Dear Ted Cruz,

I was going to write you a short note to congratulate you (I guess) for becoming the first officially-announced candidate for president…in a primary season whose first election is still more than a year away, for a general election even more distant than that.  But we both know that I wouldn’t have been sincere, so I didn’t do it.  I know how you hate the phoniness that’s unfortunately so typical of politics, and God knows I don’t want to add to it.

I think I understand why you announced when you did—to try to get commitments from big money donors before they sign up with Jeb, and to capitalize on any remaining Tea Party fervor that hasn’t just naturally bubbled off since November.  I take it you feel that was worth the chance, even if it flies in the face of the fact that in recent times the first person to announce does not end up winning.  And I guess I understand why you announced where you did—forsaking stages in both the nation’s capital as well as your state’s capital, and even your hometown here in Houston, you chose a setting deep in the heart of the Christian extremist movement to say loud and clear, I am here to be the president of Born Again America and the rest of you better watch your step.

What the hell, it’s your campaign…do it however you want.  I will note that while you have the advantage of at least being an alternative to another Clinton, or yet another Bush—a not insubstantial advantage, to my mind—you are also following in the footsteps of Barack Obama by aiming for the top after having barely dipped your toe in an elective office.  Your hubris is showing, buddy, and I imagine they had something to say about that back at Faith West Academy and Second Baptist.

Can you win?  There is so much time before anyone casts the first vote that actually means something, and so many unknowns that could go one way or another during that time—and that’s both the known unknowns as well as the unknown ones—it’s impossible to say.  So sure, I guess you could win…and I could finally break 80 on the golf course.  I can get you the names of some folks who can help quantify that possibility for you, if you’re interested.

So as you set off on this adventure, no doubt intensely secure in your belief in yourself, I’d suggest looking out for this one way that you might be able to expand your appeal: try to be less of an asshole.  It couldn’t hurt.

The state of the political system

Almost time for the president’s State of the Union address—oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy!

Not really.  I’m feeling that I should watch/listen to the speech just because I like to think that I’m a good citizen, but I don’t expect that what we’ll hear from the House chamber in a few hours will be very uplifting or much of a surprise.

But what if…what if Mr. Obama dropped all political pretense and told us what was really on his mind?  Ezra Klein imagines he might remind us that we’re in a slow but steady economic recovery, although wages need to catch up with inflation and we need to invest in infrastructure; and that although there’s a lot to do, he would predict “The really bad news is we’re not going to do any of it.”

And that’s because even if the state of the union is strong, the state of the political system that governs the country is weak. We have made it weak. You have made it weak. And whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, a liberal or a conservative, you need to know there’s a problem here.

The hard thing I have to say to you tonight is that I was wrong. When I ran for president, I believed that the political system could be repaired by people of goodwill, who genuinely wanted to agree, to reach out, to compromise. I ran for president telling you that the problems in American politics could be fixed through elections. But the problems run deeper than the people serving in Washington at any given moment, and the way all of us in this room are elected is making them worse.

The refrain I hear all around the country is, “why can’t you guys just agree?” It’s the right question. Families balancing their books need to agree on how to spend their money. Businesses trying to make payroll need to agree on which investments to make, which workers to give raises, which costs to cut.


In a family, everyone cares for each other, everyone is working towards the same goal, everyone would throw themselves in front of a truck to make sure the others are safe and healthy and happy. A family is built to find agreement.

The government isn’t a business either. It doesn’t work towards a single goal. It can’t judge itself based off stock price or profit margin. And it isn’t built to make decisions or to be held accountable for them. When a company has a disagreement about its direction, there’s someone with the power — an owner, a CEO, a board — to make a decision. A business isn’t built to find agreement the way a family is, but it’s built to force a resolution to disagreements when necessary.

You want to know the truth? Government, or at least the political system, is like a football game.


The honest truth is that that’s how politics works, too. We’ve got two teams. And only one of them can win the election. So they line up and they hit each other as hard as they can. They don’t cooperate because the rules don’t let them cooperate. They don’t agree because agreeing means losing — and losing is political death. Losing means you can’t help the people you came here to help.


If this was just about policy, we could come to agreement. I promise you we could. When you’re just talking about policy there are lots of ways to make both sides happy. But this isn’t just about policy. It’s about power. It’s about who will win the next election and govern the country. And while policy questions have answers that can make both sides happy, elections only return answers that make one side happy.


This is a room of honorable men and women who entered public service for the right reasons. Most of us are still in it for the right reasons. But even if our motivations are noble, the game we’re playing is ugly, and more than it’s ugly, it’s getting dangerous. And that’s because, even though we can’t agree, even though the rules of the game make it career suicide for us to agree, the political system is built to require our agreement. It needs us to do the thing it makes impossible. If we can’t agree, the country often can’t move forward, and sometimes, it will get pushed backward.

Over time, the failures of our political system will eat at the very foundations of our country’s strength: they will weaken our economy, divide our people, and squander our opportunities. They may well lead to an unnecessary and devastating crisis, like a debt-ceiling fight that is not resolved in time and triggers a global financial crisis that leaves the American economy forever diminished.

And here’s the thing. We can’t change the game. Politics has no place for conscientious objectors, either. Only you can change the game. Only you can change the rules. But right now, you’re just punishing the players. In 2008, you elected me and my party. But Washington still didn’t work. So in 2010, you elected the Republicans. And then Washington worked even worse. So in 2012, you gave us Democrats another try. We disappointed you again. In the most recent election, you turned back towards the Republicans. And they’re going to disappoint you again. Because you can’t change the game by changing the players. You can only change the game by changing the rules.

The good news is we’ve changed the rules before. When this country was founded, people who looked like me didn’t even count as a full person. People who looked like Minority Leader Pelosi couldn’t vote. All those senators out in the audience, they were elected by state legislatures rather than ordinary voters. Speaking of those senators, most of the states they’re representing today didn’t exist. Nor did the filibuster, for what it’s worth.

The genius of this country is that it has continuously reinvented itself to handle new challenges, new problems, and new opportunities. The most honest thing I can tell you tonight is that we need to do it again, that you need to do it again. We need a political system as strong as this union, and right now, we don’t have it.

God bless you, and God bless America.

Furlough Journal: Lunatics, yes…fringe, not so much

Happy Columbus Day, which is the last day I can sit home doing nothing and still get paid during our partial government shutdown, now about to begin its third exciting week!  I used some of the time today on Twitter keeping up with developments in Washington as the Senate leaders took their turn at not only resolving the shutdown but avoiding a potential government default later this week when the debt ceiling is expected to be reached.  Good times.

The proximate cause of the shutdown that started October 1 was the inability of Congress to pass a law, known as a continuing resolution (CR), to keep all of the federal government departments and agencies fully funded and functioning; they pass a CR to extend funding at the prior year’s budget levels because they are totally incapable of passing a new budget—been that way for years now.  As noted at the time (Furlough Journal: Blaming the guilty, 10/2/2013) , this shutdown can be credited to the extremist Republican members of the House who were holding a gun to America’s head demanding concessions from the president on the Affordable Care Act.  Plenty of conservatives who oppose Obamacare were and are critical of the tea partiers for using this tactic at this time, for being oblivious to political reality.

Ah, but just what reality are we, or they, talking about?  You’ve probably seen more and more analysis that argues, if I may be so bold as to paraphrase, that the extremists aren’t interested in whatever “reality” the mainstream members and Congressional leadership are trying to protect and advance; they are out to do what they said they would do when they were elected—shrink the government and fight the good fight against liberals in general and Barack Obama in particular.  To the extent that they are trying to do what they promised they would do if elected and are fighting for a cause they believe in without compromising their principles, they should be applauded.  To the extent that their actions have consequences for their fellow citizens, they should take responsibility and must accept criticism.

Among the chattering classes there’s lately been a lot of effort put into trying to explain the beliefs and the motives and the actions of these extremists, to find an historical precedent for this kind of obstructionism, to give the average American a frame of reference.  To my surprise, a lot of writers are going back to the pre-Civil War South to find one!

Late last month (At this point in the discussion there is really only one question left, 9/30/2013) I wrote about a James Fallows piece in The Atlantic in which he argued that this fight is entirely within the Republican Party and that there’s nothing anyone else can say that will persuade, likening it to “the inability of Northern/free-state opinion to affect the debate within the slave-state South from the 1840s onward.”  More recently I’ve found a few making the argument that today’s tea party extremists are philosophically aligned with John C. Calhoun and the nullifiers before the Civil War.  Frank Rich in New York Magazine this weekend is just the latest:

The present-day anti-government radicals in Congress, and the Americans who voted them into office, are in the minority, but they are a permanent minority that periodically disrupts or commandeers a branch or two of the federal government, not to mention the nation’s statehouses. Their brethren have been around for much of our history in one party or another, and with a constant anti-­democratic aim: to thwart the legitimacy of a duly elected leader they abhor, from Lincoln to FDR to Clinton to Obama, and to resist any laws with which they disagree.


At the heart of the current rebels’ ideology is the anti-Washington credo of nullification, codified by the South Carolina politician John C. Calhoun in the 1830s and rarely lacking for avid followers ever since. Our inability to accept the anti-government right’s persistence is in part an astonishing case of denial.


For Republicans to claim that this cabal of 80 legislators represents a mutant strain—“a small segment who dictate to the rest of the party,” in the words of a prominent GOP fund-raiser, Bobbie Kilberg—is disingenuous or delusional. (Kilberg herself has raised money for Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor.) This “small segment” accounts for a third of the 232 members of the House Republican caucus. Lunatics they may be, but the size of their cohort can’t be minimized as a fringe in the context of the wider GOP. And they wield disproportionate clout because the party’s so-called moderates let them—whether out of fear of primary challenges from the right, opportunism, or shared convictions that are not actually moderate at all.


…1994 marked the culmination of the migration of the old Confederacy from the Democratic Party to the GOP. That shift had started in 1964, when Barry Goldwater pried away states from the old solid Democratic South with his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, and it accelerated with the advent of Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” of pandering to racists at the end of that decade. But for an interim quarter-century after that, the old Dixiecrats were dispersed in both major parties, rather than coalescing in one. The 1994 election was the first since Reconstruction in which the majority of the old South’s congressional representation went into the Republican column.

Rich goes on to make some thoughtful points; it’s worth your time.  So is Charles C.W. Cooke’s de facto rebuttal in the National Review.  Cooke is an opponent of Obamacare who has sharply criticized the extremists for marching into this battle with no plan for how to win, but he’s not ready to cede the nullification argument, pointing out that the Constitution itself separates power in our federal government and no one should be surprised when they are disagreements among people trying to wield power:

To understand the American system is to grasp that our current impasse is by no means exceptional, and, in consequence, that there is little point in wasting time looking around for bogeymen or ghosts when the culprit is there in plain sight. If you want to blame someone for our problems, it should be James Madison, not John Calhoun.


Some progressives like simplistically to claim that America’s two parties “switched places” in 1964 — a trade leading to the predominance of racist white southerners in the GOP eager to burn down the government to get what they wanted. If so, then one has to wonder why the vast majority of funding gaps occurred at the insistence of the good guys in what, by the time the first such gap came along in 1976, was allegedly the New Democratic party.


…if staunch congressional opposition, government shutdowns, and high-profile debt-limit fights are now to be cast as examples of nullification, then Congress has evidently tried to nullify not only the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, but also those of Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush.


My suspicion is that, as much as anything else, “nullification” is a word that is used consciously and deliberately as a cudgel — especially at the moment, when we have a president who is black. Accusing someone in America of seeking to “nullify” a given power is rhetorically akin to sticking the label “defenders of states’ rights” onto advocates of robust federalism. The accusers do not simply intend to imply that their opponents’ actions are illegal or illegitimate; they mean to taint them with the racism brush…

This is an interesting discussion to be having right now, and it keeps our minds off the latest news about the National Security Agency copying your email contacts list while we twiddle our thumbs and wait for our elected members of Congress to do their damn jobs.

Congratulations, America

We did some good things out there in those little voting booths yesterday…most of us…but a hearty “good on ya” to everyone who took the trouble to participate in the process beyond just running their mouths (or their typing fingers).  And as my old high school biology teacher (and football coach) used to say each Monday morning in the fall, “I’d like to say jest a few words about the happ’nins of last week.”

Light bulbThis morning McClatchy ran a pretty good early analysis of why a president who seemed to be in a neck and neck race for re-election ended up winning so decisively.

…Democrats say [President Barack] Obama was able, despite the sluggish economy, to point to achievements. He trumpeted success at preventing the economy from hitting bottom with a stimulus plan that plowed government dollars into hiring. He achieved long-sought health care legislation, enacted a firewall to prevent a relapse of the Wall Street fiasco, backed a federal bailout to save auto industry jobs, ended the war in Iraq and oversaw the raid that ended in the death of Osama bin Laden.

“Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive,” Vice President Joe Biden suggested as an Obama campaign bumper sticker. “That about sums it up, man.”

At the close of the election, Obama was boosted by a crisis beyond any candidate’s control. As the massive storm Sandy barreled up the East Coast, Obama suspended his campaign appearances to tend to the emergency response, projecting an air of confidence and compassion and avoiding the criticism that plagued former President George W. Bush in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Light bulbOh, and on that neck and neck thing: Nate Silver of The New York Times 538 Blog, the target of a lot of conservative venting over his analysis of state by state polls which predicted that Obama had a way better than 50-50 chance of winning, is the smartest man on the planet today: if by now we know that Obama won Florida, Silver picked every. state’s. outcome. correctly.

“Journalists who professed to be political experts were shown to be well connected, well-informed perhaps, but – on the thing that ultimately decided the result: how people were planning to vote – not well educated. They were left reporting opinions, while Nate Silver and others reported research.”

Light bulbPolitico has a list of the dozen things we learned yesterday.

7. The Bush problem lingers

Romney’s refusal to triangulate away from President George W. Bush is one of the stranger decisions he made in this political climate.

Exit polls from Tuesday night show that a majority of voters still blame Bush for the weak economy.

This could be cause for concern for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is widely viewed as a potential 2016 hopeful and is a middle-of-the-road voice on immigration reform. It’s also an issue in terms of some of the Republicans’ top figures, such as Crossroads co-founder and former Bush political strategist Karl Rove.

How the Republicans deal with this in the next two years will be telling as their chances of reclaiming the White House next time around.

Light bulbOne more thing I learned is that Mitt Romney, though clearly in emotional pain when he took the stage in Boston, was incredibly gracious in defeat, setting a terrific example when he said “This is a time of great challenge for America, and I pray that the president will be successful in guiding our nation.”  Compare that to the creepily gleeful declaration from Republican leaders four years ago that their highest priority was to make Obama a one-term president, a priority they pursued with no discernible concern for the impact of their actions on the nation they claimed to love and swore to serve.  Those among them who don’t try to live up to Romney’s “come together” example are giving us a glimpse of their true motivations.

Light bulbSpeaking of their motivations, LZ Granderson thinks the president has won some vindication from those who’ve been clamoring to “take our country back” and have never seemed to have been able to give Obama credit for anything he’s done.

So when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, his critics spent more time discrediting the importance of the award than congratulating him for winning it.

When unemployment fell under 8%, they accused the Obama administration of fixing the numbers.

When the president opted to campaign instead of surveying the damage caused by Hurricane Isaac sooner, he was called selfish. When Obama left the campaign trail to survey the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy, former FEMA Director Michael Brown criticized him for responding too quickly.

Nothing he did was good enough for them.

But on Tuesday, it was good enough for the majority of real Americans.

Light bulbThe drive to extend equal protection of the law to homosexual citizens and give them the right to marry under civil law cleared another hurdle: for the first time, voters have said yes to same-sex marriageLots of them, in fact.

Light bulbThe extremists who shanghaied the once-proud Republican Party must consider if they will moderate their views on many issues to broaden their appeal or if they’d rather defend those cherished beliefs…and lose election after election because, inconvenient though it may be to admit, most Americans just don’t agree with what they seem to stand for.

Light bulbMeanwhile, the president and the current Congress must pick up the can they kicked down the road a year ago and find an answer to correcting our government’s budget deficit: if they take no action at all, there will be massive cuts to discretionary spending at the first of the year that may well push the economy into another recession.  Swell.

OK then…let’s talk about something else for awhile, OK?

Time to take the long view

In less than a day we’ll either know which candidate has won the election for president or we’ll be standing by at the starting gate to cheer the lawyers as they rush for the courthouse to file suits protesting the election of 2012.  Either way: good times.  If you’re like me and have subscribed to the mantra “please, for the love of God, make it stop,” you haven’t been thinking about the elections that come after this one; here’s a little food for thought when you do.

The demographics of the American electorate are in the midst of an historic shift that bodes ill for the future of today’s Republican Party and Tea Party and any other angry-old-white-people’s party, whether they win this election or not.  The findings of the Pew Research Center include that:

  • We are steadily moving toward the day when minorities will be the majority. In 1950, the country was 87 percent white. [Paul] Taylor says that number will dip below 50 percent by 2050.
  • “The people leaving are predominantly white. The people coming in are heavily nonwhite.”
  • The growing percentage of the population that is minority comes thanks to a fast-growing Hispanic population as well as a steady increase in the number of Americans of Asian descent.
  • “Republicans are 90 percent white. Democrats are only about 60 percent white,” says Pew Research’s Andy Kohut. “The Republicans have a white problem — or a lack of diversity problem. It’s not apparent in this election so far, but over time, the changing face of America is going to represent more of a challenge to the GOP than to the Democrats.”
  • Minorities overwhelmingly favor Democrats. That trend is likely enhanced by President Obama’s status as the nation’s first black president. In this election, African-American support for Obama tops 90 percent. Polls show Hispanics supporting the president by better than 2 to 1.
  • As for white voters, polls show they prefer Republicans. They went 55 percent for John McCain four years ago, and this year Mitt Romney is doing just as well or even better among whites.

(Surely is it just coincidence that the 90%-white party is proudly in the lead on issues of “immigration reform” and “securing our borders” and “preventing voter fraud.”)

Add to that calculus the fact that a growing number of people—now more than 40% of Americans—say they are not Republicans or Democrats, and that younger voters, the ones filling in the voter rolls as the older voters die off, are also more liberal in their attitudes on the GOP’s favorite social issue shibboleths.

When I cast my first vote in a presidential election and my guy lost, I was very worried that society was going to unravel.  It didn’t, of course, but I was only 18 and didn’t have the virtue of the long view.  The country has powered along in greased grooves for a few generations since then, just as it did for 200 years before that.  I don’t mean that everything has been perfect or that we can take national success and longevity for granted and lay back sipping daiquiris by the pool, but I don’t believe that today’s situation or the outlook for the future are as bad as the partisan zealots and the political-industrial complex make them out to be.  Not if we can finally get our leaders to take responsible action to pull the federal budget back from the cliff while there’s still time…that should become our focus between now and New Year’s; then we can worry about the cable news noise stations and their crises du jour.