Public Disservice

The U.S. Capitol is photographed through a chain fence in Washington Anarchy is upon us, at least technically.  The Federal Government of the United States of America has ceased function as of yesterday.  This is a dramatic, though unfortunately not unprecedented, situation born of political discord and disagreement.  For most countries, this descent into anarchy would signal the beginning of a failed state, the imminence of a coup, and the breakout of violence.  Luckily, for a nation as traditionally stable and great as ours, it should only portend of increased rancor and brinksmanship.  However, this shutdown represents an important symptom of a potentially terminal illness in our system of politics and government.

We have always prided ourselves as a nation of laws, and not men.  By that, simply, I mean that laws are enacted through a regular and collective process, and each and every person residing in the United States are held to those laws.  The Affordable Care Act (ACA, Obamacare), a federal system of regulating the insurance industry, was enacted into law using these mechanisms, albeit amongst significant debate and controversy.  Opponents of the law then raised a real concern that it was outside the constitutional limits set on federal government.  A Supreme Court challenge was raised, and the law was deemed constitutional.  Much can be said about this law, but nobody can challenge that it was passed, enacted, and validated through completely regular channels and is constitutional (by definition, inasmuch as Supreme Court precedent defines constitutionality).  At this point, opponents of this law continue to have choices.  They can push for repeal and see if they can get sufficient votes, or they can bide their time until the next election and see if they can get sufficient votes.  To date, they have not been shy (nor have they been successful) about either of these options.  However, refusing to fund the law of the land is not one of their options and is tantamount to aiding the violation of said law, under the doctrine of accessory liability.

Arguing that the government shutdown is due to the Democrat’s intransigence and refusal to negotiate about the ACA is thus a non-valid argument.  The ACA is the law of the land, like it or not, and any debates about it occurring between the legislative and executive branches is unconstitutional.  Whatever further debates are to be had must be confined to the judicial branch.  The tea party branch of the Republican Party would do well to read the constitution they so claim to support.

Please understand, I am not saying this as a supporter of the ACA.  In fact, as a tax payer, a physician, and a small business owner, I stand to lose in at least three different ways through its implementation.  I also feel that it is too contingent upon insurance companies dealing in good faith, something they have not traditionally been known to do.  However, my opinions or the opinions of anyone in Congress are totally immaterial to this argument.  The simple fact is that as it is the law of the land, Congress must pass appropriate funding for it.  There exist avenues to reconsider this law, however withholding funding is not one of them.

Our constitution, like the ACA, unfortunately depends on individuals acting in good faith for the greater good.  It depends on civility and cooperation, and assumes that the ultimate goal of those involved is the good of the nation.  Unfortunately,  those assumptions no longer ring true.  Many of those involved in government are spending too much time and energy working on the next election and short term gains for their party rather than long term gains for their nation.  Rules are changed routinely by those in power to their own benefit, and then ignored or complained about just as routinely when those same people are no longer in power.  This is in contrast to both moral and ethical principles, which dictate that (especially in such a cyclical environment), rules be followed by those in power even if it is in their short term detriment.  Episodes such as the current one are thus both reinforcing causes and symptoms of a deep seeded political dysfunction which threatens the basic assumptions of our founding fathers and exposes the holes in the Constitution.  Either we resolve to improve our collective character, or we amend the constitution to legislate away our failings, or we are doomed to witness the decline of our international hegemony.

Four More Years!

After almost four years of active campaigning, the time has come.  In just a few days, America will collectively choose a president.  On November 6th, I will be casting my vote for our current president Mr. Barack Obama.  I believe this decision is important and complex enough to expound upon somewhat further; not for reasons of persuasion or justification, but rather for communication and documentation.

The Economy.  This topic is incredibly complex and is wrought with dueling statistics and expert panels.  Even the most ignorant of the myriad experts on either side know much more than me on this topic, so I will not deign to try to judge among them.  However, I believe that Mr. Romney’s plan for the economy relies entirely too much on trust.  Trust that the economy will grow at an accelerated rate to help him afford his tax cuts.  Trust that “job creators” will reinvest  their tax savings to hire more workers, rather than cash in profits or take them overseas.  And finally, trust that we will forget that the “Reagan Recovery” he so hopes to emulate led to one of the largest explosions of the national debt in history.  Mr. Obama inherited an economy in free fall, which arguably hit its nadir about six months into his presidency.  To expect us to be completely recovered in only three years is to defy the cyclical nature of history.

Foreign Policy.  Mr. Obama’s foreign policy can seem at first glance to be somewhat muddled and haphazard.  However, I believe this stems from the inherent complexities of international relations in our interconnected world.  I much prefer Mr. Obama’s painstaking deliberation to treat each situation uniquely as well as his wholehearted attempts at multilateralism to Mr. Romney’s one-size-fits-all, with-us-or-against-us approach.  Mr. Romney’s attempts to attack Mr. Obama for being “soft” in Iran or Syria leave no room for him to maneuver except to embroil the United States in more foreign wars which we cannot afford.  Further, while it is vitally important for us to have an unquestioned staunch ally in a volatile region like the Middle East, that is no excuse to equate Israel’s national interests with our own.  While they often do align, and mutual protection is a foundation for our alliance, our national interests must be our own, and must be the President’s focus at all times.

Health Care.  It actually matters very little who becomes President in this regard.  The fact is that Medicare is an extremely expensive entitlement program our nation can no longer afford.  For political reasons, neither side is willing to directly cut benefits to voters, and both sides have pledged to save money.  This must necessarily result in reduced reimbursement to healthcare providers–and subsequently to indirect reductions in benefits through more providers dropping Medicare patients, rationing of care, or the market producing less or lower quality physicians.  The one alternative solution, sweeping malpractice tort reform, has unfortunately not made it to the conversation during this cycle.

Civil Rights.   Mr. Obama has been no saint on civil rights, from failing to close Guantanamo to quietly continuing warrantless wiretapping and other surveillance.  However, the Republicans have squandered the Muslim vote for a generation through a replay of their Southern Strategy.  By systematically demonizing Muslims at the party level, they have made it impossible for us to vote for them.  Michelle Malkin (who advocates placing all Muslims in internment camps) may be a fringe player in the Republican party, but Michelle Bachmann (who advocates a Muslim witch hunt to root out Muslims in the federal government), Herman Cain (who would apply a Muslim litmus test prior to hiring anyone), Newt Gingrich (who compares Muslims to Nazis), and Tom Tancredo (who advocates bombing Mecca and Medina) are most certainly not–in fact, all of them ran for president under the Republican banner.  Add to that the right’s insistence of propagating the Obama crypto-Muslim story as a slur and you have a veritable definition of Islamophobia.  Even the current nominee, Mr. Romney, said in a debate he would not consider a qualified Muslim for a cabinet level post since Muslims do not constitute a large enough proportion of the population to justify it–a reasoning that should also exclude a Mormon from becoming president.  Hiring or not hiring someone based on their religion is a violation of their civil rights and fundamental American principles, and no American (Muslim or otherwise) should allow such violations to creep into governing philosophy.

Leadership. This is perhaps the toughest to judge, and the toughest to quantify.  However, certain anecdotes truly cement this in Mr. Obama’s favor.  First is the decision to green-light the mission to kill Osama Bin Laden.  While in retrospect it seems like an easy decision, prospectively it is much muddier.  There are a myriad of ways this mission could have gone disastrously wrong.  Imagine being engaged in Pakistani airspace by fighter jets we had sold them.  Or storming the compound and mistakenly killing innocent women and children only to find intelligence about Osama’s whereabouts were wrong.  Or having Osama escape, and chasing him through a sovereign country’s streets only to have our strikeforce overcome by a violent mob of Pakistanis.  Almost any alternate scenario would have been an international embarrassment or worse, and would have led to a premature end to Mr. Obama’s political career.  Yes, it is easy for Mr. Romney to say in retrospect he would have done the same thing now that the outcome is known.  It takes leadership and courage to proceed with an uncertain outcome.

Another major test of leadership came this summer, when Mr. Biden unwittingly dragged his boss into the fray of gay marriage.  Mr. Obama was already fully engaged in a re-election campaign which he knew very well would be a fight for the center-ground of the electorate.  Yet, he used the opportunity to state his own personal viewpoint (which risked alienating many middle ground voters) without pandering or massaging it, and without forcing its acceptance by others.  Mr. Romney, by contrast, has shown time and again that he is unwilling or unable to stand up to even the fringes of his party, as evidenced by his newfound criticism of Planned Parenthood–an organization that he found worthy of charitable contribution just a few short years ago.  I simply cannot and will not cede the right to appoint lifetime Supreme Court Justices to someone who has shown a remarkable inability to withstand political pressure.

Mr. Obama has not been a perfect president by any means.  He has not been the president I imagined he would be nor, I venture, the president he imagined he would be.  However, he has certainly made considerable progress amid formidable challenges and united opposition.  Mr. Romney, by contrast, has revealed himself as weak-willed and short-sighted.  On November 6th, I will proudly vote to give Mr. Obama the second term he has earned.

Rules of Engagement

The second presidential debate just ended, and the internet is abuzz with post-debate spin and analysis.  Unfortunately, the post-debate articles could just as easily have been written before the debate, with a few pesky details to be filled in later, because the actual debate was largely a foregone conclusion.  It consisted of two candidates being asked a certain predictable set of questions from a limited set of topics.  The candidates then focus on one particular word in the question, mentally cross-reference that word with a paragraph from their stump speech and deliver that paragraph, often ignoring the actual question. On every third question, they also invent a down-on-their luck person they met on the campaign trail who used said issue to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Thus, a very astute question on the scope of federal government (should it have a role in setting gas prices) turns into a discussion on clean coal, simply because the word “energy” was mentioned in the question.  Or a potentially explosive discussion on interagency communication breakdown (as evidenced by requests for security funding for embassies) turns into a sparring over word-choice regarding terrorism.   The candidates end up not so much debating as giving dueling mini-speeches–an unfortunate microcosm of our current political discourse where the two sides talk at each other rather than to each other.

In the midst of all of this, facts and figures which are often totally contradictory get bandied about with reckless abandon,  making it so that drilling on federal lands can both increase and decrease over the same time period (depending on the metric and comparators used).  It is a testament to the degraded quality of our collective political discourse that the most accurate statement out of either campaign on strategy was when Romney’s campaign stated they would not let their campaign be “run by a bunch of fact-checkers.”  I believe that for better or for worse (for worse, in my opinion), they got that point exactly right.  In politics, perception is reality, the rest is just facts.  A bell once rung can be silenced, but never unrung.  Thus, Republicans can fact-check Obama’s Libya comments all they want, and even if the President is proven completely wrong, it will at best only serve as feeble damage control for the GOP.

For too long have we let the candidates and the campaigns police themselves for truth and veracity.  They have obviously proven inept or unwilling to do so.  It is time for us to step in and (gasp!) hold our candidates responsible for their statements in real time.  I would propose that the easiest and most universal venue for doing so is the Commission on Presidential Debates.  The debates currently start with a coin toss– a simple and mostly fair method to determine who goes first and one shared with many professional sports.  Perhaps we can borrow other rules from pro-sports to make the debate more meaningful, useful, and truthful.

For the sake of human nature, please take a moment to imagine President Obama in a football helmet dousing himself with gatorade, then flexing and screaming.  Got it? Good.  Now that you’ve got it out of your system, let’s get serious.

Here are some specific suggestions:

1) Challenge flags.  Each candidate can choose three opportunities in the debate to interrupt his opponent for a real time fact check by an unbiased panel of fact checkers.  If the challenger loses the first two, however, the third is rescinded.  This introduces an impetus for truth as well as an eye for strategy (something I’d like our commander in chief to have)

2) Play clock.  The great lesson of Watergate was that the President is not above the law.  Why, then, should they be above the rules?  If a candidate is given two minutes to answer, they should be held to that rule.  The mic for both candidate should be cut immediately after their allotted time for speaking is over.  A president should be able to handle pressure calmly, prioritize quickly, and communicate effectively and succinctly.  This handles all of those attributes.

3) Time outs.  The executive branch of government is more than just a person.  It is an entire team of individuals charged with keeping the legislature and judiciary in check.  For every major decision, we expect the president to confer with his chief advisors.  And yet, during the debates a candidate is all alone.  Between topics, would it be so bad for each candidate to choose  to huddle with his advisors to discuss general strategy and pertinent points to make/avoid, etc? In the end, the candidate on the stage would maintain final control over each decision, just as we expect a governing president to.

4) The Blitz.  President Obama effectively criticized Senator McCain in 2008 for suspending his campaign to solve the economic crisis by claiming a president “should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time”.  There is no point in the debate where a candidate’s mettle is truly tested.  No truly stressful point in a debate where a president must perform under unexpected pressure.   This could come in any of a myriad of forms, each with its own challenges.  Would the candidate be forced to speak over loud microphone feedback?  With a time-clock that is inexplicably draining in double-time?  Answer two disparate questions at once, or be posed with a second question halfway through answering the first?  Nobody could foresee some of the historical events of the past decade.  It would be imminently reasonable to expect a president to deal with unforeseen challenges.

I know this analogy is prone to lampooning.  But these approaches are used in professional sports simply because they work in an enterprise where fairness and accountability are the keystones of the entire business model.  Shouldn’t we expect at least as much from our presidential candidates?

(Hat tip to my friend Ali Yusufaly for the general inspiration for this post.)

Terms of Endearment

This nation is badly split.  The presidential election this cycle accurately reflects the acrimony and small-ness that pervades our political perceptions.  As we perseverate over minutiae, our country languishes in self-imposed malaise and our economy teeters on the brink of disaster.   What makes the hyperpartisanship worse is the fact that the country is split almost 50/50 on either side of the divide.

Does any of us really believe that this will change after the 2012 election?  It is unrealistic to think (just as it was in 2008) that we will magically rally around our president and our congress to tackle the major issues of our time.  Given the likely divided nature of our government, and the definitely divided nature of the electorate, the American public can look forward to more fiddling while Rome burns even under the term of the next president.

It is a common theme in presidential politics that first term presidents often “pivot” to the political center in order to buff their chances for re-election, while second-term presidents are “unleashed” from those concerns to return to their idealogical base.

However, Mr. Romney has made too many promises and sold too much of his political capital to the far right of his party to credibly govern as a compromising moderate if he wins.  During his first term, President Romney would need to burnish his credentials as a bona fide conservative in order to convince his base (who is luke warm on him currently) that he is not deserving of a primary challenge.  While President Romney would no doubt vanquish such a challenge, it would be the ultimate pyrrhic victory and likely fatally wound his re-election campaign.  Thus, shortly after election we can realistically expect a lurch to the right from President Romney, which would likely worsen gridlock (without a senate supermajority) and increase the shrill tones of partisan debate.

President Obama, for all of his soaring rhetoric, has not shown a tremendous aptitude for bipartisan leadership and unification of the electorate.  While there may be many reasons for this, it is safe to say that a fair portion of the blame can be laid at his own feet.  As an “unleashed” lame duck president, the right wing warns, he would be free to turn sharply to the left and lead as the unabashed liberal that he inclines to be.  This would also serve (with a Republican house) to worsen gridlock and partisanship.

Lest we get too depressed, there is a glimmer of hope in these scenarios, and it comes from the unlikeliest of sources–President Clinton.  In 2008, it was clear that President Bill Clinton was smarting from the rough and tumble primary contest between his wife Hillary and Mr. Obama.  He was scarce on the campaign trail, and reticent with his endorsements.  In 2012, however, President Clinton gave a tremendous speech at the Democrat’s convention, and has been full-throated in his endorsement of the current president.  It is widely assumed that he is playing nice within the party to help ease Hillary’s (unopposed?) march to the Democratic nomination in 2016.  It is conceivable, and even likely, that in exchange for the badly needed enthusiastic endorsement, President Obama has agreed to throw the full weight of his personality, and his office, behind Hillary’s presumed run in 2016.

President Clinton’s endorsement of Obama has held real value in this cycle.  And in return, President Obama will need to give Hillary something of real value back.  In a very real sense, then, he will not be able to lead as the unleashed liberal that he is, taunting Republicans with brinksmanship at every turn.  Such a term would be considered a failure, and a failed President’s endorsement and party would hold no value.  In that situation all he could deliver to Hillary was his base, a consituency she arguably is more comfortable with than he is.  He will be forced, for her sake and due to promises made, to govern and lead through unification and compromise, in order to win over the middle ground of American politics, the independent voter.

There is good reason to believe that Mr. Romney’s first term would be reminiscent of an “unleashed” second-term president, whereas Mr. Obama’s second term would be more reminiscent of an accountable first-term president.  Given the choice, I prefer a president who feels accountable and motivated to move to the middle any day.

Pander Express

The 2012 Presidential campaign has been marred by intensely vicious, personal attacks.  Many of these are totally unfair and unbecoming of those men seeking to become leaders of the free world.  Unfounded attacks on a person’s “American-ness”, his wealth, his faith, his place of birth, or the color of his skin have no place in our current debate.  One attack, however, is particularly stinging because of its truth… That of Mr. Romney’s “flip-flopping” on key issues.

Mr. Romney’s waffling positions on social issues are famous by now, from his support for abortion rights (and his charitable contributions to Planned Parenthood) to his vehemently pro-life stance.  Likewise, his support for gay marriage has shifted to a vehement opposition.  His shifting positions on policy are also gaining more and more attention.  As governor of Massachusetts, he advocated and argued for an individual health care insurance mandate, one he now argues is unconstitutional.  At various times, he has come out both for and against a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

To many, these shifting policy stands disqualify Mr. Romney for the presidency.  In my view, they represent an asset which may uniquely qualify him for the job.

The Presidency of the United States, as it is conceived and expected, requires almost superhuman capabilities.  The President, after all, is not a king nor a dictator imposing his whims or his views on the people.  He is an elected executive who ideally represents a “first among equals” among citizens; meant solely to provide checks and balances to the legislature, and to speed along the beaureaucratic process.  Importantly, the president is elected to represent the people.  Not just the people of his home district (like a congressman), or the people of his state (like a senator), or the people of his party (like a chairperson) but the entire citizenry of the United States–equally responsible for considering the welfare of the coalminer in West Virginia, the Sierra Club member in California, and yes, the casino magnate in Las Vegas.

We rightfully demand principled leadership from our most prominent representative.  However, we do not often reflect upon what principles we are demanding.  Principled leadership is extremely important–when it comes to the principles which we all share.   Defense against common enemies, shared prosperity, freedom and liberty, and many others explicit and tacitly implied in the constitution.  If Mr. Romney is elected, and is pressured to pursue a militantly pro-life agenda (just using this issue as an example), he is doing a disservice to a large segment of his own constituents who are equally vehemently pro-choice; and thus not doing his job to represent the American people as a whole.  He was not elected to be the President of the Republican Party, after all, but to be the President of the United States of America (even of those who didn’t vote for him).

Many of the issues a president must confront deal with less constitutionally clear decisions. In these cases,  flexibility, an open mind, and the ability to see all sides of an issue are paramount.  Misplaced rigidity leads to a hyperpartisan atmosphere, disenfranchisement, gridlock, resentment, and eventually political instability.  On those issues where legitimate disagreement exists (and it always will) regarding an interpretation of our core values (eg: does abortion violate a right to life, or does banning it violate a right to freedom?), a president must have the ability to carefully weigh all opinions and all listen to all parties, and only then reach a conclusion which he will be responsible for communicating to his constituents.

A candidate who has spent his life cultivating and defending a single world view on social or economic issues will have a considerably harder time considering the rights, welfare, and arguments of all of his constituents than one who has spent time on both sides of an issue.  Mr. Romney’s colorful history, to me, means that he has carefully considered all sides of an issue, and at various times in his life convinced himself of the merits of each side of an argument.  It means that he recognizes that a single approach is not appropriate in every situation, and that complex issues have complex answers.  Even if it just represents politically expedient pandering, it belies the understanding that his constituency has diverse and disparate interests.

There are many reasons I may not vote for Mr. Romney, but his flip-flopping will not be one of them.

Calling a Spade a Spade

Recently, a US soldier in Afghanistan left his base at about 3 AM.  He walked about half a mile to a nearby village, entered three different homes, and shot dead at least 16 Afghani civilians (at least twelve of whom were women and children).  In the first home, where eleven of the victims were located, he gathered the bodies to burn them.  He then returned to base and turned himself in to authorities.  At the current time, his motives are unclear.  Much information about the killings and the killer has not yet been released.  What is known is that many of the victims were asleep at the time of the killings.

The US Government has issued a necessary but predictable statement of remorse, assuring that an investigation will soon be undertaken, and appropriate legal actions will be pursued (US soldiers in Afghanistan fall under US legal jurisdiction).  The question remains, exactly what crime was committed here?  Was this act part of the “fog of war” and thus representative of collateral damage?  Perhaps the shooter is not guilty by reason of insanity, due to PTSD and a possible history of previous brain trauma?  The killing may represent first degree murder (based on the premeditation inherent in walking a mile to the nearest town).  But, intriguingly, the news media has yet to use the word “terrorism”.

The first two, more lenient, possibilities also seem the least likely to be successful.  The shooter clearly had not been engaged actively by an enemy at the time of the shooting, and collateral damage can only be claimed if he had targeted a real or perceived enemy.  The insanity defense is very likely to be used and is already being used in the media, where all sorts of excuses (ranging from stress to alcohol to a bad marriage) are being floated for his actions.  It is interesting that these same excuses would be considered absolutely inadequate if the killings had occurred against an American town on American soil.  However, this strategy is unlikely to succeed legally and politically, as the shooter clearly knew what he did was wrong (he immediately turned himself over to authorities), and because the government will want to show swift and severe judgment in order to avoid unrest and backlash.

The question then becomes, is this  US soldier a terrorist?  Here is a person who has targeted innocent civilians and killed them in cold blood.  If his motivations were motivated by pure psychopathy then he is nothing more than a deranged cold blooded mass-murderer.   If, however, his motivations included any element of religious or political ideology, then his actions must be considered an act of terrorism.

When Major Nidal Hasan (also a member of the US Military) opened fire at Fort Hood, he was immediately branded a terrorist.  He had, after all, murdered innocents (sort of–members of the military industrial complex are considered reasonable targets by the Geneva Convention) and was motivated by political ideology.  But, when Joseph Stack flew his plane into the IRS building (sound familiar?), clearly motivated by a political ideology, he was branded a deranged anti-government crusader and some Americans even considered him a hero.  In fact, in an official statement “government officials were quick to rule out any involvement of terrorism in the incident.”

Let us hope that we have not devolved so much as a society as to believe that the definition of terrorism is inherently related to one’s own religion, or the nationality of the victims.  While this seems clearly to be the case with the news media,  the FBI official definition of terrorism includes no such reference:

“the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85)

While it is a major tenet of US law that the accused is innocent until proven guilty, it is a painful fact that if in fact our soldier was motivated by any religious or political objective then he has committed an act of terrorism.  If we are to maintain consistency with our rule of law, not to mention any semblance of credibility in the global community, then we must have the strength to call a spade a spade.

RELATED: The Daily Beast editorial board had a very interesting internal discussion on what they should call terrorism, related to the Joseph Stack incident.  They also had the courage to post it online in its entirety.  It is worth a read.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Rick Santorum has shown incredible perseverance so far in this GOP primary season.  Initially considered as a bit player, he has rocketed to national prominence on the strength of some strong primary and caucus wins, and now deserves at least legitimate discussion as a GOP nominee.  Anyone (including Mr. Santorum) who claims to have predicted his degree of relevancy this late in the race should seriously have their honesty questioned.  And yet, here he is.

It is true that Mr. Romney, his main rival and the current frontrunner, is a deeply flawed candidate.  His shifting stances on hot-button issues such as abortion and universal health care are well documented.  His wealth leads to a potentially very accurate and thus lethal charge of being “out of touch”.  And his recent campaign strategy of “vote for me, I’m inevitable anyway” reeks of defensiveness and pushiness at the same time.

Mr. Santorum, however, is arguably no better–and perhaps worse off.  He is a staunch conservative, but his views on most social issues steer far right of the majority of the American populace.  His economic credentials are questionable, as is his foreign policy experience.  His last foray into politics ended in an 18 point shellacking in his home state.

Perhaps a reason for his surprising success can be found in the contests so far.  I have neither the time nor the expertise of great political (and baseball statistician) Nate Silvers, but some trends are too clear to miss.  If one evaluates the states that hold primaries (as opposed to caucuses) and separates them according to open (anyone can vote) v. closed (only registered republicans can vote) primaries, we have the following results:

Date State Type of Primary State Results Santorum v. Romney National Polls Santorum v. Romney

10-Jan

New Hampshire Closed

-30

-9

21-Jan

South Carolina Open

-11

-16

31-Jan

Florida Closed

-33

-13

7-Feb

Missouri Open

30

-17

28-Feb

Arizona Closed

-20

2

28-Feb

Michigan Open

-3

2

6-Mar

Ohio Open

-1

-10

6-Mar

Oklahoma Closed

6

-10

6-Mar

Tennessee Open

9

-10

6-Mar

Vermont Open

-16

-10

(For the sake of simplicity, I have only compared Santorum and Romney and removed states where one or the other was not on the ballot, or that any major candidate claims as their home state.  National polls are from RCP polling data (average of polls) on the date of the primary).

In states with open primaries Santorum tends to outperform his national polling data significantly–in fact, by an average of 11.5 points.  In states with closed primaries, he tends to underperform compared to national polling by an average of 11.75 points.  That is over a 23 point swing!

Although this is not a complete analysis (accounting for regional differences, etc), the magnitude of the difference is clearly significant.  The difference in the type of primaries is entirely comprised of the ability of Democrats and Independents to vote.  It is not a stretch to surmise that Mr. Santorum and his extreme right wing views on social issues, his vitriol towards President Obama, and his radical  religious rhetoric does not embody significant crossover appeal.

It thus stands to consideration that the Democrats (and perhaps independents) are using the open primaries to help nominate Mr. Santorum.  In their eyes, this is a win-win situation–they either succeed in propping up a “straw-man”, who (at least in their estimation) is an easier candidate for Mr. Obama to beat in November, or they help deplete Mr. Romney’s war chest by using Mr. Santorum as a surrogate with which to attack the front runner.

A similar strategy was espoused by Rush Limbaugh in 2008 and dubbed “Operation Chaos” as he urged his listeners to participate in open primaries to drag out the Democratic nominating process, and it has been reborn this year by the Daily Kos, and dubbed “Operation Hilarity.”  The scary thing is, such tactics may actually work.

The Democrats who are doing this are playing a dangerous game.  By swinging for the fences, they are hoping for a home run–ie, President Obama walking to re-election against who they see is an inferior candidate.  But if they succeed in influencing the nomination, they will have helped nominate an extreme social conservative and religious radical, and given him the confidence that no race is out of reach.  At that point, all it would take is one damning picture or quote released at the right time to help create… President Santorum.  And then, perhaps, President Romney wouldn’t look so bad to these Democrats.

Compromise, and Other Four Letter Words

A firestorm of debate has opened recently about the Obama administration’s handling of an interesting conundrum regarding birth control.  The debate purportedly posits the rights of free practice of religion with the rights of women to make choices regarding their health.  An interesting by-product of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA, Obamacare) is a provision which would have forced employers to provide (purchase) health insurance for their employees which covered the costs of contraception, including “emergency contraception” (felt by many to be abortion-inducing pills).  Many faith-based employers took umbrage at their being forced to directly subsidize actions which they feel are morally reprehensible; however many of their own employees demand the right to make those choices for themselves rather than have them made by their employer.  While the shrill tones of the debate have been amplified by the current election year politics, the crux of the debate is made all the more interesting by the issues and cogent arguments it raises.

Many on the religious right, particularly in the Catholic church, see this issue as one of religious freedom.  Their religion takes a strict line on contraception, especially “emergency contraception”; though this strict stance is seldom shared by their adherents.  As such, they consider enabling such action through direct subsidy or purchase to be as morally unacceptable as engaging in the practice itself.  This is a point that I, for one, can understand.  Islam has similar rules regarding paying for, storing, gifting, or otherwise enabling the use of alcohol; and I would be just as dismayed if the federal government mandated that I had to participate in such tasks.  Clearly, the people in these institutions have a right to abide by their religion and stay true to their faith.

There is, however, another side to this story.  Each employee of each of these institutions (and every person in general) has a right to make personal decisions about their own healthcare, regardless of their faith or the faith of their employer.  This right is as close to sacrosanct in American culture as can be.   Decisions regarding contraception, even emergency contraception (by virtue of its status as a legal and accepted form of medical practice), should be left to an individual alone and availability of these culturally accepted healthcare options should not be determined by a persons employer, this is a central provision of PPACA (providing guidelines for acceptable basic health coverage).  Clearly, these individuals have a right to personal liberty in their healthcare choices.

The challenge of America is to reconcile these rights and freedoms which are seemingly in direct opposition to one another.  This has been the root of America’s greatness as well.  However, it will be impossible to do so without compromise.  Lately, compromise has unfortunately been related in political spheres to weakness, but truly the ability to compromise to find solutions for a such a vastly diverse nation is essential, and is a source of strength.  The unwillingness to compromise leads to an unwillingness to tolerate diversity, and this is a trend which leads to various forms of xenophobia which are evident in today’s political culture.

The PPACA was put into place partially to assure that employers were providing a certain degree of basic health insurance for their employees (the merits and drawbacks of the act can be debated ad nauseum, but we will currently consider it as it stands).  This basic insurance must include contraceptive care, as oral contraceptives have multiple potential uses besides the prevention of pregnancy (use in dysmenorrhea, endometriosis, and even as chemical castration for sex offenders).  So, if we take the PPACA at face value, how shall we endeavor to provide such care for employees of Catholic institutions, regardless of their religious affiliation?  A reasonable compromise must be obtained.

In order to prevent these institutions from disturbing their moral sensitivities, a compromise solution was arrived at, whereupon such care would be covered free of charge by the insurance companies (thus nominally not being subsidized or enabled by said employers) for employees of these institutions.   Obviously, the costs need to be borne somewhere; the one thing all Americans can agree on is that health insurers are not in the business of charity.  This cost would then be spread over the pool of employers, increasing the incremental cost of each customer of that insurance company slightly but equally.  Yes, this small increase spread over all customers can be considered indirectly subsidizing (to a much lesser extent) such care.  No, it is not perfect.  However it is an imminently reasonable attempt to compromise, and to find comfortable ground for both employees/patients and those financing their insurance premiums.

Those shrieking dismay at this latest attempt at compromise by the Obama administration are motivated at least as much by election year politics as by true concern for religious freedom.  After all, if freedom was truly their main concern, they would be concerned about freedom of those on both sides of the equation.  It is time to remove this issue from the grotesque distortions of the kaleidoscope of election year politics and view it as calm, rational adults.  Doing so would soon reveal that while Obama’s compromise is not perfect for all parties, no compromise ever is–by definition.  His attempts, however, are laudable and imminently reasonable.

A Sharia By Any Other Name…

“We have civil laws, but our civil laws have to comport with a higher law– God’s law.  As long as there is discordance between the two, there will be agitation. [And] Not just any god, but the God of [our prophets]“

A quick multiple choice for the reader.  The words above were spoken by:

A) Osama bin Laden

B) Aiman al-Zawahiri

C) Mullah Omar

D) Rick Santorum

For those of you who answered Rick Santorum, you are correct.  And these are not just words from many years ago spoken by a young, brash idealist who didn’t know he’d someday be running for president, these words were spoken by him on Thanksgiving Day 2011, in the heat of a presidential campaign.  (for the sake of accuracy, the words “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” were what he said instead of “our prophet”, I left that part out for suspense)

Mr. Santorum has mounted a suprisingly successful bid for the presidency of our nation.  However, his underlying themes are contradictory.  Like most insurgent bids, his message preys on our basest instincts instead of the “better angels of our nature.”

Mr. Santorum is evidently blind to the hypocrisy that his candidacy entails.  He fights tirelessly against the implementation of Sharia law (something that he has yet to produce the slightest shred of evidence as actually occurring), because “Sharia law is not just a religious code. It is also a governmental code. It happens to be both religious in nature an origin, but it is a civil code.” (March 2011) In his view, thus, the separation of church and state is imperative as long as it does not include his church, which should be the basis for the state’s laws (otherwise uprising would be warranted in his view).

This fundamental hypocrisy is evident through other veins of his campaign as well.  Mr. Santorum is a major supporter of individual liberty, especially berating governmental efforts to interfere with an individual’s choice to purchase healthcare or not (does that make him “pro-choice”?).  He argues, at least credibly, that the government has no right to interfere with the choices an individual makes about how to spend money.  He then turns around and supports a ban on individuals who are receiving welfare from going to strip clubs.  While he rails about government involvement in individual healthcare decisions, he was one of the first to sign on to the contemptible actions of Congress in intervening in the Terri Schiavo case, and to limit contraception and abortion choices to women.

I highlight Mr. Santorum, not because he has a realistic path to the presidency, but as a particularly egregious example of the culture wars that the Republicans have chosen to base their 2012 campaign upon.  None of the current or past candidates are immune, though Mr. Romney and Mr. Paul have fallen less into demagoguery than some of their peers in this regard.  While the economic policies of the current Republican party focus on smaller government with less government intrusion into one’s private life and choices, their social policies almost completely focus on morality legislation, with missives against contraception, abortion, gay marriage (actually, often sodomy in general), pornography and Muslims.

The Republican candidates need to take a moment from their (necessary) base-pandering to understand a fundamental truth (one they should hold dear being in charge of congress).  Since every government action involves expenditure of money, it is fundamentally impossible for the government to be larger morally, but smaller fiscally.  To a large extent, morality stems from religion in American (we are unique in that regard), so it is fundamentally un-American to legislate morality, as it is impossible to do so without legislating religion.

Over the past decade or more, the Republican party has sought out the support of Christian Fundamentalists/Extremists as a necessary voting bloc.  Perhaps this made sense in the short term (running against a tremendously popular but morally questionable president).  However, their long term interests may have been better served by adopting a strict secularist, governmental-minimalist stance as a foil to the traditionally over-reaching Democrats.  At least this way, the voters would have a real choice.  As it stands, the American public is forced between two ideologies which both want to intrude on our lives tremendously, albeit in different ways.

I Do… Sort of

The issue of gay marriage, rightly or wrongly, has once again played an important role early on in this election cycle.  While the president actually has little control over the specific implementation of policy regarding this issue, it is a convenient litmus test, and an excellent “wedge issue,” designed to excite both bases and increase voter turnout.

Proponents of gay marriage argue about civil rights and government sponsored discrimination based on sexual orientation.  Opponents most often cite Judeo-Christian law as defining marriage as between one man and one woman.  As a peace offering (and a vote pandering) gesture, however, they often offer “civil unions” as a method of assuring civil rights.

There are two major flaws in these arguments opposing gay marriage.  First, in 1954 the Supreme Court of the United States decided the landmark case of Brown v. the Board of Education.  In this ruling, the court ruled in a unanimous decision that separate institutions (in this case, in education) were inherently unequal.  The same can be easily applied to the current question.  A separate institution (of civil unions) must be considered inherently unequal to marriage; even if the same civil protections were to apply.  However, proponents of civil unions will reluctantly admit that the real reason they oppose actual gay marriage is to give themselves cover at withholding specific civil protections (notably, the ability to adopt).  Thus, the gay civil union (or domestic partnership, or whatever the fashionable euphemism of the day is) is inherently unconstitutional even with the purest of intentions, which admittedly do not even apply in this situation.

Second is the question of the Judeo-Christian definition of marriage.  The problem comes when one tries to reconcile the definition of marriage as a religious institution with the definition of marriage as a civil institution.  If one considers marriage a predominantly civil institution, then this argument has no bearing.  If one considers marriage a predominantly religious institution, then the government has, in effect, recognized and condoned an official religious viewpoint regarding a fundamental institution.

For much of the United States’ history, this problem went undetected but has now been brought to the forefront.  The only logical solutions to this paradox are for marriage to become either entirely civil (and thus defined any way the government sees fit), or entirely religious; the latter is the only feasible one, as churches and other religious bodies will not, cannot, and should not cede the institution of marriage.  Thus, in the name of fairness and equality, the government must stop recognizing marriage as a civil institution altogether.  Rather, all couples (including heterosexuals) who chose to “marry” religiously would need to establish a civil union as well (indistinguishable from a civil marriage currently) in order to qualify for the government rights and benefits of a committed couple.  Only then can we move forward as a society to decide rationally which types of unions (in addition to traditional heterosexual couples) should qualify for this institution.  In this way, and only this way, can the government endeavor to treat all of its citizens fairly, maintain control over its own institutions, and not offend hundreds of millions of religious taxpayers (and voters).

My personal views on homosexuality and homosexual  couples/marriage are irrelevant to this discussion, which is entirely about fairness, constitutionality, and the separation of church and state.  There is too much water under this bridge, and this issue will not go away as long as one side stands to benefit from its discussion (even if it becomes settled law).  Personally, regardless of my own views, I am convinced that someday in the future, the history of gay marriage will be looked upon much as the history of interracial marriage is today.  Every public figure would be wise to choose prudently which side of history they want to be on.

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