The Sequester: Why It's Going To Happen

I have a theory on this sequester business. I think a number of Republican and Democratic politicians secretly want it. Some Democrats (most notably, Howard Dean) believe this is the only way they’re going to get military spending under control, and some Republicans feel this is the only way they’re going to get any spending cuts at all.

Neither side is happy with all the cuts, but none of them are ever going to happen any other way, and this option, which requires nothing but continued inaction, enables each party to blame the other. Ask yourself a question: would Congress have passed this ticking time bomb in the first place if it really didn’t want it to go off?


Thank You, Dr. Koop

Dr. C. Everett Koop, who served as the U.S. Surgeon General under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, died today at 96 years old.

Dr. Koop was a true hero and a great American, and it is hardly disputable that many Americans alive today owe their lives and their health to him. In fact, the nearly ubiquitous expectation of condom use today, in order to prevent the spread of disease, can be traced directly to Dr. Koop and his extremely visible advocacy of safe sex.

Safe sex may seem like a no-brainer today, but in the 1980s, when social conservatives were feeling their oats—with one of their own in the White House and the so-called “Moral Majority” becoming a political force—it took real courage for Dr. Koop to lead a public crusade for the usage of condoms.

It was a real surprise to just about everybody that Dr. Koop would lead this crusade. A deeply religious, devout, conservative Christian, he considered homosexuality, non-marital sex and abortion to be morally wrong. I could not disagree more with his point of view on these issues. And yet, the fact that he was able to put his views, and the pressure of his ideological peers, aside and go where the facts led him—that is what elevated Dr. Koop to a true national treasure.

Confronted with the AIDS epidemic, which at that time was largely seen as a “gay plague,” those who supported Dr. Koop’s appointment expected him to condemn homosexuality and advocate sexual abstinence. Dr. Koop instead launched his public crusade in which he worked tirelessly to educate the public that the safest way to have sex was to use a condom every time.

Dr. Koop did not simply issue a report and leave it at that. He all but shouted it from the rooftops, using his office as a very public, very visible platform to spread the word across the country and the world. And it worked. When the 1980s began, condom use in non-marital, sexual relationships was by no means a given, particularly among gay couples, or among straight couples in which the female was on the pill. By the time I graduated high school in 1990, it was well understood that if you planned to have sex, you needed to use a condom. In terms of public health, there are probably two things anybody alive at the time remembers: “Just say no (to drugs),” as Nancy Reagan told us; and “Use a condom every time,” courtesy of Dr. Koop.

Additionally, Dr. Koop suggested that children receive comprehensive sex education starting in elementary school, which is still—unfortunately—a controversial issue today, nearly 30 years later. And, in another service to public health, he took on Big Tobacco and promoted the idea of a smoke-free society. We are not there yet, but every year, fewer and fewer Americans are engaging in this risky behavior.

And while Dr. Koop never veered from his belief that abortion was murder, he also refused to cave in to pressure from the right and endorse errant, pseudo-scientific theories that abortion would cause lasting harm to women who underwent one. It is a pity that there are those today who do not have the courage or the wisdom to follow his example.

In a time when it has become increasingly unlikely for those with strong viewpoints to overlook those views, and do what is necessary to save lives and improve public health, Dr. Koop stands as a beacon of reason, courage, and rectitude. Dr. Koop did the right thing for his country and his fellow human beings, even though he undoubtedly disapproved of the actions that made his condom crusade necessary. Despite his beliefs, he was right in his actions. I believe history will record that Dr. C. Everett Koop was one of the most influential and consequential human beings of the 20th century.

In matters of religion, I am an agnostic. I don’t know if a god exists, and frankly, I don’t care. But if the God in which Dr. Koop believed devoutly all his life does exist, and the good doctor has, in fact, met his maker today, I am confident that this divine being has welcomed Dr. Koop warmly, and congratulated him on a job well done.

Godspeed, Dr. Koop. Thank you for a life of service unmatched by almost anyone alive today.

The Coming Republican Valhalla?

I learned on MSNBC’s “The Cycle” today that the number of Americans between ages 18 and 30 is now 80 million—more than 1/3 of all current voting-age adults. As they get older, they are, statistics demonstrate that they are more likely to vote regularly than they are now.

And there are approximately 75 million Americans under 18.

In short, within 20 years, when most of the current plus-65 Americans are, statistically speaking, likelier than not to be dead, the millennials, and those younger than millennials, will make up somewhere in the ballpark of 60 percent (probably more) of all voters. And if Republicans don’t reverse the tide, and these current young people continue to skew progressive on social issues, Republicans will never be able to win a national election without getting upwards of two-thirds of the plus-50 vote. Considering that the 50-to-65 crowd, 20 years from now, will be comprised of the moderate-leaning 30-to-45 crowd of today—which first began voting during the Bill Clinton presidency—good luck to the GOP in getting two-thirds or more of that demographic.

Republicans can do this simple math just as easily as I can. They must know that if they don’t change, they are politically dead. Oh, they may win an election here and there, but it’ll be an increasingly rare occurrence—a death rattle. Yet, rather than making real changes, their actions seem to indicate an attempt to mitigate their decline rather than reverse it. One wonders if they are not just trying to stay alive long enough so that they can ensure their laws will survive after they are extinct.

Viewed in this light, it would seem the Republicans are fighting a rearguard, guerrilla-type political war. They are buying time to get their laws on the books (certainly at the state level, even if they can’t do so at the federal level). If they can get their laws on the books (backed by the numerous lifetime appointees to the federal benches they’ve made since 1981), no matter how badly they lose at the polls, it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the eventual Democratic majorities to overturn them—at least, not for a very long time. For example: look at the union-busting measures recently enacted by Michigan Republicans. It is hard to see how they will not suffer at the polls for their actions—but if their chief concern is getting their laws on the books while they still can, then their course of action makes sense.

One would think that if Republicans were truly interested in future political viability, they’d start aligning at least some of their positions, particularly on social issues, with the millennials, who will be the dominant force in U.S. politics by 2030 (if not sooner). But the Republicans aren’t realigning on any of the issues. They are merely incessantly yammering about better messaging, but their problem is not primarily a messaging problem. The messaging difficulties merely are a symptom. Yes, their messaging is bad, but that’s largely because they’re selling a product that fewer and fewer people want to buy. If they think putting a fresh coat of paint on a crumbling house is going to change their fortunes, they are in for a rude awakening.

I am beginning to consider the possibility that the Republican Party is not, primarily, trying to survive. Perhaps not surprisingly for a party increasingly dominated by deeply religious people, it might simply be trying to ensure itself an afterlife.

Let's Talk About Sex—Please!

If I live to be 100, I will probably never forget my public-school sex-education experience.

That’s because it lasted about 50 minutes and taught me nothing I didn’t already know.

I went to a small junior/senior high school in Indiana, and our eighth-grade course schedule in 1985-86 was very basic. We were all required to take English, math, science, social studies and physical education each semester, and we were required to select one fine arts course, from a menu of art, choir and band.

We were also each required, regardless of gender, to take one semester of industrial arts and one semester of home economics, though we were allowed to decide which of those courses to take first. I opted to take home ec first, because I knew that most of the boys, and a handful of the more mechanically inclined girls, would opt for the shop course first. I had never been mechanically inclined, and I didn’t want my ineptitude on display for the other boys. Equally importantly, I knew that most of the girls—and primarily the best-looking ones—would take home ec first, and I would have the pleasure of their company, in competition with relatively few boys.

Most of my home-ec experience was what you would expect of a 12-year-old male with no particular homemaking skills. I learned the basics of a sewing machine (and created a pair of sweatpants with one leg significantly longer than the other and a large hole in the crotch). I burned spaghetti. And I really liked my teacher, Mrs. W., an extremely personable, funny, good-humored young woman who happened to be married to another one of my favorite teachers. I run into her once every few years, and I understand that she still tells her classes about my sweatpants, nearly 30 years later.

But there was one day that stood out: the day when I was called upon to teach the other boys in the class the basics of our male reproductive systems.

Mrs. W. opened class that day by telling all of us that we would be learning about our systems. And she had all four boys in the class sit at one table, apart from the girls. Knowing Mrs. W. as I do, I have to assume that this arrangement was prescribed; I am certain she would have done it differently, and much better, had she been left to her own devices.

She then distributed to the four of us boys a photocopied diagram of our male parts. I was a precocious child and already well-acquainted with these basics from my many hours of absorbing every bit of information about sex I could get my hands on. I was also a cocky know-it-all in 1985, and I boasted, upon receiving the diagram, that I could name all the parts (which was quite true; I knew all the girl parts, too).

Mrs. W. smiled enthusiastically and—possibly with an eye toward curing me of my boundless enthusiasm for displaying my own brilliance, which had made me the bane of her husband’s existence in my seventh-grade geography class the previous year—informed me that I could instruct the other boys while she went and talked to the girls about their feminine parts.

Well, you can imagine what happened next—which is to say nothing happened, because I was 12 years old and far too embarrassed to take on the role of sex-education instructor. (If you’ve ever seen the delightful cinematic classic Porky’s, think of when the principal stumblingly attempted to discuss “p-p-private par- par- parts” and ultimately settled on “tallywhacker” because “‘p-p-penis’ is so … p-p-personal.”) I don’t recall if Mrs. W. eventually filled in the boys on the requisite information. All I can tell you for sure is that we never had another day of instruction on anything resembling sex for the remainder of our years of formal education.

In short: twelve years of education in my public school district, and our entire sex-education experience came down to one, 50-minute class period in eighth grade in which we were taught what our parts were, but nothing about how to use them responsibly, or even how they interacted with those of our female counterparts.

I was reminded of this experience today when I read a story on Facebook about a woman whose sister had a sex-education lecture in one of her public high school classes recently—delivered by a Catholic nun, who informed them that birth-control pills would give them cancer and render them infertile, and that condoms did nothing to prevent the passage of disease! (I don’t know if she got to the part about how boys will go blind and grow hair on their palms if they engage in “self abuse.” But maybe she left that old chestnut out, because I think it’s well-understood that if this were true, there would be about 150 million blind American men with very furry handshakes.)

That story reminded me once again that, just as foreseen in Orwell’s 1984, sex really is political. It sure as hell shouldn’t be, but it is. And just like seemingly everything else these days, the responsible teaching of sexual education to young people who are, statistically speaking, probably going to need it before they leave high school is being held hostage by conservatives who, it seems, want to repeal the entire 20th century. They demand that we teach youngsters nothing about sex except that it is bad, bad, bad; that preventive measures don’t prevent pregnancy or disease (despite mountains of statistical evidence to the contrary); and they should never, ever do it until they marry.

The utter lack of reality here should be obvious to anyone who has attended high school. In short, whether we adults like it or not, teenagers have a funny way of deciding for themselves about getting it on. On average, most Americans first have intercourse sometime between the ages of 16 and 18—which, for most people, means their junior or senior year in high school. Our choice, as adults, is either to arm them with as much information as possible to keep them from getting an unwanted disease or pregnancy—or bury our heads in the sand and pretend that if we just don’t talk about it, why, surely, they just won’t do it. (Because, yeah, that works. Ask any pregnant teenager.)

Whoever invited the nun to discuss sex with high-school students had to know what they were getting. She’s a Catholic nun—it’s a pretty good bet she’s not going to endorse contraception, and may even lie about it, as happened in the aforementioned case. In short, whoever made that call made a decision in line with the conservative political agenda, which, in a word, boils down to this: NO.

But “NO” doesn’t help when teenagers have been saying “YES, YES, YES!” from the dawn of time. Sex between unmarried teenagers didn’t just start with the sexual revolution and the onset of widely accessible contraception or abortion services. How many girls in the 1950s went to “live with their aunt and uncle in the country” for a year?

This blog post has been coming on for some time. I first considered writing on this topic a few months ago, when I went to a nearby drug store to procure condoms, and I had to search the entire store before finally stumbling on them, tucked away, unmarked, I suppose so they would give nobody any unnecessary offense. And it struck me that we, as a society, are so uneasy about discussing sex and contraception that some drug stores won’t even put up decent signage directing people to the euphemistically styled “family planning” section. It’s ridiculous and, frankly, childish. What’s next—an over-the-counter gel treatment for cooties?

If we want our society’s young people to behave with sexual responsibility, it might help if American adults can stop acting like embarrassed, nervously giggling children when it comes to sex. We need to put a stop to a harmful, politically driven abstinence agenda that’s about as realistic as Santa Claus mating with the Easter Bunny. And most of all, we need to get over this silly discomfort over having mature discussions about the proper, responsible usage of vaginas and penises.

I’m sorry—I meant “p-p-private par- par- parts.”

State of Disunion

So, there are going to be two responses to President Obama’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday. One, the official Republican Party response, will be delivered by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), also known (at least to this blogger) as the only Republican with a strong chance to win the presidency in 2016.

The second response could foreshadow the reason why Rubio might not be the next president. That response, on behalf of the supposedly defanged and doomed-to-irrelevancy Tea Party, will be given by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky).

Let’s put aside, for a moment, this question: How is it that the opposition gets to make two televised responses to the president’s remarks on the State of the Union? And instead, let us consider what these dueling rebuttals say about the state of the opposition.

In short, there is such a cleavage, at this point, between establishment Republicans and the conservapopulists, that they can’t even get together on a single response to a president that they all despise. This does not bode well for their prospects for unity in upcoming elections.

One of the things that worked against the Republicans in 2012 was the fact that the Kamikaze wing of the party—disaffected Tea Partiers and other assorted fringe kooks— couldn’t get behind Mitt Romney until his nomination became inevitable. One after another, the assembled collection of third-rate goofballs (such as Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Santorum) rose to challenge him and finally succumbed to his monetary and institutional advantages. But the months-long spectacle severely damaged the party’s brand among moderate voters and ultimately, it could be argued, helped sink Romney’s chances by forcing him to pander to the wingnuts, thereby losing him the middle—and the election.

The establishment is now trying to fight back, but having set this mess in motion, the Republican leadership is now finding out how difficult it is to put the goofpaste back into the tube. That’s why the Republicans will have dueling rebuttals tomorrow night.

The bottom line is this: the fact that Sen. Paul is giving a Tea Party speech is a clear signal that the conservapopulists are not going to go gently into the good night which Karl Rove and his colleagues have all planned out for them. You see, Rove and other intelligent Republicans have learned the lesson of the 2012 election—that the spectacle of a Republican Party full of nutballs like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock scared the crap out of centrist voters and drove them, grudgingly, into the arms of the Democrats.

But the Tea Party folks don’t share that view.

In Ayn Rand Paul World, Mitt Romney and the Republicans lost in 2012 because they weren’t conservative enough, and heroes such as Akin and Mourdock were viciously slandered and taken down by the evil liberal, “lamestream” media.

The reason the Tea Party types believe this ridiculous tripe—although most objective observers see it, rightly, as delusional—is because, for the most part, Tea Partiers only talk politics with other Tea Partiers. They reinforce to each other their collective delusion that a majority of Americans think the same way they do—and because they don’t talk very much with anyone who doesn’t think that way, they’re shocked when the electorate rejects their ideas, and they assume that the Democrats must have stolen the election.

The Republican Party has created quite the dilemma for itself. Having invited the kook wing into the party, in a grab for the low-hanging fruit of its votes, the Republican Party has alienated moderates and made itself dependent on the Tea Party. Having seen moderates alienated by the Tea Party, the Republicans can’t compete if the Tea Partiers stay on the sideline. But without the middle, which the Tea Party has alienated, the Republicans also cannot win.

The smarter move, better in the long term, is to kick the Tea Party out of the tent and try to get some moderates back into it. It’s a far better growth strategy, as Rove and other establishment Republicans clearly recognize. But the Tea Party isn’t going along with the plan. It not only likes being inside the tent—it believes it built the tent, with its one-time electoral triumph in 2010, and it is entitled not just to be inside the tent but to run it.

I believe it was Lyndon Johnson who said that it was better to have a troublesome faction inside the tent, pissing out, than to have it outside the tent, pissing in. The trouble for the Republicans is that the Tea Party, wild and undisciplined, is inside the tent and pissing everywhere—outward onto moderate voters, and inward all over establishment Republicans who would actually like to win another election in their lifetimes. The GOP has created a monster that it can no longer control, and it is now in the unenviable position where it loses if the Tea Party stays or leaves.

And if the Republican Party can’t get control of this situation, tomorrow night’s Rubio-Paul split could be an ominous preview of things to come—perhaps a divisive GOP presidential primary in 2016, or maybe even a shattering of the party that could see both men in the general election, splitting conservative votes, and both getting squashed by the Democratic nominee, a la 1912. Get your popcorn ready.