Sen. Tom Harkin: On Fiscal Cliff, "No Deal Is Better Than A Bad Deal"

As we appear to be headed over the so-called “fiscal cliff” tomorrow, barring a last-minute deal, I’ve got to say that I think it’s a lot of ado over very little. What the “fiscal cliff” entails, if we go over it, is largely a return to the Clinton-era tax rates for everyone, which will be inconvenient but not debilitating. I’m not looking forward to paying more in taxes, but I’m happy to cough it up if it will help balance the budget and pay our nation’s bills.

Going over the so-called cliff also results in steep cuts to defense spending, and frankly, we are long overdue to become more efficient in our military spending. We’ve been making billionaires of defense contractors for far too long, buying high-priced hardware that the military itself doesn’t want and isn’t asking for. We already have more and newer military hardware than just about the rest of the world put together; unless we’re expecting to every other country in the world to get together and invade our shores, we’re spending way too much on defense.

I recognize there are other concerns, and my biggest concern is the significant scaling back of federal unemployment benefits. I would hope we could address that separately, along with targeted tax cuts for people who actually need to buy food and clothes rather than another yacht.

But has it crossed anybody’s mind that the reason this thing has turned into such a big deal is because we have overhyped it so much? I keep hearing about how it’s going to tank the economy, but I’m not convinced of that. We had these tax rates in place in the 1990s, and the economy boomed, and that was largely because we were finally behaving responsibly — we were taking in more in revenue than we were spending, which convinced investors to invest in America and its economy.

At this point, the thing I’m most worried about is that President Obama and the Democrats will agree to a bad deal rather than waiting a few more days and cutting a better deal from a position of strength. I agree entirely with the comments of Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who was quoted by the Associated Press this morning as saying the following:

“No deal is better than a bad deal. And this looks like a very bad deal the way this is shaping up,” said Harkin.

He suggested instead letting tax rates revert to the higher levels that existed when the economy was strong under President Bill Clinton, adding, “I ask, what’s so bad about that?”

I’m with Senator Harkin on this one.

Stacking The Electoral College: Republicans, Unable To Win, Prepare To Cheat

In recent weeks, I have been tracking an alarming story that now appears to be moving from the realm of conjecture to reality. Today, National Journal ran an article on how Republicans are orchestrating a scheme to steal the next presidential election if they can’t win it legitimately. Their plan: to split the electoral votes in three states they have been unable to win in the last quarter-century, in order to help elect their presidential candidate in 2016 regardless of whether he actually wins the most votes.

First, a little background is necessary. As most people who closely follow politics understand, the president of the United States is not elected by the direct votes of the voters. Instead, every state is allocated a certain number of “electors,” roughly in proportion to their share of the nation’s population, chosen by the popular vote of each state. In 48 of the 50 states, the candidate who wins the largest number of votes wins all the electoral votes in that state. For example, Barack Obama won approximately 63 percent of the vote in New York, and will therefore receive 29 electoral votes from that state, while Mitt Romney will receive none; conversely, in Texas, where Romney won about 58 percent of the vote, Romney will get 38 electoral votes, and Obama will receive zero. In the remaining two states, Maine and Nebraska, the electors are allocated so that the statewide winner gets two electoral votes, and the winner in each Congressional district gets one. The result, in all but four of the 48 elections that have been held since the popular vote has been officially tracked and recorded, is that the candidate with the most votes has won the presidency.

The Constitution of the United States provides that each state may choose its electors in any manner it sees fit, which is why Maine and Nebraska can allocate their electoral votes as they do, while the other states allocate them so that the winner of the state gets all the electoral votes.

Now, according to National Journal, Republican legislators who currently control the legislatures and governorships in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, are preparing to introduce legislation in 2013 that would award Republicans most of their states’ electoral votes, even while the Republican candidate is losing each state badly. No Republican presidential candidate has won Michigan or Pennsylvania since 1988, or Wisconsin since 1984, but had this proposal been in place this year, Romney would have captured a substantial majority of the electoral votes in each state despite losing them all by at least 5 percent of the total votes cast (and by just under 10 percent in Michigan). There is also discussion of doing enacting the same scheme in Florida, Ohio and Virginia, all of which Obama won in each of the last two elections. However, the possibility that the GOP may actually win any or all of these states may make this less likely than it is in Michigan, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin, where Republicans haven’t won the presidential vote in a generation.

The reason Republicans are singling out these six states is very simple: aside from West Virginia, which has a Democratic governor and legislature but voted for Romney, these are the only six states in America that voted for a presidential candidate of one party, but in which the governorships and legislatures are controlled by the other party. They understand that if they go forward with their plans, the net result will be a large pickup of electoral votes by Republicans. The Democrats cannot respond by changing the rules in states that typically vote Republican, because all the states that typically go Republican in presidential elections (except West Virginia) are also controlled by Republicans at the state capital. So while the six aforementioned states would give a majority of their electors to Republicans, even as Republicans are losing those states, the so-called “red states” would continue to give ALL of their electors to Republicans.

Let’s take a look at what would have happened in 2012 if the Republican plan had been in place in all six states. It’s actually pretty simple: Barack Obama, despite outpolling Mitt Romney by nearly 5 million votes nationally (approximately 66 million to 61 million), probably would have lost the White House. In the six states where Republicans are considering changing the rules, Obama won 106 electoral votes to Romney’s zero. Under the newly proposed rules, despite winning the most votes in all six of those states, Obama would have lost the majority of the all-important electoral votes in each one of those states. Under the proposed GOP scheme, Romney would have won potentially as many as 70 of the 106 electoral votes in those states; he came up 64 electoral votes short of winning the White House. The math—and the Republican intention—is simple: to gain (and keep) power regardless of whether they actually win elections or not.

It should now be abundantly clear to anyone who can count that the Republicans do not care what the voters want. They have lost the popular presidential vote in five of the last six elections, and in four of those five elections, they have lost by large margins: four million votes or more. Rather than changing their policies and attempting to appeal to more voters, the Republicans instead are attempting to rig the system so that they can win regardless of who actually gets more votes.

The worst part of all of this is that there is nothing to stop them. The Constitution is very clear: states can allocate their electors as they wish. The GOP controls the legislatures and governorships in each of these states. If the Republicans introduce this legislation in any or all of these states, it will become law, and they will almost certainly win the presidency in 2016, regardless of how badly they might actually lose the election.

There is only one way to prevent this obscene, absurd tragedy from occurring, and it is admittedly a long shot: Democrats have to win the governorship and both chambers of the legislature in each one of these states in 2014. Only then can they overturn any of these laws that may be enacted over the next year or two. But the Republicans who control these states have drawn the district lines in such a way that it is almost impossible for Democrats to win the legislatures in these states. It is a heavy lift, because what is happening here is a complicated scheme that most voters will not understand. But Democrats are going to have to try, because if this is the way it’s going to be, it will be nearly impossible for them to win the White House ever again, even if they consistently win the most votes.

The most important political objective for the Democratic party in the next two years is to take control of the governorships and legislatures in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Virginia and Wisconsin. Every other political objective pales in comparison. Every dollar, every staffer, every volunteer that the Democratic Party can spare must be devoted to this purpose. Failure in this effort will allow the Republicans to stack the deck so that they will control the presidency no matter how the voters actually vote.

This isn’t about what is right or wrong. It’s about power. The Republicans want power and will do whatever they must do to get it and keep it, even if that means stacking the deck and rendering the actual votes of the people completely meaningless. Democrats only have one chance to stop them: everything depends on 2014, and that includes democracy itself.

Gun Apologists: Stupid Excuses, Bad Analogies and Trite Talking Points

I wrote a post on the gun issue (“Our Deadly Love Affair With Guns“) less than two weeks ago, after a professional football player killed his girlfriend and himself in Kansas City. I’m not going to repeat the same arguments now; if you want to see what I think about America’s problem with guns, that post sums it up very well.

But in the wake of yesterday’s horrific, senseless massacre of 20 children between the ages of 5 and 10, as well as seven adults, today I just want to deal with some of the absolutely idiotic excuses, analogies and talking points I have encountered in the last 24 hours on this issue.

I was talking with a friend around lunchtime yesterday, and we started throwing out some of the ridiculous things we expected to hear from the gun apologists. The first one we came up with was this: “Well, if the teachers/the principal/the janitors would have had guns, this never would have happened (or fewer kids would have been killed).” Naturally, I’ve seen that argument quite a bit since yesterday. It was completely predictable, because that’s what the gun apologists always say after the occurrence one of these increasingly frequent gun massacres in a public place. OK, sure, it’s possible that an armed teacher might have killed the killer before he got off more than a few rounds. It’s also possible that said teacher, possibly scared to death and perhaps not a gun enthusiast, would have done more harm than good, and that a bunch of kids may have been caught in the crossfire. A grade school should not be the Wild West; the answer to gun violence is not more guns. The answer is to ensure that there are fewer guns and that they are not easily accessible to lunatics.

So, from Trite Talking Point #1, let’s move on to our first Really Bad Analogy (which also doubles as Trite Talking Point #2). In a Facebook discussion, some fellow chimed in on a friend’s thread by saying that people die in car accidents, so you can’t single out guns, because people using cars sometimes get killed too. Well, no. The purpose of a car is to transport one or more individuals from place to place. If somebody dies in a car, it is almost always accidental. Very few people ever take it into their heads to use a car as a weapon. Guns, on the other hand, are designed to cause physical harm; that is the purpose of a gun. A person who procures a gun does not do so for any other purpose but to shoot it. And guns, being a bit smaller than a car, and able (unlike vehicles) to hurl bullets at a distance, are more easily hidden, can get into more places, and are easier to kill people with. Even if some nutjob decides to start killing the USA in his Chevrolet, he can’t take a car into a school, a church, a supermarket or an office building. It won’t fit through the door. To kill, intentionally, with a car, almost never happens and isn’t nearly as easy as killing intentionally with a gun.

And by the way, there is one other area where this ridiculous analogy does not hold: car usage is heavily regulated. There are laws governing how a car is used, and people who violate those laws risk losing their driving privileges. Unsafe or unwise usage of a gun does not necessarily result in a person facing any legal sanction at all, unless somebody ends up injured or dead. You want to drink and drive? If you are caught, you’ll be arrested and possibly lose your license—just for being drunk behind the wheel. When was the last time somebody got arrested for handling a gun while drunk (without, of course, killing or wounding somebody first)?

Let’s go now to Trite Talking Point #3, which is also our first Stupid Excuse: more gun regulation won’t make any difference; killers will just use other weapons. This excuse for inaction is ridiculous, and I’ll demonstrate why.

Let’s say the psycho who shot up all those kids in Connecticut yesterday had entered the school with a knife instead of a gun. What are the differences between the two weapons? Well, first of all, if you have a gun, you can kill from a distance. If the killer stands in the door of a classroom, he can start plugging people from there, and nobody will be able to get past him without getting shot. But if he goes in with a knife, he first has to get close enough to a victim to actually use the knife; it also takes more time than shooting (which is very fast) and makes the assailant more vulnerable to being tackled or otherwise impeded by the other adult in the room. Additionally, and this is very important: with a knife, an attacker can only attack one victim at a time. He may get one victim, maybe even several, but the others are going to run, and since the knife-wielder has no gun, and can’t kill at a distance, he can’t possibly stop all of them.

I keep hearing, from the gun apologists, about the 22 kids in China who got stabbed a few days ago. But you know what? Those 22 kids all lived. Every one of them is alive. Their parents will get to see them grow up. There’s a reason why the fictional Sgt. Jimmy Malone, in his famous speech in The Untouchables, says “They pull a knife; you pull a gun … ” That’s because it’s easier and more efficient to kill with a gun than it is to kill with a knife. For any individuals to whom this isn’t obvious, all I can say is any such people are lucky that breathing is an involuntary exercise. If they had to think about it, they’d suffocate.

OK, let’s plow forward and deal with Bad Analogy #2. One argument that gun-control advocates make is that other comparable countries have far fewer gun deaths than the United States, which in a typical year has about 10,000 deaths related to guns. Sometimes it’s around 9,000, other years closer to 11,000 or 12,000, but it’s usually right around that 10,000 mark. Other western democracies, such as Britain or Canada, usually have anywhere from 50 to a couple hundred gun deaths in a given year.

Of course, yesterday, a gun apologist on Facebook countered that argument with this: most of these countries are smaller than Texas, so the comparison is invalid. Well, no, that’s actually a really bad analogy, because the point isn’t that a country like Britain, with one-fifth of the U.S population (but many more people than Texas, by the way) has fewer gun deaths; that is to be expected. The point is that if you compare apples to apples and look at it on a per-capita basis (number of gun deaths per 100,000 people), the U.S. total is off the charts. Britain, with 60 million people, has about 50 gun deaths in a given year. The United States, with slightly more than 300 million people, has about 10,000. All things being equal, either Britain should have 2,000 gun deaths a year, or the United States should have about 250. On an apples-to-apples basis, we have about 40 times more gun deaths per capita than Britain every year. Do we have 40 times as many evil or crazy people, per capita, than the United Kingdom has? No. But we do have 280 million guns.

Well, that’s a pretty good sampling, but I’m going to close here with Stupid Excuse #2: we can’t do anything about guns because the Second Amendment guarantees everyone’s right to a gun.

Well, let’s start with the text of that amendment:

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

You’ll notice, if you read that 27-word sentence carefully, that its mandate (” … the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed”) is conditional; the right to keep and bear arms is predicated on, and justified by, the security needs of the state. In the 18th century, when the founders adopted this amendment, there was no large, standing army; average citizens could be called upon at any time to defend their country or community. I could make a very strong case here that the current strength and structure of the United States armed forces obviates the need for every American to be armed and ready to fight off an invasion or insurrection.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has chosen to interpret this amendment much more loosely than I do, and my point, although I consider it to be correct, is also moot. So let’s move on to another argument that might hold up a little better:

Every Constitutional right has limits.

For example, let’s look at an amendment to the bill of rights that most Americans hold absolutely sacred: the First Amendment.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Does anyone care to argue that this amendment, and the rights contained within, are not limited? Then I’d like to ask you to do a series of experiments:

1) First, strip naked at the corner of Wacker Drive and Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago while chanting verses from your religious text of choice.

2) Then, put your clothes back on (please) and catch a cab to the nearest theater. Buy a ticket, walk in, and halfway through whatever Harold and Kumar are doing at White Castle, start screaming that the theater is on fire.

3) Next, assuming you have not yet been arrested, go home and start blogging about how you’ve got a great plan to shoot the president, and while you’re at it, go ahead and post that the local school board leader likes to have sex with 12-year-olds.

4) After you’ve finished with these contributions to the world of journalism, go out into the middle of the street with a picket sign and block traffic.

Oh, wait—you mean you can’t legally do any of these things? But the First Amendment is clear, isn’t it? Congress cannot make any law that prevents free exercise of religion, speech, press or assembly, right?

Yes it can, as the Supreme Court has previously ruled—if, and only if, the free exercise of those rights creates a clear and present danger to others. If you shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater, when there is no fire, and people get hurt, you have broken the law and can be prosecuted, as you can if you threaten the life of the president, libel somebody, or obstruct vehicular traffic, for example. Can anyone seriously argue that the potential misuse of a gun does not also create a clear and present danger to others? If we can limit the First Amendment, generally considered the most sacred of them all, on grounds of basic common sense and public safety, why are we prevented from using common sense and public safety to limit the Second?

I go back to what I wrote on December 3rd: America has a gun problem. What are we going to do about it? Will the horrifying school shooting in Connecticut and the tragic deaths of so many young children wake us up? If it doesn’t, what exactly will it take? Do we have to come to the point where some nutcase takes a gun into a maternity ward and starts killing newborns? Or are we going to strike a blow for common sense and public safety now?

How Obama Can Throw The GOP A Curve

United Nations ambassador Susan Rice took one for the team today, formally withdrawing from consideration to be Secretary of State after weeks of unending attacks by a swarm of Republican Senators led by John McCain (R-Arizona), Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire).

The criticism of Ambassador Rice, based on what I can see, was completely unwarranted and unjustified. The statement she made after the Benghazi tragedy was based on what the intelligence services gave her to work with. Perhaps she can take some small comfort in knowing that this really had nothing to do with her. This was strictly about politics. Unable to turn the tragedy in Libya into electoral defeat for President Barack Obama last month, the Republicans went after Rice in part so they wouldn’t come away completely empty-handed; they wanted a scalp, and they got one.

But this is also about ensuring that Sen. John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) becomes the next Secretary of State, so that his Senate seat can be opened up for a special election, possibly helping Sen. Scott Brown (R) return after his decisive loss to incoming Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D).

As much as I respect and admire Sen. Kerry, a great public servant and true American hero, I almost hope the president picks someone else, just to demonstrate that these kinds of antics by McCain and his fellow travelers will not produce the results they want. It would be terribly unfair to Kerry, whose qualifications for the job are unquestionable, but then, what’s happened here has been terribly unfair to Susan Rice, too.

Wouldn’t McCain, Graham, Ayotte and every Republican in Washington be taken completely by surprise if President Obama nominated outgoing Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) as the next Secretary of State? It is hard to imagine Lugar wouldn’t be unanimously approved, and nobody in America is better qualified for the job. He also has a history of working together with President Obama, who spent a great deal of time as a Senator accompanying Lugar on overseas trips to help lock down loose nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union.

We’d get a terrific Secretary of State who would inevitably be confirmed with the support of both Republicans and Democrats; there would be no chance that the Republican tactics would be rewarded with the return Scott Brown to the Senate; and Obama would send a message to the Republicans that he cannot be played.

Well, it’s just a thought.

Our Deadly Love Affair With Guns

In the wake of the highly publicized gun deaths brought about by a Kansas City Chiefs football player who killed the mother of his child and then committed suicide, I’ve been thinking seriously about the issue of gun violence in America.

I’ll be honest: I don’t know what the right answer is on this issue. I am not a gun owner myself, but many of my male relatives are avid hunters and own plenty of guns. None of them have ever used any of their guns improperly, and I have no doubt that the same is true of the vast majority of gun owners.

That said, the statistics clearly demonstrate that this country has a serious problem with gun violence and gun-related deaths as compared to almost every other country on earth, and certainly as compared to other modern, advanced democracies. There are only a handful of countries that average more gun deaths, per 100,000 inhabitants, than the United States, and most of these are countries that have severe drug violence (such as Mexico and Colombia) or persistent civil unrest.

I’ve done some research online, and in recent years, U.S. gun homicides and accidental gun deaths average more than 4 out of every 100,000 Americans in a year’s time. This is compared to less than one-tenth of a person per 100,000 in England; slightly more than two-tenths of a person per 100,000 in Scotland; slightly more than half a person per 100,000 in Australia and about half that rate in nearby New Zealand; about 1 person per 100,000 in Canada; and just slightly more than that in Ireland.

I’ve often heard it said that “Guns don’t kill people; people do,” and that you can’t blame guns for the actions of bad people or those who are mentally ill. However, on a per-capita basis, we have anywhere from four to 40 times more gun deaths per year than other socially and educationally advanced countries that are very similar to us historically and culturally. Does that mean we have four to 40 times as many bad people or crazy people as our contemporaries? I don’t think so.

While banning guns is not the answer (and clearly unconstitutional), other post-industrial democracies are having much more success avoiding gun deaths than we are. We need to be having some discussions as a country as to why this is and what we can do. Can we make it harder for the wrong people (those with criminal backgrounds or a history of mental illness) to get guns? Can we at least regulate guns that have an exclusively military purpose? Let’s face it, folks, you don’t need an Uzi to shoot Bambi—unless you’ve got a taste for some Bambi McNuggets. And a shooter who needs to reload occasionally will be able to shoot a lot fewer people before he is stopped than he could shoot with an automatic weapon.

Unfortunately, because of the National Rifle Association (NRA), and its skillful lobbying and public relations efforts, we as a country are now afraid to even broach the subject of gun violence. Our politicians, both on the right and on much of the left, have been so cowed by the NRA (and its vast reserves of campaign cash) that even suggesting we might have a gun problem in this country has become politically problematic. As a result, we have closed our collective eyes to the fact that, statistically speaking, we clearly do have a problem. So the problem persists, and every time we have a highly publicized gun tragedy, we move on without even talking about how we can avoid similar tragedies in the future. This is shameful, cowardly—and bordering on criminal neglect.

America isn’t the only place where there are gun massacres. There have recently been mass shootings in Germany and Norway, for example, but those were notable because they happen so rarely. Here, we’ve gotten to a point where we barely even notice whenever we have a new Virginia Tech or Northern Illinois or Columbine or Tucson.

We’ve got a problem. I’m not entirely sure how we should deal with it, but we at least need to start by admitting a problem exists. We can’t just continue to bury our heads in the sand and hope that if we ignore it, it will go away. America has a problem with gun violence. What are we going to do about it?