Benghazi! Preview

Scandal?!You can’t have missed all the news about the upcoming House Select committee on Benghazi—or as it is more property referred to, Benghazi! As it is, the hearing is a political stunt. There have already been four committees that have looked into it and they have found nothing. But why not another committee? After all, it isn’t like the Republicans are going to do any actual work. And it isn’t like they are even trying to make this look like anything but a show trial.

Pelosi asked that Boehner make the committee half and half in terms of Democrats and Republicans. After all, that’s pretty close to the make up of the House: 53.8% Republican. But Boehner wouldn’t hear of it. So he made the committee have 7 Republicans and 5 Democrats. Given that the Republican head of the committee is the only one with real power in terms of subpoenaing people, why not let it go at 6-6. As it is, the 7-5 make up of the committee makes it 58.3% Republican. But by adding just one more Democrat and making it 7-6, the percentage would be exactly what the House is: 53.8%. Whatever.

The Benghazi HoaxIn the lead up to this hearing, something interesting happened. Normally, I avoid signing petitions. For one thing, it is usually just an excuse to get my email address to send me spam. But recently, I actually signed a petition. It was to make Alan Grayson at least part of if not the entire Democratic Party contingent on the upcoming committee. So I was very disappointed when the list of Democrats on the committee came out and it did not include Grayson.

Look, the people on the committee are fine. Elijah Cummings (MD) is very good on policy and a great fighter. Adam Smith (WA) is good on policy, but I’ve never seen him in action. Adam Schiff (CA) is very good on policy, but again I don’t know how he’s going to be against the Republican pit bulls. Linda Sanchez (CA) is fairly good on policy, and represents her district’s interests quite capably, but not really the kind of person I want representing the truth in this political cause. And then there’s Tammy Duckworth, whose policies are good but who is very new. Still, I think we all know why she was put on the committee: she’s charismatic and she’s an Iraq War veteran. In fact, she is the only person on the whole committee to have actual war experience. Only one other member, Republican Mike Pompeo was in the military. He had a comfy five years in Germany at the end of the Cold War.

It’s a fine group, but I would really have liked to have seen Grayson on the committee. For one thing, he would have added a little style. It might have been worth watching. But according to John Amato at Crooks & Liars, “Steny Hoyer was afraid that Grayson would be too rambunctious for his taste.” Personally, if anyone as boring as Hoyer thought that Grayson was too rambunctious, that should have sealed the deal in Grayson’s favor. So we got Schiff instead, who didn’t think the Democrats should send anyone to the committee. Is this really all about individual Democrats fighting and making the Democratic cause weaker? Maybe.

It doesn’t really matter, though. This morning at The Plum Line, Paul Waldman explained how it is going to go, The Big Benghazi Dance. He even quotes Macbeth:

He wrote:

OK, so maybe the “idiot” part is too harsh—no one thinks that Rep Trey Gowdy, who will be leading the committee, isn’t a smart guy. But it’s easy to see exactly how the big Benghazi dance will unfold, and how everyone will play their appointed parts.

That’s partly because of the nature of this matter, partly because of everything that has happened up until this point, and partly because of who’ll be on the committee…

Just by looking at the committee’s membership, you can see what the two parties are trying to achieve. John Boehner picked a combination of prosecutors, intense partisans, and hard-right blowhards, people who are there to pound the table, shake their fists, and raise their voices. Pelosi could have picked similar Democrats (there was a move to get Rep Alan Grayson on to the committee), but instead she selected a group of serious members who come with some knowledge on the matters to be explored. Despite the fact that Democrats (even those on this committee) think this is all a waste of time, they’re taking a high road approach, hoping that they’ll look reasonable and sober while Republicans look wild-eyed and angry.

I think that’s a total mischaracterization of Grayson, who while pointed, fiery, and quotable, is also professional and known for being good at working with Republican idiots. But doubtless, Waldman is right about what Pelosi is trying to do. And he’s right about how the circus is going to go. On the first day, the Republicans will get a lot of coverage with their outrage and fist pounding. Then there won’t be much coverage until Hillary Clinton testifies and counters the Republicans as well as she has in the past, which you may remember is really well:

And then the media will lose interest and the Republicans, led by Fox News will start screaming about a liberal media cover-up.

But what if this committee, unlike all the other committees and the FBI and the press turn up something?! Frankly, I don’t know what they would turn up. I’ve been confused the whole time. I get the IRS scandal: the Democratic president going after his conservative enemies. It wasn’t true, but I see that if someone proved that happened, that would be terrible for the president—he would rightly be impeached and thrown out of office. But in the Benghazi case, I still don’t get it. The administration said that one thing caused the attack when it was another thing? Neither would have made the administration look any better or worse. In the video above, Ron Johnson seems to think that the scandal is that the American people were misled out of incompetence for a couple of days. That’s the scandal? Really?!

Benghazi! is the worst example of a scandal I have ever seen. I really think that the House should hold a hearing on the death of Vince Foster. At least he died and it is technically possible that Hillary Clinton killed him. But this Benghazi! scandal is madness! And that’s especially true when you consider that the scandal could be that four Americans died as a result of poor embassy security. But apparently, that scandal won’t work because the Republicans pushed to reduce funding for embassy security. If the Democrats are really smart, they might be able to make this show trial about that. And maybe the whole 2014 election!

But Waldman sums it up well:

Republicans will be able to show their base that they’re holding Barack Obama’s feet to the fire and giving Hillary Clinton the business. Democrats will be able to show their base that Republicans are crazy. Everybody wins.

I just hope that this backfires on the Republicans. This isn’t even about the election. I just want politics to get back to the old days when it was terrible but not useless.

Reps Hate Minimum Wage and EITC

Jonathan ChaitSometimes, Jonathan Chait annoys the hell out of me. But other times I just want to kiss him. When I disagree with him, it is usually about fairly minor issues of policy and ideology. But when it comes to the state of the Republican Party, no one is more clear. Just about an hour ago, he wrote an article, Why Republicans Love Taxing the Poor. And it is great.

Most of the short article is about an article by one of my favorite conservatives, Ramesh Ponnuru. Ponnuru himself has a clear view of the Republican Party, like when he suggested that Republicans stop talking about how Latinos are natural Republicans because of their “family values.” As he said, “I suspect most people throughout human history have been hard-working, family-oriented, and religious, without sharing conservative views about limited constitutional government.”

Ramesh PonnuruBut as clear-eyed as Ponnuru is, he is still a professional apologist for the interests of the rich. So he still pumps out the propaganda and Chait called him on it today. Ponnuru was saying that the Republican Party ought to show that it really does care about the poor even while staying against raising the minimum wage, by raising the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). This way, the Republicans could signal that they are against the government interfering in the free market as exemplified by the minimum wage, but still help out the poor with the tax credit for low wage workers. Chait called him on this by noting that the the Republican Party—far from wanting to raise the EITC—wants to lower or even eliminate it. Chait noted that Ponnuru made no mention of this. I will only add that Ponnuru knew what he was doing because he’s a propagandist.

One thing that Chait did not talk about is the contradiction of Ponnuru’s choice. Raising the minimum wage would take money away from everyone in higher costs and lower profits. As such, however, it would be highly progressive: the rich would pay a lot more for a rise in the minimum wage than the poor would. But raising the EITC would be much less progressive because it would be paid for by our taxes, which are modestly progressive but at the super rich level are actually regressive. So there is no narrative here about government intervention. All that Ponnuru is concerned about is how best to protect the money of the rich. This is something he can’t come out and talk about explicitly because the rich are just not a very large constituency. Politicians do the work of the oligarchs, but they’ve still get to get the votes of the working man.

Chait ended the article with what I think is about the clearest description of the modern Republican Party and the tough choices it faces (or rather doesn’t face):

I can see why Ponnuru needs to present his idea, which is a 180-degree reversal of the Republican agenda, as “a way to show that they want to help the poor.” The trouble is they don’t want to help the poor, if you define “help” as “letting them have more money,” as opposed to “giving them the kick in the ass they need to stop being lazy moochers.”

That’s right my fellow Americans: the Republican Party hates the poor. But it’s worse than that. It hates anyone who is not rich. I am still amazed that this country could get one political party to go so far on tilt. A large part of the problem is the New Democrats and their move to the right. But another part of the problem is the very intelligent propaganda of pundits like Ramesh Ponnuru, who go around lobbying the people to believe that the Republicans stand for the exact opposite of what they actually stand for.

But it’s okay, America; just keep voting to end abortion and sex education, so that the babies of your thirteen-year-old daughters can grow up to be serfs of the grandchildren of the Koch and Walton families.

On Tall Tales and Bootstraps

Bootstraps: Just Pull!Fifty years ago today, Lyndon Johnson announced his Great Society goals. They were massively successful. But of late, we hear conservatives complain about the Great Society programs. And here is the logic, “If you exclude all the gains of the Great Society programs, the poor are no better off than they were before!” This is like saying that your car doesn’t go any further after filling it up with gas if you exclude the gas you just put in. I know what they’re trying to say: that the poverty programs should have lifted people out of poverty. They should be successful now. You know: teach a man to fish… But these very same conservatives are against programs to help the poor help themselves. They are against raising the minimum wage. And Fox News has spent the last two years complaining about the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Since I’m on the subject of the poor, can I make a request: let’s stop using the phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” Bootstraps a little cloth or leather loops at the top of boots (actually, even my tennis shoes have them) to allow the wearer to pull them on. The original meaning of the phrase was something that is impossible to do, not something that is difficult to do but which can be accomplished with good old fashioned American pluck. So no more encouraging people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and no more claims to have done it.

The phrase has a vague beginning in an episode of that 18th century classic, The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen. In it, he falls into a swamp but is able to pull himself out by his pigtail. The first known use of the bootstrap maneuver was in 1834. And it remained the tall tale that it is for about a century—like Paul Bunyan batting down cannonballs during the Revolutionary War. In the early 20th century, people began to use it as something that is hard to do, but possible. It is not surprising that a phrase that for so long was considered ludicrous and therefore funny, became “encouraging” advice following Horatio Alger and the robber barons.

What’s especially sad about the metaphor, however, is that today the phrase is pretty much true—but not in the way that most people think. Our country does provide about as much help to the poor as a couple of bootstraps. If you are born poor, you will almost certainly die poor. If you are born rich, you will almost certainly die rich. And those who manage to upset this overwhelmingly consistent fact of American life are either extremely lucky or extremely unlucky. But of course, no one ever means that the poor are screwed when they admonish them to get pulling on those bootstraps. They mean to say that it isn’t all that bad and that the poor have options.

The idea of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, is distinctly American. It sucks to to be poor in Europe, just as it does here. But there, poverty is generally seen as something bad that happened to you. In America, in addition to the many and varied ways it sucks to be poor, we add the social disapproval that the only reason one would be poor is that he wasn’t trying hard enough. He isn’t pulling hard enough on those bootstraps. But America is now pretty much the world you see in Gosford Park. There are those who have their boots pulled on for them and there are those who have no boots at all.

Gay Rights Pioneer Harvey Milk

Harvey MilkIn late November of 1978, I was at a conference in San Francisco for kids who were interested in politics. I don’t remember much about the conference, although it was probably a very good introduction to local politics and the issues that must be faced. Local politics is really interesting because it is so practical. There is very little ideology. In my father’s neighborhood, there was a zoning ordinance that restricted it to single story houses. Well, my father wanted to build onto his house, so he went door to door in the neighborhood and got everyone to sign a petition asking that the zoning ordinance be changed. He then went to a supervisors’ meeting and it was changed. The government exists to help people. This is a fact that is often lost at the national level—especially on the right. This kind of simple problem solving is what I got from the conference, and it may be why I’m a Democrat today.

But all that was dwarfed by the day that Dan White assassinated San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, who was born on this day in 1930. I knew Moscone, because he was a legend in the Bay Area. Milk was on his way to being a legend, and of course, in San Francisco, he already was. He was the first openly gay elected official in California. It was a big deal. People don’t understand just how terrible life was for gays in the state at that time. In the 1960s, oral sex was still illegal. In 1970 alone, 90 people were arrested for this “crime.” What’s more, Mayor Alioto really went after the gay community, pressuring the police for raids on gay bars, which eventually pushed the gay community to meet in parks. Here’s an amazing statistic: in 1971, 63 people were arrested in New York City for public sex; 2,800 were arrested in San Francisco.

There’s no doubt that Milk was kind of an interloper. He had not really been involved in the politics of the gay community and so a lot of the old timers resented him. But he had a lot of energy, was an excellent speaker, had a great ability to build coalitions. Wikipedia describes a good example of how he worked, “The Teamsters wanted to strike against beer distributors—Coors in particular—who refused to sign the union contract. An organizer asked Milk for assistance with gay bars; in return, Milk asked the union to hire more gay drivers. A few days later, Milk canvassed the gay bars in and surrounding the Castro District, urging them to refuse to sell the beer. With the help of a coalition of Arab and Chinese grocers the Teamsters had also recruited, the boycott was successful.”

But Milk was only able to become a supervisor because of a change in the way that they were elected. They had been city wide, meaning whoever had the most money tended to win. And it certainly limited the appeal of those representing minority groups. But when elections were changed to city districts, Milk won election, representing the Castro. He served for just over ten months. There were various reasons that White murdered Milk and Moscone. In particular, Milk and White did not like each other. White was a Catholic, but he wasn’t virulently anti-gay. The truth was that Milk was a much better politician than White. And let’s not forget: White was unstable. After serving five years of his ridiculously lax seven year sentence for two murders, White killed himself. He was a deeply troubled man and really ought to stand as a symbol for mental health problems and our very poor tools for dealing with it.

Meanwhile, Harvey Milk is a great symbol of gay empowerment. Part of his legacy is what has brought us to our much more liberal climate for gay rights today: he urged all gay people to go public. And that is, in the end, the greatest weapon that the gay rights movement has had. It is hard to hate gays when you sons and daughters and friends and coworkers and church members are gay. Hatred is just a special kind of ignorance.