Vladimir Putin has never really acknowledged was its own nation. That invasion - in the wake of the Winter Olympics and just before the start of the Paralympic Winter Games - also happened in the midst of a Ukrainian uprising, which has included the ouster of their most recent corrupt President, and a revolt against the interim government by Ukrainians in the Western half of Ukraine, centered in the Crimean region.

Another way to put it might be that Russia has finally gotten into the geopolitical game Vladimir Putin has been itching to enter for years - and now, they're playing keep-away with the future of the Ukraine.

Worldwide political reactions, and those in the U.S. especially, have been so textbook typical, Kevin Drum of Mother Jones outlined many of those events Saturday morning, before most of of them had occured.

From Putin's belligerence, to Republicans demanding the U.S. do something (Anything but send troops, of course - it's an election year), to President Obama denouncing Putin's actions and calling Putin on the phone, to journalists admitting the truth that America's options to force Russia to do anything are extremely limited, Drum nailed exactly the series of events that have been happening this weekend.

What Drum said of course, could be summed up simply: There's nothing truly unexpected about these circumstances. Indeed, as we already mentioned, Julia Ioffe notes that most of the West should have seen this coming long ago. Vladimir Putin has always been pessimistic, opportunistic, and hungry to return Russia effectively to the size, scope, and nature it was during the heyday of the Soviet Union.

As Sam Tannenhaus and others wrote about over the weekend, many in the political media are once again referring to the Cold War and thinking of this latest action as a whole new chapter in the long standoff between Moscow and Washington, DC. As Tannenhaus also makes clear, however, thinking of this new conflict in that framework - and indeed thinking of the original Cold War through that prism - is a mistake.

The Ukrainian conflict going on now is no more a controlled proxy war between the West and Russia than Syria is. Like Syria, the people of the Ukraine have complex loyalties, generated over many, many hundreds of years, and no one truly knows what differing groups of nominally Ukrainian people will do.

While the Russian bear can and will play keep-away with the future of Ukranians for the immediate future, the cold, messy, ugly truth is that - regardless of what either Russia or the U.S. does - Ukrainians can and will make their own decisions as to their ultimate future.

Sometimes the bear bites first - but someday, likely soon, Ukrainians WILL bite back. To think all Ukrainians will simply side with Russia at the threat of Russia's military is to ignore everything that has happened in that region over the last thirty years.