It’s still too early for the 2016 campaign, but…

The first vote that counts in the 2016 presidential election is still four months away, so I remain committed to the belief that it is still too soon to be caring about this.  Of course, I’m vastly outnumbered by people in both the Democratic and Republican parties, in the news media, and of course in the political-industrial complex which makes its living off the perpetual campaign.  Nevertheless, I found something I want to share in case you haven’t already seen it.

I admit to being a little amused by the specter of Donald Trump leading the public opinion polls among Republican candidates, and bemused by the conceit of the Hillary Clinton camp that the nomination is hers because…well, because Hillary.  As a government contractor employee I’m far more interested right now in whether or not the do-nothing Congress can pass a simple budget resolution and keep the doors open, and at last report that seems a pretty good bet.  If it doesn’t happen, though, the most likely reason will be that some right-wing extremist will have decided that advocating lost causes is more important than good government…thank you, Sen. Cruz.

It’s those guys (and some gals, but mostly guys) who drove John Boehner to decide to give up his speakership rather than try to further advance his career herding cats.  It’s almost heroic when you think about it: Boehner decided to fall on his sword rather than let the loud-mouthed minority of his party seriously damage the overall operation by keeping up their effort to drive him out of the chair.  I’m getting misty-eyed just thinking about his courage and selflessness…and nearly giddy when I read the suggestion that this could be a step on the road to the self-destruction of the party that the extremists grudgingly call their home.

In today’s New York Times (“Anarchy in the House”), Geoffrey Kabaservice argues that the Boehner resignation drama can be seen as a symptom of the kind of conservatism led by Barry Goldwater in the 1960s.

The radicals who coalesced around Senator Barry Goldwater’s insurgent presidential campaign were zealots. They had no interest in developing a governing agenda. Their program consisted mainly of getting rid of the New Deal and every other government effort to promote the general welfare…Goldwater’s followers viewed any Republicans who wanted to govern as traitors to be stamped out. They accused their own leadership of conspiring with Democrats to thwart conservatives…They had no strategy other than taking over the party and nominating Goldwater. He would win the 1964 election, they believed, because a hidden majority would flock to the polls when presented with a candidate who wasn’t what we would now call “politically correct.”


The present resurgence of anti-governing conservatism is also likely to end badly for Republicans. The extremists have the ability to disrupt the Congress, but not to lead it. Their belief that shutdowns will secure real concessions is magical thinking, not legislative realism. And the more power they gain, the less likely it becomes that a Republican-controlled Congress can pass conservative legislation, or indeed any legislation at all.

It’s true that sometimes no legislation is better than bad legislation. But the United States faces real problems, including stagnant wages, family instability, infrastructure collapse and long-term indebtedness. If Republicans can’t advance their own solutions, they’ll have to deal with what Democrats — or harsh realities — impose on them. Paralysis is not a plan.

The rebranding of Republicanism as a force for anarchy has spilled into the presidential contest and threatens the general election chances of the eventual nominee.

Does the Republican Party have time to turn that around before the general election?  I think so.  Do the people who run the party these days want to turn that around?  If so they better get started proving it, because soon enough even I’ll be paying attention to the campaign.

First the good news, then the better news, then the bad news

The good news is this: Congress has reached a budget deal.  Yes, the U.S. Congress.  And not when facing a deadline.  America’s guests have done a thing that is rare in this day—their jobs.  Here are the details; I’m most enthused at the idea that enough members showed enough maturity and leadership to actually work out some agreement, one which means we and the world can go two years without having to fret about a government shutdown.

Now to the better news, which I would actually classify as a Christmas miracle if I were given to assuming that God takes sides in American politics (or sports): the mainstream Republican Party is showing signs of finally standing up to the conservative extremists.  Speaker of the House John Boehner was the first to publicly, honestly, express his exasperation with the tea partyish crowd that has pushed the GOP so far to the edge of American politics that they have to stand on each other’s shoulders a mile high in order to see the center.  He reportedly got even more “honest” in private:

“They are not fighting for conservative principles,” Mr. Boehner told rank-and-file House Republicans during a private meeting on Wednesday as he seethed and questioned the motives of the groups for piling on against the plan before it was even made public.

“They are not fighting for conservative policy,” he continued, according to accounts of those present. “They are fighting to expand their lists, raise more money and grow their organizations, and they are using you to do it. It’s ridiculous.”

The conservatives of course defended themselves, which is perfectly fine; I hope the center and the far right keep this back-and-forth going ad infinitum (we’re already well past ad nauseum).  For however long they fight with each other—and these things don’t last as long as you might wish them to—it keeps them from concentrating their fire outside the circle; maybe that keeps the extremists from winning more elections and coming into real power to remake America in their own frightening image.

One more politics thing: did you see who was cited by PolitiFact for the Lie of the Year?  Yep, our president.  Selected by a reader poll from among ten finalists, “If you like your health plan, you can keep it” was chosen by 59%, the winner going away and embarassingly ahead of popular favorites like “Congress is exempt from the healthcare law” (Ted Cruz), “No U.S.-trained doctors will accept Obamacare” (Ann Coulter) and “Muslims are exempt from Obamacare” (chain email).  President Obama’s catchy little reassurance actually worked its way up over the years from “half true” to “pants on fire” and now Lie of the Year.  Congratulations, Mr. President, for finding a way to help the self-defeating conservatives survive the circular firing squad.

Meet Ed Snowden, and other notes from a remarkable week in privacy and espionage‏

As they used to say on every Top 40 rock ‘n’ roll station ever, the hits just keep on comin’:

After a stunning one-two punch of secret spying revelations last week, one thing that I hadn’t really counted on happened right away: a voluntary and fairly proud confession from the guy who says he turned over the secret documents to the reporters.  Meet Ed Snowden, and read the Washington Post reporter’s sidebar describing what it was like to communicate with Snowden, who knew that he had turned himself into a marked man.

Last week someone (I forget who) noted, possibly on Twitter, the irony that we as a nation feel confident in farming out our National Security Agency work to companies like Snowden’s employer, Booz Allen Hamilton, which didn’t know that he was gathering up documents and talking to reporters, but the job of groping us in airports is so critical that only a government employee will do.  Oh, by the way, in a classic horse/barn door kinda thing, Booz Allen finally got around to firing Snowden

I also expected this sooner: the ACLU is suing the government alleging violation of its rights of free speech, association, and privacy:

As an organization that advocates for and litigates to defend the civil liberties of society’s most vulnerable, the staff at the ACLU naturally use the phone—a lot—to talk about sensitive and confidential topics with clients, legislators, whistleblowers, and ACLU members. And since the ACLU is a VBNS [Verizon] customer, we were immediately confronted with the harmful impact that such broad surveillance would have on our legal and advocacy work. So we’re acting quickly to get into court to challenge the government’s abuse of Section 215.

One of the most fun things here has been that the secret court orders forcing telephone and Internet companies to turn over information are so secret that the companies aren’t even allowed to discuss the orders, and the news has made it look like the companies have been happily cooperating with the feds in violating their customers’ privacy.  For anyone who still thinks there is no presumption of privacy anymore, consider this: Google is asking government permission to spill the beans and tell its customers what it has done, in order to “to ease public concerns about the privacy and security of users’ data.”

Google’s inability to disclose “the number of FISA national security requests that Google receives, as well as the number of accounts covered by those requests” fuels speculation that the company has given the U.S. government free access to all its users’ data. That speculation, [Google chief legal officer David] Drummond wrote, is “simply untrue.”

What about our national leaders, the men and women to whom we look for guidance and wisdom on such occasions…what do they have to say about this whole invasion of privacy/government spying on Americans thing?  Fortunately, some have been right on top of things, speaking out in favor of a national discussion about the proper balance of safety versus privacy; some have taken some time to think things over before coming to a conclusion about Snowden, and most are waiting for the polls to come in.

OK then, here’s the first poll: Americans tell the Pew Center that they’re pretty much OK with their government spying on them

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center and The Washington Post…finds no indications that last week’s revelations of the government’s collection of phone records and internet data have altered fundamental public views about the tradeoff between investigating possible terrorism and protecting personal privacy.

Currently 62% say it is more important for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy. Just 34% say it is more important for the government not to intrude on personal privacy, even if that limits its ability to investigate possible terrorist threats.

Not everyone thinks that, though, me included.  But I’ve already had my say this past week; I recommend taking a look at Emily Bazelon’s thoughts on government abuse of power

The government has admitted to unconstitutional NSA spying before—last year. The existence of these newly reported databases should be worrisome because once the information is collected, it is so much easier for the government to misuse it. The more data mining, the more it becomes routine and the more tempting to come up with more uses for it. If you trust President Obama and his people not to go too far, what about the next president, or the one after that? We have now had a Republican and a Democrat administration sign up for a broad expansion of warrantless wiretapping and other surveillance, and bipartisan support in Congress for the tradeoffs we have struck. And yes, there is more to the current revelations than we know—in particular, the rationale for the FISA court’s long-standing order for the phone data, and the rationale for PRISM. Let’s concede that a terrorist attack somewhere has probably been prevented as a result of these efforts. So how do we ever go back?

We probably don’t. And someday, the abuses will begin, in all likelihood long before we know about them. I’m not usually moved by slippery slope arguments. But this one looks so very easy to slide down.

…and Charles Cooke’s consideration of a simple historical lesson on personal privacy in a free society:

The adult truth, as ever, is that being free means accepting the negative consequences of being free. I daresay that if cameras were installed in every one of the Republic’s private bedrooms and monitored around the clock by well-meaning sentinels, then the rates of both domestic violence and spousal murder would decrease dramatically. But a free people must instinctively reject such measures as a profound threat to their liberty and, in doing so, accept the risks of unregulated home life. Alas, the story of the last century is the tale of a gradually diminishing tolerance for risk. “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it,” wrote Thomas Jefferson. In almost all areas, our modern calculation is quite the opposite.


The Fourth Amendment exists now for precisely the same reason that it existed in 1791: to ensure that, in the absence of extremely compelling situations, Americans are not subject to casual government scrutiny. Its authors understood that knowledge is power, and that, as there is no justification for the state to have too much power over you, there is also no justification for the state to have too much knowledge about you

I hope that as this story continues in the months to come, people will give it the serious thought that it deserves.  For those having a tough time getting a handle on what all the furor is about, try this as a starting place: would you feel the same way you do now about the actions of the U.S. government if the last president were still in the White House?

The fault is not in our stars

Congress is back in Washington—a warning that reminds me of the comment many years ago by then-mayor Jeff Friedman of Austin, Texas, who, when asked for his thoughts about the fact that the state legislature was coming back to town soon, said “Lock up the kids and dogs.”

The legislative branch and the president are back in town, in theory, to deal with the prospect of more than $600 billion worth of budget cuts and tax increases scheduled to go into effect next week. They’re not making much progress, as you might imagine.

Remember, the “fiscal cliff” is a threat the legislative and executive branches imposed on themselves a year and a half ago. To resolve an impasse over extending the debt ceiling so the government could continue to borrow money and pay its bills, our “leaders” set this time bomb of higher taxes and cuts to federal programs to force themselves to come to agreements on taxes and spending and debt ceilings before the “unthinkable” happened. Well, now we’re on the doorstep of the unthinkable, and look what they’re doing. (By the way, the Treasury department says we’re going to hit the debt ceiling next week!)

Perhaps more annoying than our elected leaders’ inability to govern—for that is what it really comes down to, their inability to do what they were sent there to do—is the realization that the focus on the fiscal cliff isn’t what’s really important anyway. Not to say that higher taxes and program cuts don’t matter, but that the real cause of the government’s economic problems—spending more than we take in—still isn’t being addressed.

The fiscal cliff was a crisis of Congress’ own making, brought on by its inability to address many of the same problems last year. The bigger problem, which lawmakers aren’t addressing, is the lack of sustainable fiscal policy.

We are in this mess in part because for decades leaders from both parties have been reading from the same economic playbook. They haggle over the small change while trying to convince Americans that it will make a profound difference in the country’s finances.

Houston Chronicle business columnist Loren Steffy recently offered another on-target analysis that reminds us the real problem isn’t the fiscal cliff, it’s the historic lack of honesty on the part of the political parties.

The budget battle playing out in Washington is nothing more than a giant national temper tantrum. Since 2001, we have been on a spending jag that has ballooned well beyond the costs of inflation and population growth. We’ve funded wars and prescription drug plans, bailed out banks and automakers and stimulated the economy. These programs have spanned both parties’ control of the White House and Congress.

At the same time, we’ve cut taxes. We now have the lowest average tax rate in about 30 years, yet many still complain taxes are too high and protest any threats to cut or curtail entitlement programs.

For more than a decade, we have demanded more while expecting to pay less. No one wants to admit the party’s over.

But they do want to admit—they’re desperate to admit—that the other party is causing the problem. As for the immediate issue, after the House speaker and the president couldn’t come up with a deal last week John Boehner has insisted that the Senate must come up with a plan and then the House will consider it, while the Democratic leadership in the Senate “stands strong” insisting that the House approve a measure it’s already turned down…or else.  (Or else what?) And just while I’ve been writing this, CNN reported that President Obama is about to make a new offer, until it reported that he won’t.

As disheartening as it is to see our national leadership apparently incapable of acting in the nation’s best interests, the situation becomes damn near depressing when you recognize who is really to blame: it’s us. You; me; them; those guys over there, too—we are responsible for the evolution of a system in which ideological extremists representing the view of a minority of citizens are able to reach positions of national power, and we are responsible for not holding our leaders to account for not putting national interests first, and we are responsible for taking more and more from our government but not being willing to pay for what we take.

The solution to our government’s economic problems won’t come out of Congress this week or next; it won’t come from refusing to reduce spending on government programs (which, frankly, no one is doing), nor from refusing to raise taxes and threatening to hold one’s breath until one turns blue (which, candidly, more than one are doing). It will come, when it comes, with the realization by Americans that America can’t keep putting its everyday expenses on a credit card and only make the minimum payments indefinitely and still expect to remain fiscally healthy.  It doesn’t work like that, and we have the national debt and the federal budget deficit to prove it.

Just shut up and let me do the talking

It’s about damn time that the public reports about the private negotiations on the federal budget had some good news: Speaker Boehner and President Obama have gotten everyone else to leave the room!

Since the election last month there’s been plenty of balloon juice about how to avoid running the federal budget over a “fiscal cliff,” which is just an agreement made last year between Congress and the administration on a set of tax increases and budget cuts that would go into effect at the first of next year unless they took some other action on taxes and spending by that deadline. Remember when they said that Washington had “kicked the can down the road?” Well, this is where that can stopped; it was kicked to here so the issue wouldn’t inconveniently get noticed while America was paying attention during the fall election campaigns.

You’d like to think that there would have been some effort underway all along during the past year and a half to find a compromise on ways to strengthen the economy and reduce the government’s budget deficit, but to all appearances there wasn’t. The people we elected to go to Washington to use their judgment and wisdom in the best interests of our communities and our states and our country couldn’t climb down off their talking points long enough to get anything constructive accomplished. They could, however, make a lot of noise about the virtuousness of their own moral and political philosophies, and by extension if not by direct accusation the seditious intentions of their “friends across the aisle.” Perfect way to prepare the ground for fruitful negotiation over disagreements, right?

You don’t have to be a political scientist to know that any honest effort to come to a compromise on a course of action regarding a disputed issue isn’t aided by (1) having too many negotiators at the table, and (2) conducting the negotiations in public. The more people that are involved, the harder it is to get everyone to agree on anything. And the more the people who are involved do their talking in public and make great political show of what they will and will not accept, the harder they make it on themselves to come to a compromise without seeming to lose face in public or run the risk of being bashed as surrender monkeys or traitors to some cause or other. So it seems to me to be a thoroughly sensible decision that Boehner has asked the Senate leaders and the House Democratic leader to step back, and that “White House aides and the speaker’s staff, by mutual agreement, have largely shut down public communication about the talks” in the hope that some real progress can be made.

Now for the entertainment portion of today’s post: since I’m not one to overlook an opportunity to point out stupidity where it exists, I should highlight this. The Times story notes that as the president reaffirmed his position that the tax rate on incomes above $250,000 must go up…

On Capitol Hill, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, moved Thursday to vote on Mr. Obama’s proposal, in his broader deficit package, to permanently diminish Congress’s control over the federal government’s statutory borrowing limit, assuming that Democrats would break ranks and embarrass the president. Instead, Democratic leaders did a count, found they had 51 solid votes, and took Mr. McConnell up on what Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate majority leader, called “a positive development.”

Mr. McConnell then filibustered his own bill, objecting to a simple-majority vote and saying a change of such magnitude requires the assent of 60 senators.

“I do believe we made history on the Senate floor today,” Mr. [Richard] Durbin said.

History indeed: had to filibuster his own bill to keep it from being passed! I’m thinking that Ashley Judd might be just the thing the U.S. Senate and the people of Kentucky need.