Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Which Side Are You On, Again?

Ok, ok, so I used this title once already. And yes I know I’m not being very original. Does deep depression over the Supremes matter?

But I’m angry too.

I’m not angry with Democrats who crossed party lines to vote to confirm Alito though. If a Democratic senator is from a conservative state, represents a large constituency of pro-life voters, and won by presenting himself as a fellow conservative right to lifer, I don’t have a quarrel with that senator voting in favor of Alito. He voted his conscience and, indeed, represented the will of the people of his state, exactly as he was supposed to do. That senator put principle before party. And probably put country and constituents before partisan politics too. And that’s also what he is supposed to do.

But what about the so-called moderate Republicans who always run as pro-choice centrists because that is what their constituents are?

Why do liberals always go off on a tear at conservative Democrats in the South and Midwest but give a bye to the moderate Republicans in the Northeast? At least the conservative Southerners are being consistent and honest.

On the other hand, why is the national Democratic Party so eager to recruit more religiously conservative Democrats in areas like Alabama and Kansas instead of targeting moderate and liberal Republicans in Pennsylvania and Maine? Have we learned nothing from our humiliating experience of betrayal by Zell Miller? Do we need to encourage more Millers and invite even worse national embarrassment and treachery?

Listen up folks. I know that we need conservative Democrats if we are ever going to recapture the leadership in the House and Senate. And I’ve always counseled that local politicians need to be able to run their local races in ways that are winnable. And yes the Democratic Party needs diversity of opinion. But that doesn’t mean that we need to have a strategy, at the national level, to give those social conservatives prominence over liberals in the national party. If they need to run away from the national ticket to win locally, let them. But the national party should maintain its core Democratic principles. And yes it should stop trampling over the feelings of its base. Those are the ones who walk through fire for a candidate, and go knocking door-to-door for him in sub-zero weather in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The RNC doesn’t really love Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and even Arlen Spector and a host of other Northeastern moderates. But they know they need them because a Tom DeLay wouldn’t win in New York, New Jersey, Maine or Vermont. In the same way, Barney Frank, Ted Kennedy, or even Lincoln Chafee (yeah, he’s the one Republican with balls and a conscience to boot) couldn’t win in Texas or Mississippi or Alabama.

However, instead of focusing all our resources on the ridiculous ambition to take back the South or the rural Midwest, how about conceding that those are not, in fact, our natural constituents? Instead, why not try to pick up seats by challenging the Republicans who are posing as moderates in the Northeast or California? Those are places where we could be far more competitive than in the South without twisting our principles into a pretzel.

Right now if I were a woman in Maine or New Hampshire and I had voted for either Snowe or Collins, I’d be feeling mighty betrayed. I might even be looking for a new candidate in the next election. Somebody I could trust to put their principles, their constituents and their country above partisan loyalty. That’s what a true patriot does.

Oh, and I’d even be asking, if I were that Northeastern moderate and pro-choice Republican voter, whatever happened to that big tent that was so prominently displayed during election time? Looks like when the going gets tough, the moderate Republicans in the Senate just fold it up and cave in.

Big thank you to Lincoln Chafee. You deserve to get re-elected. Democrats, cross party lines for that man. And Northeastern Republicans, defeat those who failed to represent you well.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Ransacking the American Dream

Today’s New York Times carries this article, by Eduordo Porter, that gives the following reason that the Labor Movement has been weakened so much over the past half century. Porter claims it's because Big Labor is a victim of its own success. According to his theory, because unions have driven up workers’ wages and benefits packages in whole industries, they are no longer competitive in a global market where trade liberalization has replaced protectionist policies.

Because industries, such as the U.S. auto industry, can no longer compete efficiently in the global marketplace, the percentage of higher wage union jobs is decreasing as the Big Three automakers lose market share to leaner, meaner non-unionized competitors from overseas. And even from non-union carmakers in this country.

Porter suggests, though, that there are areas where unions can grow, such as the public sector because the government has no competition and therefore doesn’t have to worry about higher wages leading to shrinking profits and lost market share. Another industry that wouldn't face competition and pressure from overseas markets is the hospital industry, which means that unions can hope to experience growth there.

And Eduordo Porter ends with the one suggestion that I actually approve of. He suggests that unions take on one large, extremely successful retail giant that already has eliminated virtually all its competition and so isn’t as vulnerable to lost market share. Yeah, he’s saying organize Wal Mart.

Which, by the way, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) actually is attempting to do. They are already throwing all their resources into the effort to stem the race to the bottom of the wage and benefits barrel by organizing the worst offender. And that is, indeed, Wal Mart.

There are, however, gaps in Porter's logic in this piece. First of all, as much as the U.S. auto industry would like to blame the high price of labor for all its economic woes, that’s only part of the story. The larger reason for its loss of market share is because it has insisted on continuing to push gas-guzzling SUVs while the price of oil has soared. As Jon Stewart cracked on his television show the other night, “What the hell did they expect to happened?”

The Big Three lost market share to foreign cars because they haven’t had an original idea in years. And they ignored reality on the ground. While they induced buyers with zero-interest rate payment plans and huge slashes in prices, foreign carmakers were building hybrids that earned consumers tax breaks and easy access to express car lanes for rush hour commutes. And lower gas prices. So when the price of a barrel of crude oil began hitting $70, which car would you care to guess the consumer purchased? That has as much to do with loss of market share and loss of profit as the alleged millstone around the U.S. auto industry's neck from high priced labor.

The same lack of ability to be competitive because of a poor business model and the inability to give customers the quality of product and service that the competition provides is more to blame for other industries' failures as well.

However, there’s an even bigger question as to how uncompetitive decent wages actually make a company. Most corporations have been reporting record profits except in a few genuinely ailing industries, such as the airline industry. And even there, the lack of quality service and the exorbitant salaries squandered on ineffective CEOs and top executives is as much to blame as for their business failure as high wages and generous pension plans for their workers. After all, one of the most consistently successful airlines has excellent relations with their unions. That would be Southwest, which manages to provide a generous package to employees and still make a profit because people actually enjoy flying with them.

But the high salaries and exorbitant benefits packages and perks paid to CEOs, top corporate executives, and managers can't be ignored as a source of loss of profit share. Those salaries, especially in companies that aren't in financial health, definitely eat into profits every bit as much as generous pensions for ordinary workers. Yet, you virtually never hear a business writer, let alone a corporate board of directors, suggest that maybe a CEO is being paid too much, even when the company is going belly up. Everybody expects accountability from the guy who turns the screw in the widget for $20 an hour. But who holds the executive who makes millions of dollars a year for screwing up and driving the company into bankruptcy?

In fact, as this article, also in today’s New York Times, points out, wealth has increased by as much as almost 54 percent for the nation’s wealthiest 1 percent, who own over 57 percent of corporate wealth. Meanwhile, for every group below that 1 percent, it has decreased. And for the poorest fifth, it has decreased by 57 percent. Americans should be worried about the growing disparity between the wealthiest 1 percent and everybody else. We are losing our middle-class and turning into a nation governed by a tiny aristocracy with a vast class of poor people under them. That can lead not just to economic but also political instability over time.

It's also immoral. In fact, it's the ransacking of the American Dream. Is that the legacy we want to leave to our children?

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Which Side Are You On?

It looks like Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito will be confirmed. For better or worse – and yes I do think it’s for worse – the Republicans have the votes. Without a Democratic filibuster Alito will glide by. Even if every Democratic senator votes against him, he will make it. Just do the math. There are 55 Republican votes.

And not every Democrat will vote against him. Ben Nelson, for one, will probably vote with the Republicans on this one. To be sure, a Republican or two, one of the moderates from the Northeast, will cross party lines too. Most likely Lincoln Chaffee. But I expect most of them will hew to the party line. Republicans have that kind of discipline, after all.

I’m not happy with this. There’s no way to put a smiley face or false optimism on it. Sam Alito will tilt the Supreme Court as far to the right as it’s been in my lifetime. This means that the rights of women, minorities, the disabled, prisoners – especially in death penalty cases - and those concerned about the tilt of the balance of power in the executive branch will all take a hit. Unlike some of my more liberal colleagues, I don’t think it’s the end of the Republic as we know it. But it will mean fighting the same battles that we thought we had won in the thirties, forties, fifties and sixties all over again. It’s a major setback, no question about it.

However, it’s also an opportunity.

This is one more chance for Democrats to define themselves and their core values and to contrast themselves with Republicans. And it could resonate across the country.

The true nature of the Republican Party has never been clearer. It’s the party of special interests, cronyism, and the defender of the wealthy at the expense of the middle class and the poor. The Republicans’ draconian budget cuts for programs that benefit ordinary people, their insistence on still more tax cuts for their wealthy benefactors, the Jack Abramoff/Tom Delay “pay to play” lobbying scandal just now making its way into the national consciousness beyond the Beltway, are all throwing into sharp relief where their values really lie.

And Democratic senators should not be afraid to stand up and vocally oppose Alito’s nomination. Although his nomination will be voted out of committee by next week, the next step is a full Senate vote. Democrats should not filibuster. He deserves an up or down vote. But that doesn’t mean that Democrats have to rubber stamp the Republican President’s choice. The role of the Senate is to advise and consent. And that means the Democrats in the Senate are well within their constitutional right to advise “no” and to refuse their consent to this nominee.

The main thing, however, is to have the debate and to explain why they oppose Alito. And at the same time, it’s to explain what they stand for instead. Simple opposition to a candidate isn’t enough. Democrats need to present an alternative vision of what traits and values they’d rather see in a Supreme Court nominee.

Of course, the only people who will be listening to a debate on a Supreme Court nomination are the base. But that’s not a small thing. These are the kinds of issues where you need to stay loyal to your base. The base, after all, are the people who will walk through fire for you. Or, at least, get out and knock on doors for you on a cold, snowy day in New Hampshire and Iowa.

Indeed, politics is the art of satisfying the base while also moving out to embrace the moderates and independents. It’s a delicate balancing act and the Republicans have mastered it far better than Democrats have.

Their base is no less extreme or radical than ours. In fact, at its fringes it’s far more radical. The Democratic left doesn’t even have an equivalent in terms of sheer craziness to the Pat Robertson/James Dobson followers. The organized groups of anarchists on college campuses who show up to protest G-7 meetings don’t participate in Democratic Party politics. They’ve written off the two party system.

However no matter how extreme their rightwing appears, it is more disciplined than even our more moderate leftwing. Sam Alito is the victory they’ve been working toward for years and through at least three Republican presidents. They have mostly held their fire, sucked it in and supported presidents who have alternately ignored them and picked more moderate nominees such as David Souder, who have greatly disappointed them, and championed the Robert Borks only to see them lose in Senate confirmations.

This was the year, though, that their base drew their line in the sand and said no more. This was the victory that they had worked so hard for through all these years and Republican Administrations, and they would not be denied. This was also probably their last shot at finally getting that victory. After Bush’s term ends, they have no guarantee that they will get anybody as conservative as him again or even another Republican who identifies as much as one of them, that is a self-proclaimed born again Christian, again. If to the victor go the spoils, this was their last shot at the spoils that they had worked for so long and so hard.

If hard work, discipline and loyalty make one deserving of a victory, regardless of their nominee’s actual worthiness, they deserve it. They’ve earned it.

When we win, we’ll deserve it too.

And that’s where this becomes an opportunity. Not to block this nomination, no matter how appalling it actually is. Yeah, I’m pretty appalled by it too.

But the opportunity is to use it as the jumping off point for a debate on the direction of our nation. Sometimes, you gotta use tough love. That is, as hard as it is, you have to let people make the mistake and live with the consequences. The thing is to point out why Alito is a bad choice and then every time he tilts the Supreme Court in the wrong direction and it erodes another liberty that we as a nation take for granted, to point it out again. And again, and again. It’s the consequence of voting for somebody as extreme and radical and ideological as George Bush is.

Another thing, to go back to satisfying one’s base. The Democratic Party has spent far too much time losing it’s core values in trying to satisfy conservative Southerners and Midwestern rural voters who will never be our base or our constituency while ignoring Northeasterners who are.

There are many Republicans who win in so-called moderate to socially liberal northern parts of the country – starting with the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Arlen Spector, who have been given a bye for far too long. What about the Spectors, the Susan Collinses, and the Olympia Snowes? These so called moderates win in Northern states specifically by running as pro-choice Republicans. It’s their base, their voters who now need to look at how deeply conservative Sam Alito is and challenge those moderate Republican senators who vote for his confirmation. There’s an old union song with the refrain, “which side are you on.”

“Which side are you on?” is a fair question to ask these moderates. I am angrier with them than I am with Ben Nelson, Nebraska’s Democratic senator. Although the media persists in calling him a moderate, Nelson’s no moderate. He’s a conservative Democrat. That’s what he ran as. That’s what his constituents elected. If he is representing them, I have no quarrel with his crossing party lines to vote his conscience. He is who he is. He also is who he told the voters of Nebraska he is.

But exactly who are the moderate Republicans who told their voters in New England, New York and Pennsylvania that they were pro-choice? If a conservative Democrat can follow his conscience and break rank with his party, why can’t they? What is more important to them, party loyalty or loyalty to America and to their own vision of where America should go?

It’s a question Democrats have to ask in elections in those states. Because another way to take back the leadership in the Senate and the House is to win back seats from moderate Republicans in liberal and swing states. Instead of concentrating only on supporting conservative Democrats down South, as we’ve been doing, our strategy should also be to challenge so-called liberal Republicans up North. To me, that’s a better, more comfortable fit because many of their voters actually already have core Democratic Party values. Perhaps it would be more productive for us to point that out to them by running stronger candidates and giving more Democratic money to those challenges. And to point out that when the chips are down, no matter what those moderate Republicans say about being pro-choice, they have sold their more liberal constituents down the river.

Just a thought on the eve of a sad day in our history.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Requiem for Marion Fernand

It's been a long time since I've posted here. Well over a month, in fact. And a lot has happened in that time.

Since Thanksgiving, I have spent a lot of time shuttling back and forth between Northern Virginia and Fort Lauderdale, where my parents live. Where one still lives.

After a bittersweet visit at Thanksgiving, when I saw my mother visibly growing more frail by the day, I returned home only to find out that a week later she had contracted pneumonia. At that time, my husband and I just had a gut feeling that she was not going to recover from this.

I have never been a pessimist. Less so my husband. And it would always be a mistake to count my mom out. She had more heart and more fight than anybody I have ever known and had recovered from more adversity than many. But I had seen this situation happen to the elderly parents of other friends. Indeed, as this unfolded it reminded me so much of the mother of one of my husband's best friends who had similarly passed away from pneumonia. Husband and I both knew that it was usually pneumonia or another secondary opportunistic infection rather than the original disease that kills.

And so it was with my mom. She was hospitalized in early December. I went down to Florida to see her in the hospital. At that time, my father too had caught pneumonia. He had been caring for her since her stroke in May. That had entailed 24/7 care with the help of a home health care aide who came for only a few hours daily. The bulk of the responsibility had fallen on my 92 year old father. Sometimes he was getting up eight times a night to help my mother. And the strain finally caught up with him.

One night, while I was in Florida, I was on the phone with my husband and I began to cry, "I knew when I came down that I might be losing my mother but I think - I'm afraid - I may be losing my father too."

Fortunately, his infection was caught very early and a strong antibiotic cured it. Other than exhaustion, there was no underlying cause for his pneumonia. But my mom's health problems were simply beyond mere medication. In her case, the pneumonia was just one more deadly complication in a host of problems including the linger effects of the stroke and congestive heart failure.

While I was down there, my father and I placed my mom in hospice care. It was the best decision we both ever made and I cannot say enough good things about this wonderful organization. At some point, I will write more about them. Helping others to know about the incredibly compassionate work that they do is the very least that I can do to repay their excellent care of my mom in her final days.

On Saturday, December 17, 2005, at 3:30 in the morning, I received a phone call from hospice that my mom had passed away peacefully in her sleep.

I was scheduled to return to Florida to be with her only two days later. But she could no longer hang on. She was just two weeks shy of her 91st birthday.

My mom will be missed by the many people whose lives she impacted. I shall miss her for the rest of my life.

Rest in peace, Marion Fernand. You have lived your life well and faithfully. And you will remain in the memory and hearts of those you have left behind.