Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Republican party is not dead; long live the filibuster

Sorry I can't remember where I got this image from. If it is yours let me know and I will change it. 

Majority leader Harry Reid has been castigated over the last few days after what was supposed to be a filibuster-busting vote to reform the way the Senate works. It didn't pan out that way, to the ire of many,  particularly MSNBC primetime pundit Ed Schultz who blasted Reid on The Ed Show as being wary of the Senate passing gun control legislation with some vulnerable Democratic Senators up for re-election in 2014. 

While I think Schultz's concern is slightly misguided, his core principle is correct. While everyone has treated the 2012 election as the death of the Republican Party, there is a very real chance that in two years' time the House of Representatives and the Senate could be controlled by Republicans. 

Mark Begich in Alaska, Kay Hagan in North Carolina, Tim Johnson in South Dakota, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Mark Pryor in Arkansas and Max Baucus from Montana are all Democrats defending seats in conservative states (although to be fair Baucus' Senate partner from Montana, Jon Tester, won re-election last November). Adding to Democrat woes are the retirements of long-time senators Jay Rockerfeller in West Virginia and Tom Harkin of Iowa. In West Virginia (which can and does elect Democrats) the challenger Rockerfeller was going to face was Republican Shelley Moore Capito, who is now most certainly the front-runner for that seat. While Harkin was correctly regarded a liberal during his terms, it is worth pointing out that Iowa's other Senator, Chuck Grassley, is most certainly not. There is absolutely nothing to justify speculation that Harkin may be replaced by anyone like him. And although Minnesota is beginning to slide firmly into the blue column, Senator Al Franken won his election in 2008 by only 312 votes (in an election in which 2.8-million were cast). 

By my count that is 8 Democrats Senate seats at risk, plus Franken. And the Democrat pickup opportunities are slender, with hopes being pinned on Georgia (due to Saxby Chambliss' retirement and possible strong Democrat contender in Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed), Mitch McConnell in Kentucky and Susan Collins in Maine; however, all of these are reliant on a serious right-wing Tea Party-backed candidate being so unelectable that people are driven to Democrats (see Todd Akin). None of these three are probable. 

When it comes to the House of Representatives, Republicans are unlikely to lose this until 2020 when re-districting takes place after the census. In this last election Democrats won 1.2-percentage points more of the vote than Republicans but still see a deficit of 33 seats. Some estimates claim Democrats may need to win by as much as seven points to retake the House. 

From my point of view, it looks as if Reid is mindful of the fact that Democrats could be on the receiving end of a bad midterm election in 2014 (cast your mid back to the Democrat disaster that was 2010). This Senate reform undertaken on Thursday shouldn't even really be filed under anything resembling "filibuster reform" because it hardly did any of that. 

The rules around filibustering were preserved mostly by what is being referred to as the "old guard" - and it's noticeable that the two senators spearheading this cause were freshmen (Jeff Merkely from Oregon and Tom Udall from New Mexico). The old folks are far more keen to preserve Senate traditions - Reid even added on Thursday, "With the history of the Senate, we have to understand the Senate isn't and shouldn't be like the House," - and it is tradition that is really being preserved here. It isn't difficult to extrapolate that Republicans feel the same about the filibuster, and are unlikely to mess much with it should they take control in the next Congress. Had Democrats busted tradition this time around, there would have been ample reason for Republicans to do the same at the beginning of the 114th, should they win control of the Senate. 

The Republican Party is not dead. And neither is the filibuster. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

I don't even know what to title this post

Image from Politico

Because Jennifer Rubin's most recent diatribe on Chuck Hagel (Chuck Schumer’s Hagel problem on her blog at the Washington Post) has left me dumbfounded. 

Rubin's argument, summed up, is that New York Senator Chuck Schumer - one of the highest ranking people in the Senate - is in a pickle over President Barack Obama's nomination of Chuck Hagel for defence secretary because he sits on the Armed Services Committee: the one who will carry out Hagel's confirmation hearing. Oh, and he is from a state full of Jewish people and gays. The criticism of Hagel's nomination has centered around two issues: i) an alleged lack of 100%-dedicated support for Israel and ii) his views on homosexuals (including supporting Don't Ask Don't Tell). 

For example, Rubin's keyboard mangled this together: "Schumer fancies himself as a great defender of Israel and extra tough on Iran. He repeats ad nauseam that his name derives from the Hebrew word “shomer” (guard). He tells groups:  “We need to be guardians of America and its strongest ally – Israel.” So how will it look and what happens to Schumer’s image as the great guardian of the U.S.-Israel relationship if he votes to confirm Hagel, who has spent a career outside the mainstream bipartisan consensus that supports the Jewish state? Hasn’t Hagel made quite clear he does not see the specialness of the U.S.-Israel relationship?"

For politeness, let's assume Rubin is not creating conclusions in the same manner that David Copperfield makes boats disappear... but the answer to her question is no. While Hagel does not lie down his coat so that Israel ened not walk through a puddle, it doesn't mean he has forgone any Israeli security issues. He has indeed said that the USA's relationship with Israel shouldn't be at the expense of every other Muslim-heavy country - I am unsure if I need to explain that not every country with a plurality of Muslims wants to see Israel nuked off the map (Rubin conversely reminds us with this subtle clause: "Newsflash: Many Muslim countries want Israel to vanish."). The USA may treat Israel as its top ally in the Middle East, but don't forget it also shares beneficial relationships with Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait and Turkey (a NATO-member). 

It is virtually impossible to be elected to any role in the USA's federal government if a significantly strong stance on Israel isn't apparent, but if recent electoral history is anything to go by, this does not mean total deference to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Barack Obama was elected with nearly 70% support by Jewish Americans (and 51% of everyone, to be fair), after his opponents spent the campaign bashing him for not being pro-Israel enough. This line of attack against Schumer, should he vote for Hagel as defence secretary, is unlikely to work any better. 

Rubin has also decided that Democrats running for re-election to the US Senate in 2014 are all going to balk at voting for Hagel's nomination because they are all shaking in their shoes about cuts to the military budget (do you remember how successful Mitt Romney's electoral tactic of upping military spending worked out for him?). She cites Stephen Hayes in the Weekly Standard who says, "Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine isn’t up for reelection for six years. But he’s from a state with a huge military population and he now sits on the Armed Service Committee. Will he support a nominee who is being sold as the man to preside over “huge cuts” to the military? And what about Joe Donnelly, a Democrat from Indiana? Like Kaine, he’s not up for six years, but with a seat on the Armed Services Committee and representing a red state like Indiana, a vote for “huge cuts” at the Pentagon won’t be an easy one. Kay Hagan, a Democrat on Armed Services, hails from North Carolina. She’s up in 2014. Does she want to run for reelection defending her vote for “huge cuts” to the Pentagon? Mark Pryor, from Arkansas, isn’t on Armed Services but is up in 2014. How would Arkansas voters feel about “huge cuts” to the Pentagon?
What about Alaska’s Mark Begich? North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp? Virginia’s Mark Warner? Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu? Joe Manchin from West Virginia? And Jon Tester from Montana?"

Where Hayes is quite correct is that there are a number of vulnerable Democrats running for re-election in 2014: of the 33 Senators up for a vote, 20 are Democrats, and six of those Democrats are running in traditionally conservative states (although I may be harshly judging Tom Harkin in Iowa). 

It is worth pointing out that of these six, Tom Harkin (Iowa) is a veteran, and Tim Johnson (South Dakota) is known for sticking up for veterans. Mary Landrieu (Louisiana) represents the only state in which the US military bought land (expanded!) last year. Kay Hagan (North Carolina) has previously argued for expansion of the military to lengthen downtime for soldiers on active duty: cutting the cost of the overall defence budget doesn't make this plan implausible. (Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas might not be so lucky on the military front, but Pryor has an approval rating over 50%.) Also, these are Democrats who have been mandated by their state to govern! While Rubin thinks a vote for Hagel could be career-ending for these senators, does she remember that the Senate has only voted down a presidential cabinet appointee nine times? 

I am also not really prepared to take into account what may happen to Virginia's Tim Kaine or Mark Warner, or North Dakota's Heidi Heitkamp: a vote for Hagel is hardly a vote for TARP. I am also not really prepared to start predicting what may happen in 2018 when Heitkamp, Kaine, Joe Manchin and John Tester (who just beat a strong opponent in Montana) are all up for re-election. A month is a long time in politics, let alone six years. No one can begin tossing around possibilities on a vote like this. One could have with a major vote on something like Obamacare, or the Iraq War; the nomination of a presidential cabinet member is not that kind of vote. 

Opposition coming in from the left, from senators like Ben Cardin of Maryland, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Bob Menendez from New Jersey, shouldn't be hard to deal with from the White House or Harry Reid. Signs point to Obama leading a largely liberalish agenda in this second term, and this vote can easily be negotiated for another. Plus it's a fairly arguable point for Democrats to start saving money on the military before one begins slashing at Medicare, for example. 

So don't read Rubin for any sort of analysis. 

Monday, January 07, 2013

What I just can't get past with Chuck Hagel

Image from Politico

Although I see it's possible to criticise President Barack Obama's defense [sic] secretary appointment from just about any angles, particularly form those who have dished praise on him before, there is one sticking point that I just can't get past. Hagel was a supporter of Don't Ask Don't Tell.

Although Don't Ask-Don't Tell (pdf) (DADT) was a liberal piece of legislation in 1993, when it was signed by President Bill Clinton, it was a piss-poor effort to deal with the "problem" of gays in the military. Prior to DADT, gays were hoofed out of the USA's gigantic army because homophobia was a pretty acceptable idea then. DADT allowed gays and lesbians to serve in the military as long as they didn't let anyone know they were gay, and no on would be asking of they were.

(Incidentally, this garbage was thankfully repealed by President Barack Obama and Congress in 2011).

So think about it: you were allowed to be in the army as long as you fell within the norms of how straight people act. As long as you PRETENDED not to be gay it was ok for you to put your life on the line in whatever destination the president and/or his private enterprises decided. Which is a nice way of saying that as long as gays played along with homophobic discrimination, they were allowed to be, you know, patriots.

This is one of the sections of DADT: The armed forces must maintain personnel policies that exclude persons whose presence in the armed forces would create an unacceptable risk to the armed forces’ high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability.

And that's immediately followed by (my emphasis): The presence in the armed forces of persons who demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability.

The theory behind this is completely made up to sate people in the army who don't like gays. There is no way that the army works differently with homosexuals in it; the real problem with intra-army relations is homophobia.

And Chuck Hagel supported DADT, for quite some time.

I actually think Hagel will do a good job at the Pentagon. His work experience and talent make him a good fit, particularly trimming the fat of what must be the world's most expensive government institution. There is also arguable evidence Hagel has come around on many of his anti-gay issues (he also criticised the appointment of a US ambassador to Luxembourg by saying "Ambassadorial posts are sensitive. They are representing America. They are representing our lifestyles, our values, our standards. And I think it is an inhibiting factor to be — openly aggressively gay like Mr. Hormel — to do a better job," and rallied against a court who said Nebraska (his state) banning gay marriage is unconstitutional.) In fact, this is a really worthwhile read by Steve Clemons in The Atlantic: The Chuck Hagel I Know: A Staunch Defender of Gay Rights.

But Jesus Christ, it is hard getting past DADT. 

Saturday, January 05, 2013

New Year Resolutions

I was messing around on the internet this fine Friday and came across this post which made me giggle every so often: New Years Resolutions Every Gay Should Live By. Read it. It's great.

Then I decided to read the comments as my people are a rather hilarious people. And I came across this comment which sums up a lot of which we need to be cognisant:

As a gay black man, I felt pretty much left out of this conversation. While I can do most of these things, and have done most of them already, it would be nice to be ‘spoken to’ versus completely left out of the conversation. I love being gay and I love our culture, but at times we forget that we are more diverse than any subculture group in the world and we need to recognize that. Not just beautiful, thin, white men. Here’s a New Years resolution for all us gays; open your mind to the fact that gay does not equate to just white. Plus, I look damn good with my beard.

I don't have much to add. 

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

The case for Cantor, but not too much

Image from Wikimedia Common

Negotiations in 2011 over the debt ceiling seemed to cement allegations that Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, was a man who struggled to close the deal with his caucus. While he has a really tough job - House Republicans are divided starkly between those of the establishment and those of the Tea Party - he doesn't seem to know his congressional voters like, for example, his predecessor Nancy Pelosi.

In 2011, Boehner repeatedly acted like he was close to a deal with congressional Democrats and the White House before pulling the plug - sometimes without any reason. 

This time around while the fiscal cliff* negotiations went on, Boehner again had ideas he released that he then canned because it wouldn't pass his caucus. Repeatedly, he has been as clear as a box of mud. This has driven negotiators, and everyone invested in resolving these (often manufactured) crises, dilly. 

So what would be the answer? It may lie in the hands of the House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Cantor is, reportedly (as I have never sat in on him negotiating), much clearer when it comes to what he wants out of negotiations (although he is also more exploitative when it comes to the media - ie, he acted differently in larger meetings in 2011 when he knew meeting contents would leak to the media). He is more sympathetic to the Tea Party faction of House Republicans, but is seemingly more in touch with what will satisfy a majority of the Republican House majority.

What Cantor brings to negotiating is clarity, in spite of him being personally more ideologically opposed to the people with whom he is negotiating. It is no coincidence that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell managed to strike a deal with the White House (via VP Joe Biden) while Boehner could not. McConnell is also rather more sympathetic (by virtue of being up for re-election in 2014 in a state that elected Senator Rand Paul in 2010) to the Tea Party wing, but knows how to close a deal and has less bullshit attached. He knows his caucus (and the last 48 hours will show you he gets the House Republicans to a fair degree too), his legislative body, and the limit to which they will stretch. It is unclear Boehner does. 

While Cantor may be further ideologically from Democrats, he may be far easier to negotiate with.

But, it stands, the unruly Republican caucus remains, no matter who heads it up. Cantor would hardly solve the struggles of moving legislation through the House. But if I was on either side of the upcoming debt ceiling deal, I'd prefer to deal with Cantor. 

*I believe this term is misleading. The fact that the world didn't ened on 31 December is reflective of that. 

Friday, December 28, 2012

Zuma and the un-African dog owners, on a more serious note.

Image from City Press.

It is sometimes unfortunate where what could be construed as a proper message gets destroyed by someone who a) is likely trying to whip up a bit of hype (which makes me ponder how election campaigns in 2014 are going to work out) and b) knows how the media (the world media, to be fair) clings to what makes a pretty headline. For example: "Pet dogs not for blacks - Zuma".

While we, including myself, spent the day ridiculing the president's remarks (and his spokesman's absurd statement of explanation), there are huge messages that were mixed up in the fray. Two of them stand out for me.

Firstly, while many people were quick to jump on quotes in Zuma's story such as "Even if you apply any kind of lotion and straighten your hair you will never be white," and spokesman Mac Maharaj's "the essential message from the President was the need to decolonise the African mind post-liberation," there is a very real phenomenon in South Africa, and the world, of the hangover from bastard regimes such as apartheid. Contrary to unpopular belief, elections in 1994 didn't solve the problems that beset South Africa after a fat dose of colonialism and 40-odd years of not only lawful segregation, but a institutionalised dehumanisation. White privilege (or douchebaggery, as some indirectly refer to it) is a very real thing, and its place in the head of most people - on both ends of the privilege - is common. While I am in no way an anthropologist, and am wary of suggesting solutions to anyone, a mere walk around South Africa, or a glance at many newspapers, will offer multiple examples of the effects of racism of  which many people on the good end are not aware. When Maharaj wrote about "decolonis(ing) the African mind", he was quoting Nigerian author Chinweizu who authored The West and the Rest of Us, a book arguing against western models of governance and living (and denoting exploitation of Africa and Africans, amongst others) in places that were not western. Zuma clumsily (I use the word in its loosest sense) alluded to this concept in terms of culture: ie, playing into models which suit westernism (or in South Africa's case, white-ism, where there is, of course, significant overlap) at the expense of one's own culture. Somehow he bastardised it into a conversation about what is African vs un-African (a bizarre and incredibly distasteful concept - more on this later), how people treating their pets determines their culture (and indirectly the value of that culture), and some ridiculous and non-existent commonality of African culture (FYI: there are more than a billion people on the continent).

Zuma (and Maharaj) haemorrhaging this topic during his speech on Thursday shouldn't invalidate it as a real issue. Whether you are prepared to accept that there is still a significant hangover from apartheid or not (and sometimes government makes it incredibly hard to do so) a large portion of its effects is intangible. It is not just the crappy infrastructure in the Eastern Cape, or the endless pit into which we throw our youth during what other countries consider school age. It is mightily present in the day-to-day interactions among races (and cultures and sub-cultures and genders and so on) all over the place. White privilege (and the benefits therein), and conversely black (in the Biko sense) disadvantage (and the inherent hindrance), exists. In some ways this extrapolates into a social system whereby the beneficiaries of apartheid are not forced into confronting their own conditioning, and, in a nutshell, the lack of privilege experienced by those on the receiving end is complicit in this; ie the "colonisation of the mind".

Discussion over this concept, of which I really don't feel entitled to take part, shouldn't be canned because of the wackery enunciated by the president on Thursday.

Secondly, I worry there is going to be some mini culture war in the general election in 2014. A raft of by-elections since local elections in 2011 has indicated the ANC could hurt the next time the nation goes to the polls. Not terribly I would suppose, but that two-thirds majority is definitely on the line. I clumsily tried to denote my concerns about this on one or other social network earlier, but I then came across a superb blog post by @siyandawrites on Twitter, who explained this concept far better than I could ever have. (The emphasis is mine)

Zuma used the one word that I am physically incapable of ignoring. In his defence of his anti-pet-dog sentiments, he uttered the word, “un-African.”

Nothing infuriates me more than the use of that word. It drives me particularly insane when its speaker is very obviously using it as a means of shaming Africans out of their right to self-determination.

It makes me even angrier because it is almost always used to persecute the African middle-class. Very rarely are the poor in Africa accused of behaving in an un-African manner. It’s almost as if some people believe that the African, like some sort of religious servant, must stay in his most deprived form in order to retain dignity in his identity. Which is a notion that I regard ridiculous at its best and at its worst, utterly dangerous to the African psyche.

I can’t believe it is five-to-2013 and we’re still hell-bent on keeping African culture in 1605. How is it that African leaders are still allowed to equate walking your dog to lightening your skin?

[some text omitted]

So what is this about?

This is about using shame to police a part of the South African population that the ANC is quickly losing touch with—the African middle-class. By ridiculing them for choosing to lead a lifestyle outside of the confines of the poverty and often-oppressive 18th century principles that he defines to be ‘African’, the ANC president may be aiming to shame them back to the party that all the ‘die-hard Africans’ cling to like a life-raft in ice-water.

And there you have it. Culture war is likely an over-statement (I live in America, for goodness sake), but Zuma's speech today indicates there will be some of this sort of electioneering leading up to 2014.

And both of these points were lost in the great noise from this morning.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Statement: In response to Zuma attacking our pets

To whom it may concern,

It is with the greatest reprehension that me and other white people read about President Zuma's criticisms of "abelungu abamnyama", which we can tell has something to do with us because it says "lungu". And the clarification from Mr Mac Maharaj.

From what we understand, and it is obvious, is that President Zuma thinks we love our pets more than people, and we should not do this because it goes against ubuntu - a concept with which we became familiar during the Soccer World Cup in 2010 (weirdly though, not during the Rugby World Cup in 1995 which was the previous occasion on which we shared stadiums with black folks, the brave Blou Bulle supporters in Soweto notwithstanding).

It is highly prejudicial for President Zuma to say pet dogs are not for black people when across South African suburbia we have been getting our staff to look after family pets for generations.

If President Zuma thinks "We cannot have compassion for animals if we do not have compassion for children and the elderly", then how does he explain how South Africa has united behind solutions to stop rhino poaching?

It does not matter if we are black, white or green: our love for our animals and walking them and taking them to the vet is as African as Mango Groove, Charlize Theron or Mzoli's.

We are grateful that Independent Newspapers spoke to the SPCA to clarify the comments, as the organisation obviously had the best understanding of what President Zuma was trying to explain.

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Simon Williamson