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The Republican Brand Is Tea Party

House Republicans will hold their leadership elections next week and all signs point to them remaining more interested in appeasing a narrow base than governing a diverse country.

Consider: The only woman positioned to run for Majority Leader, Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, decided not to make a bid. The two men competing for the job are conservatives from the Deep South. The favorite for Speaker, Kevin McCarthy of California, is less experienced than John Boehner, less accomplished, and — if he follows through on private promises — more confrontational.

McCarthy has already signaled with a potentially costly gaffe that he may not be ready for primetime. It came when he boasted to Sean Hannity on Fox News that the House investigation of the 2012 murders of Americans in Benghazi has done serious damage to Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton.

“Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened, had we not fought and made that happen,” he said.

Not that this was a secret, but thanks for the gift of a sound bite that makes clear the Benghazi probe — the latest of many — is not entirely about getting to the truth. The incident recalls a classic moment in 2012 when Mike Turzai, majority leader of the Pennsylvania House, ran down a list of achievements that ended: “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.”

Later that year, President Obama beat Mitt Romney by 5 percentage points in Pennsylvania. And a judge ultimately struck down that voter identification law. The larger point is that until Turzai’s brag, conservatives across the country had religiously stuck to talking points about good government and rooting out (virtually nonexistent) fraud, as opposed to giving their side an edge by making it harder for some people — like urban minorities — to vote.

One of the deepest rifts in today’s chasm-ridden GOP is whether to try to attract a larger swath of voters or to double down on the party’s dwindling core of loyalists. The latest test — over whether to shut down the government in an attempt to strip federal funding from Planned Parenthood — illuminated the divide. Republican reactions were revealing, especially among senators facing voters next year in blue and purple states.

You had Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire demanding of Sen. Ted Cruz, presidential candidate and chief agitator in the upper chamber, exactly what he hoped to accomplish when the Senate GOP did not have 60 votes to overcome a Democratic filibuster, much less 67 to override a veto by the Democratic president. And Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois tweeting Wednesday, after the Senate passed a bill to fund the government (including Planned Parenthood), “When our govt shut down in 2013, it cost U.S. $24 billion. We were elected to govern responsibly, not by crisis.” And Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who tweeted “Troubling that a #governmentshutdown was even an option, causing great economic hardship to the 15,000 Alaskans employed by the fed. gov.”

I don’t doubt the sincerity or passion of conservatives fighting abortion. I don’t even argue with the idea that by giving Planned Parenthood money for services like contraception, cancer screenings and STD tests, the federal government frees up money for the group to perform abortions. But the facts on the ground are stark. It will take a Republican Senate supermajority and a Republican president to get what conservatives want, and what they want does not have broad public support. That’s the case whether the issue is defunding Planned Parenthood, curbing abortion, or shutting the government.

Only 36 percent in a new NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll said more restrictive laws on abortion would be a step in the right direction. Majorities in that poll and two other new ones, meanwhile, said Planned Parenthood should continue to receive federal funds. One of the polls, from Quinnipiac University, found sentiment running 3 to 1 against shuttering the government over the issue. Only 23 percent favored a shutdown.

To cap off the bad-news week for the GOP, Planned Parenthood had a 47 percent positive rating in the NBC poll — the highest of any entity or person tested. Obama came closest at 46 percent, followed by the Democratic Party at 41 percent and Joe Biden at 40 percent. The most positively viewed on the Republican side were presidential candidate Ben Carson and the party itself, each at 29 percent.

Democrats have their own problems, but they are far more in step with mainstream America on a number of important issues — not least the idea that shutting down the federal government is an acceptable substitute for winning the elections you need to prevail.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz speaks at the the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition Forum in Des Moines, Iowa, September 19, 2015.  REUTERS/Brian C. Frank

How To Get Sicker, Die Sooner, And Pay More For It

It is painful that five years after passage of the Affordable Care Act, 19 states still have not taken advantage of its option to expand Medicaid. It becomes more so with each new report on the deeply flawed U.S. health system.

The latest, from the National Academy of Sciences, finds that rich people live about 13 years longer than poor people. The researchers note that consequently, rich people end up getting the lion’s share of Social Security benefits. Such inequity should be attacked at its root. At the very least, we could use available tools to help low-income people get health insurance.

The NAS report is far from the first to highlight problems in our approach and results. The Commonwealth Fund last year examined health systems in 11 western industrialized nations. For the fourth time in a decade, the United States system placed first in cost and last in what it delivers. Our system is less fair, less efficient, makes us less healthy and gives us shorter lives. All that for an average of $8,508 per person, way more than second-place Norway at $5,669. In case you were wondering, Britain’s socialized National Health Service was No. 1 at less than half the U.S. cost.

That information landed just as Allan Detsky published a New Yorker analysis of two 2013 reports on global health systems by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the National Institutes of Health. The study of the 34 OECD countries found an alarming trend: The United States ranked 20th for life expectancy at birth in 1990 and fell to 27th in 2010. On a measure combining level of health and length of life, we plunged from 14th to 26th.

The NIH report by the federal Institute of Medicine found that Americans fared worse than people in 16 “peer” countries in nine areas: infant mortality, injuries and homicides, teen pregnancy, HIV and AIDS, drug-related deaths, obesity and diabetes, heart disease, chronic lung disease, and disability. Why? The authors cite a larger uninsured population than peer countries, worse health habits, more poverty, and more neighborhoods designed to require automobiles.

We have gained a few new tools since some of those studies were done. Some, such as Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative and money for electronic medical records in the stimulus law, are nudging us slowly in a better direction. Among the most significant advances are the ACA’s new marketplaces (where individuals can buy insurance regardless of their health status) and the law’s expansion of Medicaid (even though the Supreme Court transformed it into an option that states could take or leave).

The Medicaid expansion is designed for people who make too much to qualify for traditional Medicaid but too little to afford even subsidized private insurance plans. In states that have rejected the expansion, nearly 4 million people are stuck in an absurd coverage gap. That’s even though the federal government is footing the entire bill for the additional enrollees until 2016 and will pay at least 90 percent for them after that.

If we’re already spending a huge amount on health care, why should we sink more into it? It’s a good question — yet we might not have to spend more if we were spending more wisely. We could start by slashing our astonishing medical pricing. It costs more than eight times as much for an MRI here as in Switzerland, a typical example from a study of nine countries released last year by the International Federation of Health Plans. Just this month, The New York Times reported on a 62-year-old drug that went from $13.50 to $750 per tablet overnight.

How can we get a grip on costs? In part by getting a grip on politics. Medicare, overcoming “death panels” alarmism, recently announced it will reimburse doctors for discussing end-of-life choices with patients. That may lead to a decline in expensive, painful and futile treatments. Next, we should lift bans on research into gun violence, the better to reduce shootings and their public health costs.

Ideology is standing in the way on guns, as it is in the 19 states refusing so far to expand Medicaid. The struggles of purple-state Virginia have been among the most epic. Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe has been repeatedly thwarted by Republican lawmakers in his push to expand Medicaid. Last year, a disloyal Democratic lawmaker resigned and threw the state Senate into GOP hands. This year Democrats are trying to win back the chamber and, along with it, the slim chance of a Medicaid deal. In the meantime, some 350,000 Virginians are stranded in the coverage gap.

And this, dear readers, is how you get to be last place in the developed world.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

This is an updated and revised version of a column from June 19, 2014.

Photo: Taber Andrew Bain via Flickr

Surrender On Guns Is Not An Option

The anguish of Richard Martinez in the wake of the Santa Barbara, California, shootings that killed his 20-year-old son last year was almost unbearable. Now he is an old hand. “You are not alone,” Martinez told Andy Parker, father of slain Virginia journalist Alison Parker, in a recent USA Today column.

“Welcome to the heartbreaking club that no one wants to be a part of.”

If only we could fix this by keeping better tabs on disturbed young men and erratic co-workers. If only we could avoid more daunting political warfare over guns.

But let’s get real. There isn’t enough money in the world to train every cop, teacher, social worker, and family member in America to detect mental illness and predict its course. And cash is the least of the problem.

That’s because mental illness is the most mysterious, complicated, and uncontrollable element of the gun violence equation. There are many types of illnesses, not just one. Their symptoms, by definition, involve irrational behavior. Some people hide their difficulties. Some refuse help. Medication doesn’t always work. And even when it does, people often decide they don’t need their pills.

If you don’t treat mental illness or live with it, it is difficult to convey its force and magnitude, and how opaque it remains while in plain sight. Even the experts can’t foresee catastrophes in the making. A young man in Virginia, sent home by authorities who could not find him a hospital bed, killed himself after stabbing his father, state Sen. Creigh Deeds. Elliot Rodger’s mother, alerted to alarming videos he posted online, asked sheriff’s deputies to check on him — and they took his word that he was fine.

As for the politics of mental illness, there’s no tighter, more tangled Gordian knot in our age than the expanding right of the individual to bear arms; the right of society to be protected from troubled, armed individuals; and the rights of people who might or might not be troubled enough to warrant involuntary treatment. Sure, we should keep studying mental illness and train more people on the front lines, but we shouldn’t delude ourselves. Guns are much easier to manage than human behavior.

In writing this column, I stumbled on an eye-opening piece I did for the Associated Press in December 1993. President Bill Clinton was pushing an assault weapons ban, which he eventually won and which was later allowed to expire. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan wanted a large tax hike on ammunition to pay for health care reform.

Rep. Patricia Schroeder had proposed a “firearm fatality reporting system” modeled on a federal database of traffic fatalities that had led to safer vehicles. Pediatricians were hoping that unsafe, easy-to-acquire guns would become as unacceptable as driving drunk or failing to fasten your child’s seatbelt.

The doctors never imagined politicians so intimidated that even after 20 children were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, they would refuse to plug holes in the background-check system for prospective buyers. They never envisioned a lobby so powerful it could prevent gun registration, research and even the collection of data invaluable to law enforcement and public health personnel.

If we treated cars that way, they wouldn’t be registered or insured. Turn signals would not have been introduced in 1937, and computerized warning systems would not be emerging today. We would not have saved 300,000 lives in 40 years, thanks to seat belts and air bags.

We study and regulate cars in the interest of keeping people alive. We do the same with cribs, food, airplanes, medication, practically everything except guns, even as they continue to kill and maim. More than 30,000 people in the United States died in suicides and homicides involving firearms in 2010, according to federal statistics. Hundreds more die and thousands are injured each year in gun accidents.

But the numbers don’t matter to Second Amendment disciples. I’m not sure they’d budge even if the Founding Fathers personally assured them that they were good with expanded background checks and bans on certain types of weapons and magazines.

There may never be consensus, but there is a growing community of bereaved families determined to spare others their agony. They are embodied by Parker, who says his mission and Alison’s legacy will be tighter gun laws, and Martinez, who went from public anger and pain to working with Everytown for Gun Safety and getting results, state by state by state.

The only appropriate response for all of us, not just for the relatives of the dead, is to do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to get guns off the pedestal and treat them like the dangerous merchandise they are.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

This piece is an updated and revised version of a column from May 29, 2014.

Photo: Roo Reynolds via Flickr

Kim Davis And The Iowa-Or-Bust Syndrome

Watching Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz compete to make a martyr out of Kim Davis makes me wonder if it’s finally time to send Iowa toward the back of the line in the presidential nominating process. And while we’re at it, maybe South Carolina should head in that direction, too.

Huckabee won the leadoff Iowa caucuses in 2008, the last time he ran. If he doesn’t win them this year, his quest for the Republican presidential nomination will be finished practically before it starts. What does he have to do to win? Christian conservatives are the most dominant group in Iowa’s GOP caucuses. Thus, the crazy contest to champion the Kentucky county clerk who, adhering to “God’s authority” rather than a Supreme Court ruling and a federal judge’s order, went to jail rather than issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

The unquestioned victor of this round was Huckabee. Upon her release from jail, he not only walked Davis from the jailhouse to the waiting crowd, she stood between Huckabee and Mat Staver, her lawyer, as Staver addressed the media at length. You know what that meant. Huckabee was “in the shot.” With his arm around her. While he spoke his piece to the cameras.

Christian conservatives could watch Huckabee thank “this incredibly brave lady” next to him for challenging “the tyranny of judicial action that takes people’s freedoms away.” He praised her willingness “to go to jail for what she believed.” He even said that he’d be willing to go to jail in her place, because “we cannot criminalize the Christian faith or anybody’s faith in this country.”

That’s a ready-made TV ad for Iowa and South Carolina, maybe with the lawyer cropped out of the picture.

Meanwhile, according to both The New York Times and The Washington Post, a Huckabee aide physically blocked an “incredulous” Cruz from approaching Davis and the assembled cameras. Poor guy. The Texas firebrand went all the way to Kentucky and all he got was a rope line to work. There were no visuals of him with Davis, and only a few quote snippets in the media. Bested by Huckabee just a day before he would be sharing the spotlight with Donald Trump at a Capitol rally against the Iran nuclear deal. Good luck wresting those headlines away from The Donald.

By embracing Davis’s cause, Huckabee and Cruz did their party no favors on the big-tent front. According to media reports, signs at the rally called homosexuality an “abomination” and the Supreme Court “the new ISIS,” and posed the question, “AIDS: Judgment or Cure?” The GOP should, and usually does, go with candidates more like Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a self-described supporter of “traditional marriage.” “The court has spoken,” he said on ABC’s This Week. “I respect the fact that this lady doesn’t agree, but she’s also a government employee. She’s not running a church. I wouldn’t force this on a church, but in terms of her responsibility I think she has to comply.”

Nate Cohn of the New York Times did an interesting analysis of the influence of blue states on the GOP primary process. They have ensured relatively moderate, mainstream nominees in the last two contests. So how about putting Illinois, California, or New York at the start of the primary lineup? How about Massachusetts, where only 16 percent of 2012 GOP primary voters said in exit polls that they were born-again or evangelical Christians, and only 15 percent said they were “very conservative”?

In the 2012 exit poll of Iowa caucusgoers, 57 percent said they were born-again or evangelical Christians, and 47 percent described their political philosophy as “very conservative.” A new Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll of likely Iowa caucus participants found that 39 percent were Christian conservatives. That’s nearly double the size of the Tea Party and business groups.

South Carolina is, meanwhile, the fifth most religious state in the nation, according to Gallup. That goes in spades for Republicans. In a Winthrop University poll of likely GOP primary voters in April, more than 80 percent said religion was very important in their lives; 60 percent said they considered themselves born-again; 44 percent said evangelical Christians have too little influence on the Republican Party, and 69 percent opposed same-sex marriage.

It’s time to shake things up, for Democrats as well as Republicans.

Let demographically diverse Nevada stay toward the front if it switches from a caucus to a primary. Maybe even keep quirky New Hampshire as one of the first few contests as well. But let’s give blue states — and some different purple and red states — their moments in the sun. What would the candidates be talking about if faced with a new set of crucial early contests? Let’s find out.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo: Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, flanked by Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee (left), attorney Mathew Staver (second from right) and her husband Joe Davis (right) celebrates her release from the Carter County Detention center in Grayson, Kentucky on September 8, 2015. REUTERS/Chris Tilley

The Four-Time Bride Who Won’t Let Gays Get Married

If ever there was an argument to make teenagers take citizenship exams before they can get a high-school diploma, it’s the Kentucky clerk who won’t issue marriage licenses to gay couples, and her all too supportive husband. Make that fourth husband.

“They want us to accept their beliefs and their ways. But they won’t accept our beliefs and our ways,” Joe Davis said of gay protesters at the Rowan County Courthouse, The Associated Press reported. “Their beliefs and their ways” is a reference to gay people who are trying to take advantage of the Supreme Court’s June ruling that they have a constitutional right to marry. “Our beliefs and our ways” refers to his wife Kim’s contention that she has the right to ignore the high court in favor of “God’s authority.”

That authority apparently includes godly approval to marry four times in a life so wildly imperfect that U.S. News & World Report could write this paragraph: “She gave birth to twins five months after divorcing her first husband. They were fathered by her third husband but adopted by her second.” All is now cool, though. According to her lawyer, Davis converted to Christianity a few years ago and her slate was wiped clean.

Would it be churlish to mention here that Davis has denied a marriage license several times to David Moore and David Ermold, who have been together for 17 years? Also, exactly what part of “separation of church and state” doesn’t she understand?

Davis has been sued for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, and the Supreme Court declined Monday to get involved. She can’t be fired because she was elected to her position, but she could be found in contempt of court.

The honorable thing would be to step down, as county clerks have done in states such as Tennessee, Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi. There is a long, long tradition of resignations over conscience issues. But Davis would rather keep her job and exempt herself from whatever she thinks her religion demands, regardless of how that affects the lives of the taxpayers she is supposed to serve.

There is plenty of precedent for exemptions based on faith or personal morality, of course. Conscientious objectors in wartime. Doctors who oppose abortion. And for over a year now, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, certain corporations run by religious families who don’t want to offer insurance coverage for contraception methods they consider tantamount to abortion.

Yet war is a matter of life and death, and for those who believe that life begins at conception, so is abortion. Gay marriage is different. Nobody is at risk of dying, not even a fertilized embryo. Beyond the happy couple, in fact, few—if any—are affected at all.

So it’s hard to see this Kentucky case as anything but religion injected into the public sphere, with intent to discriminate against adults who are pining to make the ultimate commitment to one another. Some of them already have done so informally, for years and years, their unions far more enduring than those Davis cemented with official vows. All they are asking now is to be married in the eyes of society, the law and their God.

Why would people want to deny others rights and happiness in their personal lives, which should be none of their business? Why is it so hard for some people to embrace or at least accept diversity? Human differences — of appearance, temperament, chemistry, biology and all the rest — are clearly part of The Plan, whether the design is God’s or nature’s or not a design at all.

Back in 2009, Gallup found “a strong case that knowing someone who is gay or lesbian fosters more accepting attitudes on many of the issues surrounding gay and lesbian relations today.” In 2013, three-quarters in a Gallup poll said they personally knew a friend, relative or co-worker who was gay or lesbian. This year, 6 in 10 people said gay marriage should be legal. Not surprisingly, that was a record high.

The Davis case is now a headline cause for Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit “litigation, education and policy organization” that offers pro bono legal assistance in cases related to its mission of “advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and the family.” But the data — and the Supreme Court moves — underscore that Davis, Liberty Counsel and their allies are outliers, bucking social and political trends that are rapidly leaving them behind.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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Could Pope Francis Be Donald Trump’s Undoing?

If he hasn’t faded from the news in a few weeks, Donald Trump will have some serious competition for headlines from a person who represents everything he does not. That would be Pope Francis, who arrives in Washington on Sept. 22 for a six-day visit to America.

The pope’s schedule — a meeting at the White House, a service at the World Trade Center, addresses to a joint session of Congress and the United Nations General Assembly — is world class, as Trump might put it. The pope himself is, in Trumpspeak, yuge. He is also a living reproach to Trump, raising the enticing possibility that his visit — just six days after the next Republican debate — will prompt reconsideration of Trump in a new context.

Both men are celebrities and both like to be provocative. But no one is lifting the political dialogue higher than Pope Francis, and no one is driving it lower than Trump.

It’s not that the pope is a milquetoast. Far from it. His encyclical this year on climate change, for instance, uses vivid, muscular language to convey his harsh analysis of failed stewardship and class oppression. The Earth increasingly looks like “an immense pile of filth,” he wrote, blaming “reckless” human behavior that he said would take a cruel toll on the poor in particular.

When he speaks of individuals and groups affected by Vatican policies, the pope raises interesting questions and acknowledges profound chasms — all without casting stones. He would not allow women to be priests, but softens that by saying women should have a more significant role in Catholicism. He does not favor divorce, but he says that sometimes a marital separation is “morally necessary.” Nor does he support gay marriage, but he has been nonjudgmental about homosexuality (“we must always consider the person”). He has said the Church should focus less on abortion, contraception and homosexuality, and more on a message of love.

A message of love? Ha. Trump would be the Don Rickles of presidents, the king of insults and insult comedy. The name-caller-in-chief. The baiter-in-chief. That guy who likes to rate women by their looks and men by their heights. The one you teach your kid never to be like. Except that as president, he’d be a role model to a generation.

Conservatives got mighty exercised when Bill Clinton proved to be, shall we say, not a terrific role model. Liberals weren’t too happy either. Al Gore alluded to family values a half-dozen times in announcing his presidential candidacy in June 1999. “I say to every parent in America, it is our own lives we must master if we are to have the moral authority to guide our children,” he said.

Trump is a different kind of lousy role model — a bully with zero self-awareness, who enjoys starting fights and holding grudges, and who can’t or won’t stop speaking in generalizations and stereotypes that make the phrase “some of my best friends are Jewish” seem like a sophisticated declaration of open-mindedness. “Do you know how many Hispanics work for me? Thousands. They love me,” he says. And evangelicals? “Incredible people. They’re really smart. … I love evangelicals.”

As for those Trump decides have not been “nice” to him, be they reporters, rivals or perhaps leaders of other nations, he has this to say: “When people treat me unfairly, I don’t let them forget. And maybe we should have more of that in this country and maybe the country wouldn’t be pushed around so much.”

If the full-spectrum Trump were not on display every day, from TV to Twitter, the Dubuque, Iowa, news conference at which he made all of those comments would be immortalized as a day of political infamy. Trump refused in advance to let the Des Moines Register attend and had Jorge Ramos of Univision ejected for asking questions without being called on. “This man gets up and starts ranting and raving and screaming, and honestly being very disrespectful to all the other reporters,” Trump explained Wednesday on NBC’s Today Show.

Disrespectful? Of reporters?? The nerve.

The Donald of course has raised disrespect to an art form, particularly on Twitter. He goes after everyone, even rivals polling at 0 percent who pose zero threat to his polling leads. He also relishes the bon mots of his fans, retweeting their references to “Tacky Pataki” and “bimbo” Megyn Kelly, to Scott Walker (“How dare he criticize you. You would fire him in a second”) and Jeb Bush’s ability to speak “Mexican” (“this is America, English!!”). “I retweet for a reason,” he says.

Seriously, think about what we try to teach our children, and then think about four years of trying to explain away a President Trump. Maybe the contrast with Pope Francis will jump-start the process of scales falling from eyes. Nothing else has worked so far.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo: Pope Francis waves as he arrives to attend an audience for altar servers at St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City August 4, 2015. REUTERS/Giampiero Sposito

Republicans Aim For Their Own Feet

What do women want? Republicans are trying to answer that question and, as usual, they are getting it wrong.

The party has an unerring genius for alienating exactly the demographics it needs to win the White House. Republicans have made it harder for students, urbanites, and minorities to vote. Many of their presidential candidates are competing over who can deport the most immigrants and build the best border wall. Why should the GOP approach to women be any different?

Donald Trump, who has been flamboyantly insulting to immigrants, isn’t helping Republicans with women, either. His history of crude insults about female appearances led NBC’s Chuck Todd to ask him, “Why do looks matter to you so much?” He still talks in weird generalizations and 1950s stereotypes about women (see: “I cherish women” or “women love me” or “I understand the importance of women”).

You’d think Carly Fiorina, another presidential contender from the business world, and the only woman in the GOP field, would have a better handle on this. But she has become a lightning rod because she opposes a requirement that businesses offer paid leave to new parents. She wants it to be a perk companies offer to attract workers.

The United States is the only advanced country that doesn’t give employees paid parental leave, as President Obama has noted repeatedly. But Fiorina says requiring paid parental leave discourages the hiring and promotion of women. Besides, she asks, who would pay for it?

Fiorina’s position, however, carries its own health and monetary costs. Mothers who don’t take leave are less likely to breastfeed or bring a baby to doctor appointments. And low-income workers who take unpaid leave to care for an infant often rely on government help. “When a low-wage worker cannot even have a sick day or a paid leave day after the birth of an infant, she is far more likely to go on assistance, public assistance,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) sponsor of a bill requiring paid leave, told Fortune magazine. The upshot is that taxpayers foot the bill, she added.

As for the politics of paid leave, Fiorina’s stand is a loser. Polls show 60 to 80 percent of Americans support requiring paid leave for new parents. That 80 percent figure, from a CBS/New York Times poll in May, includes 71 percent of Republicans and 85 percent of women.

Now abortion is preoccupying the GOP, thrust there by conservatives who secretly filmed Planned Parenthood executives talking casually and graphically about the mechanics and costs of donating tissue from aborted fetuses for research. Republican candidates have grabbed at the chance to demonstrate their credentials as cultural conservatives — emphasizing their opposition to abortion and demanding an end to federal funding of Planned Parenthood, even if that leads to a government shutdown. Some 50 advocacy groups are co-sponsoring protests in nearly 300 cities this weekend to highlight what the Family Research Council calls “Planned Parenthood’s harvesting and selling of aborted baby parts.”

Ohio governor John Kasich explained the rising prominence of the abortion issue this way recently on CNN: “Now that the issue of gay marriage is kind of off the table, we’re kind of down to one social issue.”

The nature of the GOP primary electorate requires that Republican candidates take as hard a line as they can against abortion and explain in great detail their positions on exceptions, restrictions, and any shifts in thinking they may have undergone. They may be convinced that this won’t hurt them with women or moderates in a general election. Gallup found in May that 21 percent of Americans would only vote for a candidate who shared their view on abortion. That’s an all-time high in the 19 years the question has been asked, but they were about equally divided on both sides of the issue.

So does that make it a wash? Probably not. For one thing, the tide seems to be turning in the other direction. Half of Americans told Gallup in May that they were “pro-choice” on abortion compared with 44 percent who said they were “pro-life.” Analyst Lydia Saad wrote that was the first statistically significant lead for the “pro-choice” position in seven years. In addition, polls show pluralities of Americans have positive views of Planned Parenthood and oppose cutting off its federal money.

That hasn’t stopped various Republican hopefuls from calling for a Justice Department investigation into Planned Parenthood. Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana governor, has even vowed to sic the IRS on the group. The crusade is a classic example of overreach that could backfire in a general election. Republicans are their own worst enemy on this, but here’s the real problem: They are jeopardizing health care for low-income women who need birth control, cancer screening, or — yes — an abortion. The potential political bonanza for the Democratic nominee is not worth that price.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

File photo: Protesters stand on a sidewalk outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Vista, California, August 3, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, And Ignoring The Past

At least we’d know what to expect from them. That’s the cheeriest way to cast the latest in presidential dynasty news.

Hillary Clinton lived up (or should we say down?) to past patterns and current expectations by proposing an ambitious college affordability plan one day, then — after stalling for months — agreeing the next day to give the FBI the private server she used for all her emails while she was Secretary of State.

Jeb Bush, meanwhile, gave a foreign policy address in which he downplayed his brother’s epic mistake of invading Iraq and blamed Clinton and President Obama for the chaos and tragedy now plaguing the region. We should have stayed longer and done more, he says. Sound familiar?

History inevitably repeats itself with this pair.

Clinton’s email misadventures remind me of Winston Churchill’s remark that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried.” In her case, it’s transparency that is the worst alternative — except when there’s no other alternative.

The late Howard Baker, the senior Republican on the Senate committee investigating the Watergate scandal that felled Richard Nixon, said it best: “It is almost always the cover-up rather than the event that causes trouble.” In other words, secrets rarely keep, so get ahead of the damage with fast, full disclosure.

Clinton was not exactly unfamiliar with Watergate. In fact, as a young attorney in 1974, she was a Watergate investigator and impeachment advisor on the staff of the House Judiciary Committee. The lesson on cover-ups obviously didn’t take then. But you’d think she would have learned it during her time as First Lady.

Those eight years were defined by the Clinton administration’s early refusal to give The Washington Post records it requested about a failed land deal called Whitewater. “Hillary had persuaded the president to stonewall the Post,” former Clinton administration aide George Stephanopoulos wrote in his memoir, All Too Human. She and two other advisors, all three of them “tough trial lawyers,” he said, “were determined to follow a close-hold strategy more appropriate to corporate litigation than presidential politics.”

Whitewater, in the end, was little more than a failed real estate investment. As Stephanopoulos wrote, the country probably wouldn’t have cared about “the ins and outs of an old land deal as long as it didn’t look as if the Clintons had something to hide.” But the stonewalling led to a sprawling, bizarre investigation that in turn led to exposure of Bill Clinton’s sexual relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky, House impeachment charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, and Senate votes on the charges that fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to remove him from office.

Granted, many aspects of Hillary Clinton’s current email situation are astonishing — starting with the fact that she never had an official government email address and mixed yoga plans with state affairs on her private account. But especially, given her past, the months of refusing to turn over the server ranks right up there on the raised-eyebrow scale.

As for Bush, he gave his speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and was explicit about the symbolism. He called Reagan a leader of “clarity and resolve … who took command of events” and “conceded nothing to America’s enemies.”

The real Reagan was more nuanced. After terrorists killed 241 sleeping U.S. Marines and service personnel in a 1983 attack in Beirut, he withdrew all U.S. troops — a signal of weakness in the eyes of some advisors. Later, in a forerunner to Obama’s Iran negotiations, Reagan opened nuclear arms reduction talks with the Soviet Union, which he had called the “evil empire.”

Bush did not get into any of that. He mainly railed at Obama’s “premature withdrawal” from Iraq, “minimalist approach of incremental escalation” against the Islamic State, and an Iran nuclear deal he called “unwise in the extreme.” Like almost every Republican running for president, he puts a premium on fighting, or helping others fight, until the bad guys in the region are defeated or dead. He appeared to rule out a large combat force even as he called for expanded U.S. military operations in the region and said more U.S. troops “may well be needed.”

But how can we ever do enough, stay long enough, to end centuries of strife and make it stick? Haven’t we learned by now that nothing is ever enough, that our presence can make things worse, and that this is not our problem to solve?

Apparently, Bush still believes we can determine the fate of the Middle East at the point of an American gun or training program or no-fly zone. And Clinton still believes she can play by her own rules. Both are unnerving in their own ways.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com

Photos: Republican 2016 U.S. presidential candidate former Florida governor Jeb Bush answers a question at the first official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign in Cleveland, Ohio, August 6, 2015. (REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk). U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the Iowa Democratic Party’s Hall of Fame dinner in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, United States, July 17, 2015. (REUTERS/Jim Young)

The 45th President Will Owe Obama Big Time

For more than six years, as conservatives have stewed and raged and taken their spoils in midterm elections, liberals have been living through a relatively golden age. By that I mean they know they will wake up to a president who doesn’t make them want to put their fist through a wall. Most days.

It is still some 18 months before President Obama leaves office, an eternity if you have been gritting your teeth since January 2009 but a blink in time for those of us who liked many of his ideas back then, and still do. This sense of a fleeting moment was driven home to me as I listened to Obama make his case Wednesday at American University for the Iran nuclear deal.

What a balm it was to hear him suggest, amid bellicose 2016 rhetoric, that Americans “worry less about being labeled weak, worry more about getting it right.” To hear him say that “a nuclear-armed Iran is far more dangerous … than an Iran that benefits from sanctions relief.” That the Iran deal is less risky than the Kennedy and Reagan deals with the Soviet Union, which put constraints on the U.S. arsenal, and that “our military remains the ultimate backstop” to any diplomatic agreement.

Obviously, Obama has his flaws and can exasperate even his devotees. But here are three predictions: First, he’s going to be much missed when he’s gone by people who may not appreciate him now. Second, that will be true even if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency and continues many of his policies — because she’ll inevitably bring drama and controversy of the sort we’ve been spared during the Obama years. Third, a Republican may well be elected by attacking Obama across the board, but once in office that new GOP president will probably keep most of it in place and be secretly grateful it’s off the table.

There are some signs that Democrats are beginning to recognize the moment and perhaps the man. Last month, Gallup reported that Democrats had “reclaimed” the favorability edge over Republicans that they lost following a thrashing in the November 2014 midterm elections. The party’s favorable rating is now 42 percent, versus 35 percent for the GOP. Obama’s rating hovers in the mid-40s — not stellar, but well above the low 30s posted by George W. Bush at this stage of his presidency.

Perhaps even more indicative is the way Democratic presidential candidates are embracing Obama. On his 54th birthday this week, Clinton tweeted a picture of herself and Obama smiling at each other and wrote, “To a dear friend, a great boss, and my second favorite president: Happy birthday @POTUS! — H.” And he received multiple shout-outs at the Iowa Democratic Party Hall of Fame Dinner last month.

Former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee said “President Obama and his team” deserved a big hand for the Iran nuclear deal and reopening relations with Cuba. And Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said Obama “did something extraordinary the other day. He had the courage to go to a federal jail and talk about the absurdity of a criminal justice system” that puts 1 in 4 black men behind bars.

The economic praise was also fulsome. Clinton said the country is “standing again” after the financial crisis thanks to “President Obama’s leadership and the determination of the American people.” Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley said America had elected Obama to “move us forward” from the brink of a depression, “and that is exactly what President Obama has done.”

The facts bear that out. The unemployment rate is now 5.3 percent, down from a high of 10 percent in October 2009. The U.S. job creation index — Gallup’s comparison of workplaces that are hiring versus those that are shrinking, based on more than 17,000 interviews in July alone — is in its third month of a record high. And the U.S. auto industry, six years after its controversial rescue by the administration, is headed for a 14-year high in annual vehicle sales. Ford just reported its best July sales since 2006.

Beyond the numbers, Obama helped set the stage for broad advances in gay rights, from military service to marriage. He is moving aggressively on climate change, on criminal justice and policing reforms, and on outdated overtime rules that suppress pay for many low-income workers. The Affordable Care Act, with its health insurance protections and expansions, looks like it’s here to stay. Congressional opposition seems increasingly unlikely to derail the deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program. There are even signs that newly re-established relations with Cuba could lead to lifting the 55-year-old trade embargo.

With policies that remedy the past and usher in the future, Obama has already done many favors for the president who will be inaugurated in January 2017. The Democrats know it and the Republicans won’t admit it.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo: President Obama pauses during remarks on a nuclear deal with Iran at American University in Washington August 5, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

A Roiling Republican Party Is Ready For Its Close-Up

You’ve got to stay alert these days if you want to keep up with the Republican Party. Actually, make that Republican parties.

The GOP is proceeding along two tracks — the headline track and the governing track. Which party will show up Aug. 6 for the first presidential debate? Or will both of them be onstage?

The headline track is driven largely by Donald Trump and the 2016 contestants trying to escape his shadow. It’s not pretty but from their standpoint it is necessary. They can’t afford to be subtle when there are 17 candidates (the tally as of Wednesday, when former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore filed his paperwork) and Fox News has decreed the first debate will be limited to the top 10 in national polls.

There’s also a Capitol Hill contingent on the headline track, and it’s more than just senators who are running for president. In fact, I was so riveted by a House conservative’s surprise attempt to oust Speaker John Boehner from his job that I nearly missed Trump calling former Alaska governor Sarah Palin “really a special person” — a ” tough and smart” special person — who might well turn up in his administration.

“Everybody loves her,” Trump said on Mama Grizzly Radio (“Sarah Palin news 24-7”). Well, maybe not everybody, he amended. “Like me, she’s got people that don’t exactly love us and we understand who they are and sort of forget about that.” To be precise, 58 percent of Americans don’t “exactly love” either of them. That was Palin’s unfavorable rating in a 2013 CNN poll and Trump’s in a CNN poll last week.

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee has also been riveting lately, starting with his claim that President Obama, via his nuclear deal with Iran, “will take the Israelis and basically march them to the door of the oven.” Ditto Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who said at a recent rally that “without exaggeration, the Obama administration will become the world’s leading state sponsor and financier of radical Islamic terrorism” as a result of the Iran deal.

Obama, asked about Huckabee’s comments at a news conference in Ethiopia, accused both Huckabee and Cruz of trying to steal headlines from Trump. To which Trump retorted, on Breitbart News, “He’s over in Africa and he’s talking about Trump. I think it sends a very weak and a very bad signal to the people he’s trying to impress.”

All of this came after videos in which Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul set the tax code on fire and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham tried to destroy his cellphone with a bat, a golf club and a blender after Trump gave out his number live on TV. Which was after Graham called him a jackass. Which was after Trump said Arizona Sen. John McCain — Graham’s close friend — was not a war hero. After which former Texas governor Rick Perry called Trump “a cancer on conservatism.”

The theatrics disguise the real divide in the GOP. That’s the one between people aiming for a functional system and other people who give no quarter on their ideology, despite the realities of operating under divided government in a divided nation. The motion to oust Boehner, filed by Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) is the latest reflection of tensions between mainstream, business-oriented Republicans and the populist Tea Party wing of the GOP.

Cruz, who embodies the latter brand, reinforced his bona fides recently by calling Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a liar. He also tried (but failed) to kill Obamacare, the Iran deal, and funding for Planned Parenthood in amendments to a highway bill. Some of this was going on the same day Ohio governor John Kasich said on NBC’s Meet the Press that U.S. troops should be “on the ground fighting” the Islamic State in the Middle East, and he would send them. That is a key fact to know about the 16th GOP candidate to enter the presidential race, but it barely registered amid the din.

Some in the Republican gaggle are displaying the “sense of seriousness and decorum and honesty” that Obama says he would like to see in his successor. They are proposing policy initiatives, reaching out to minorities and discussing their stands on major issues. At least one, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, confessed to a Carson City, Nevada, audience that he would not reverse an Iran nuclear deal on day one — before he has consulted with allies, named a secretary of state or received intelligence briefings. “I think it’s important to be mature and thoughtful about this,” he said.

Mature and thoughtful are not the words that come to mind as the first GOP debate nears. Wild, crazy, and off-the-charts are some that do. The candidates have delicate choices to make. Should they engage Trump or ignore him? Compete with him or contrast themselves with him? Their decisions will define the nomination race and could reshape it.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Image: DonkeyHotey via Flickr

Too Late For The New, Improved Clinton And Perry?

Amid a presidential field so large you’d need 10 fingers, 10 toes, and an extra hand or foot to count them, two contenders stand out as most improved. Hillary Clinton and Rick Perry are better candidates now than they were in their first tries for national office.

Unfortunately for them, their paths to the Oval Office are much more complicated now than they would have been, in 2008 for Clinton or 2012 for Perry. They squandered their best opportunities in those earlier races, and now have much steeper hills to climb.

Clinton’s challenges are in part a function of timing. It will be harder for a Democrat to win after two terms of a Democratic president than it would have been after two terms of Republican George W. Bush. But her most serious problems are self-inflicted, stemming from her secretive email system as Secretary of State and the intertwining of her work and donations to the Clinton Foundation.

The ethics questions are a clear threat. New Quinnipiac University polling finds Clinton in a perilous position in the crucial general-election swing states of Colorado, Iowa, and Virginia. “She has lost ground in the horserace and on key questions about her honesty and leadership,” assistant poll director Peter Brown said Wednesday in an analysis of the findings.

Clinton is viewed negatively in all three states and her “trustworthy” numbers are even further under water. Not surprisingly, she trails in hypothetical matchups with Republicans Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Scott Walker in all three states.

The irony for Clinton is that she has hit her stride on the campaign trail.

I was not the only political reporter who foresaw her fade after seeing her grapple with her vote for the Iraq War and listening to her at a major party dinner in 2007 in Des Moines, Iowa. She vowed repeatedly to “fight” and engaged in a cliché call-and-response refrain of “turn up the heat” (as in, “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen”). Barack Obama, who had opposed the war from the outset, gave a watershed speech at that dinner in which he said the country was at a defining moment and voters would have to decide, “What’s next for America?”

Now, with a nearly unshakable grip on the 2016 nomination, Clinton is talking about people and issues that matter to her — her mother, her granddaughter, voting rights, immigration, race, wages, and inequality. She’s also cracking jokes that are actually funny — many of them about herself, her hair, and her age. “Finally a candidate whose hair gets more attention than mine,” she recently said of Donald Trump.

Obviously, the Quinnipiac polls are one set of polls at one moment in time, and even the best-known Republicans have yet to experience the full meat-grinder effect of a national campaign. But it does seem as though Clinton may finally have solved the likability conundrum at a moment when other troubles are catching up with her.

Perry, the former Texas governor, was still in office when he ran in 2012. But he ran in full Tea Party mode as a flamboyant outsider — attacking Washington in a book called Fed Up, flirting with the secession movement, calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” and declaring then-Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke’s monetary policy “treasonous.” He even defended U.S. Marines who in a video appeared to be urinating on dead Taliban fighters. Teenagers make “stupid mistakes,” Perry said on CNN.

And then of course there was his “oops” moment, when in the midst of a nationally televised debate he could only remember two of the three federal agencies he wanted to eliminate.

This year, Perry is better prepared and has taken on a different role as one of the adults in the room. At the National Press Club, he made strong arguments for why Republicans should go after the minority vote and why his policies in Texas have worked better than liberal policies for people at the lower end of the income scale. He has emphasized his veteran status — he was an Air Force pilot — and has emerged as the most forceful critic of Donald Trump in the GOP field. He was the first to call Trump unfit for the presidency and days ago he called for him to withdraw from the race.

The GOP field, however, is much larger and stronger than it was in 2012 and Perry, 65, is no longer seen as a top-tier candidate. He could still break out in a debate, assuming his polling is strong enough to get him onstage. But it won’t be easy to convince Republican voters he would be a better bet than Bush or the two next-generation hopefuls in their 40s, Rubio and Walker.

Clinton, 67, could still make history as the first female president. But assuming she is the Democratic nominee, she’ll be looking at a battle as tough as the one she lost to Obama in 2008.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo: iprimages via Flickr

Obama’s Best Iran Role Model Is The First President Bush

Richard Nixon won a Senate seat after implying his “pink lady” opponent was a communist, but went on to open relations with “Red China” in the 1970s. Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union the “evil empire,” then negotiated nuclear arms reduction agreements with his Soviet counterpart.

President Obama is comparing himself to those two Republican presidents as he seeks support for the new international deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program. But he should add at least one more. George H.W. Bush sent U.S. troops to end the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, forced Iraqi troops to withdraw, and called it a victory. He defined a narrow mission and achieved it — which is exactly what Obama is attempting on Iran.

Bush’s success was immediately apparent, both on the ground in the Middle East and in public opinion polls at the time. In February 1991, as the combat phase of the Persian Gulf War ended, Gallup pegged his job approval rating at 89 percent. Clearly the country did not expect or particularly want him to storm Baghdad and oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

The agreement forged by Iran, the United States, and other world powers requires Iran to keep its nuclear program “exclusively peaceful” for at least a decade. It is the best chance to avoid another war in the Middle East, Obama said in announcing the pact, and added that it also offers Iran a chance to “move in a new direction” — toward more tolerance, prosperity, engagement, and peaceful conflict resolution.

“But we’re not counting on that,” the president said Wednesday at a news conference. The agreement, he said, “is not contingent on Iran suddenly operating like a liberal democracy. It solves one particular problem” — a problem he says was our original No. 1 priority, “which is making sure that they don’t have a bomb.”

Obama drew on Reagan’s trust-but-verify approach to Soviet leaders when he told the nation that “this deal is not built on trust. It is built on verification.” Yet trust, while it may not be a cornerstone of the deal, is at the core of how much support Obama will be able to build for it.

Trust in our era is largely a partisan commodity. Every Republican presidential candidate came out against the deal, some before they even knew what was in it, most in apocalyptic terms. Even Sen. Rand Paul, probably the most war-averse candidate in the mix, called it “unacceptable” and said he would vote against it.

The trust gap showed up in headlines like this one from Fox News Radio: “Obama’s Iran deal: Nixon to China or Chamberlain to Munich?” It was also apparent in a tweet from Stuart Stevens, who was Mitt Romney’s chief strategist in 2012: “Advantage that POTUS’ like JFK & Reagan had selling treaties was belief they’d stand firm if pushed. This is when ‘red line’ drift hurts.”

It’s a conservative tenet that Obama is weak. He is not sending U.S. ground troops to help fight the Islamic State, a step some Republican presidential candidates say is necessary. And, as Stevens noted, he did not make Syrian leader Bashar Assad pay for crossing a “red line” that Obama defined as using chemical weapons. Iran knows that “we could knock out most of their military capacity pretty quickly,” the president told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. But how many conservatives believe he would actually do that?

Yet Obama is steely in some ways, such as ordering the risky raid that killed Osama bin Laden and — in the face of non-stop GOP denunciations — sticking to his belief that diplomacy should be the first option, war the last. In that respect, he is on the same page as most Americans regarding Iran. Polls show majorities favor a deal, but support could fade as Obama makes the case for it and Republicans paint it as catastrophic.

How is the average American to know who’s right? “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons,” says the 159-page agreement. That’s easy to understand, but hard to trust. And the parts that might make it easier to trust are incomprehensible. For instance: “For the full IR-1 cascade (No. 6), Iran will modify associated infrastructure by removing UF6 pipework, including sub-headers, valves and pressure transducers at cascade level, and frequency inverters.”

There’s no getting around it: If you like and generally agree with Obama, you’ll trust his judgment. If you don’t like him and generally disagree with him, you will trust opponents of the deal. The moves by Nixon and Reagan led to big changes and broad progress, and Obama’s might, too. But he says he’s not betting on it. That’s a page out of the first President Bush’s playbook, and the best way to avoid unrealistic expectations, charges of naiveté and, ultimately, the perception of failure.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo:  George H.W. Bush riding in a Humvee with General Schwarzkopf in Saudi Arabia, November 22, 1990. Via Wikicommons.

 

 

What Democrats Should Fear Most About Scott Walker

Before there were public employee unions, there was Tonette.

Unintimidated is the title of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s book, the title of his SuperPAC, and the thematic spine of his presidential campaign. It is of course a reference to his knock-down, drag-out fight with state worker unions, and his subsequent triumphs in politics and policy.

The protracted showdown over collective bargaining rights revealed the small-town pastor’s son with the low-key manner to be unusually audacious and persistent, as well as undeterred by custom or convention. None of that would have surprised anyone familiar with the story of his marriage — a revelatory tale that should make smart Democrats nervous about Mr. Unintimidated.

Tonette Walker lost her first husband, her grandmother, and her brother (her only sibling) in the same year, when she was 30. Five years later, she exchanged glances with Walker on karaoke night at a barbecue restaurant and nearly threw out the paper napkin on which he had written his phone number. She thought he was handing her his trash as he walked out.

“He actually told my roommate that the night he met me [he knew] he was going to marry me. You can only imagine the laugh my roommate and I had over that,” Tonette said last fall in accepting the Margaret Thatcher Award from a conservative group called Right Wisconsin.

Her losses, she said, had made her cynical about men and dismissive of marriage. On top of that, she was 12 years older than Scott. “At first I thought Scott was just infatuated with an older woman. But you know with Scott, he had a counterpoint to every concern I raised. When I pointed out our age difference, he told me that his grandparents, they were 12 years apart and they were married for decades,” she said in her speech.

Walker, a conservative who had started running for office at 22, managed to convince not only Tonette but her Democratic, union-member parents. The age difference “was more of an issue to my family than him being a Republican,” Tonette told Brava Magazine in Madison just before Walker took office in 2011. Now, her Democratic upbringing long behind her, she is a full political partner to her husband and an effective public champion for him.

Walker’s dogged pursuit of an older woman bruised by tragedy is consistent with his damn-the-torpedoes conservative governance in a state that hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1984. A lot of people were shell-shocked, but in retrospect, they shouldn’t have been. His marriage was an early example of his disregard for the usual path and in fact a sign that he thrives on the challenges of going off-road.

The age gap that gave Tonette’s family pause — and which she recently told The Washington Post she herself would wonder about if her son brought home an older woman — could even work to the Walkers’ advantage in a campaign. Consider that just 2 percent of men marry or remarry women 10 or more years older than they are, according to a Pew Research Center poll last December.

In popular culture, there’s a stereotype of desperate “cougars” of a certain age going after younger men. But in politics, a man with an older wife can benefit from a halo effect. Admit it, until the whole thing imploded, didn’t you feel better about the impossibly attractive John Edwards because Elizabeth, his late wife, was five years older and looked her age?

Walker has been one long walking, talking, maddening provocation to Democrats. Even more annoying, there were few overt clues to his intentions. He did not campaign in 2010 on going after collective bargaining rights for public employees, but that battle defined him once he took office. Likewise, in 2011 he signaled disinterest in right-to-work laws that would affect private unions — but he signed such a law in March.

Democratic strategist Bill Burton warned his fellow Democrats more than once before the 2014 elections that they would have deep regrets if they didn’t oust Walker right then and there. “Scott Walker is a real threat in 2016,” he said on Bloomberg TV. “If we miss the opportunity as Democrats to take him out now, it could be a real issue for us.”

His alarms came months after the party had nominated a political novice, businesswoman Mary Burke, who proved not nearly up to the task of defeating a national conservative icon in a Republican year. Walker won in 2010. He won a recall in 2012. He won re-election in 2014. His coming announcement for president Monday in Waukesha is a formality. He has been firmly lodged in the elite top tier of the gigantic GOP field for months.

All of that was against the odds. Just like against the odds, he got the girl.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Illustration: DonkeyHotey via Flickr

The Year Of Telling It Like It Is

Less than 24 hours after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie embarked on a long-shot campaign for the Republican presidential nomination under the banner of “Telling It Like It Is,” Vermont senator and aspiring Democratic nominee Bernie Sanders tweeted, “What this campaign is about is a very radical idea: We’re going to tell the truth.”

Not so radical, actually, in the 2016 race. Practically everybody’s “telling it like it is.” It’s a theme with endless subtextual variations, starting with “Telling It Like I Want It To Be.” “Telling It Like Primary Voters Think It Is.” “Telling It Like A Future Fox News Host.”

Christie’s main claims to this slogan are his blustery persona and call to curb entitlement programs. But that is hardly enough to stand out in a year like this. There are about 20 candidates and many have unfiltered personalities, nothing to lose, or both.

You want blustery? How about Donald Trump? His blithe characterization of Mexican immigrants as rapists, criminals, and drug runners — at his presidential announcement, no less — is the nadir of the telling-it-like-it-is syndrome to date. And it’s costing him what it should financially, as Univision, NBC, and now Macy’s have cut ties with him.

It’s not yet costing him politically; new polls show Trump in second place for the Republican nomination nationally, in Iowa and in New Hampshire. That’s bound to change, but not due to mass condemnation from the GOP. The party’s 2016 candidates for the most part have punted on Trump, perhaps anticipating, hopefully, that he will be ruined without their help. National Review did its part with a report that Trump has skipped the last six presidential primary elections, including 2012, when he urged Florida Republicans via Twitter to get out and vote in theirs.

Few can compete with Trump, but others are going for shock value in their own ways. Former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee, for instance, played the daring, unconventional card by proposing a switch to the metric system — part of the internationalist direction in which he said he’d lead the country. Another Democrat, former Virginia senator Jim Webb, went in a unique direction after the Charleston church massacre. He said on Facebook that the Civil War had a “complicated” history and the Confederate battle flag had “wrongly been used” for racist purposes.

On the GOP side, John Kasich’s history suggests a strong showing in the tell-it-like-it-is sweepstakes when he announces July 21. Politico reported the Ohio governor would “aim to appear less scripted and guarded than the leading candidates.” In fact, he actually IS less scripted and guarded than most of them. To cite one example: Kasich didn’t just circumvent conservatives to jam through a Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, he suggested that they “better have a good answer” when St. Peter asks them what they did for the poor.

So far, Christie’s strongest rival for the tell-it-like-it-is crown is Mr. Establishment himself, Jeb Bush. He made a week-long mess of a question about Iraq, but the Florida governor has been straightforward — almost defiantly so — in other areas.

Not surprisingly, given Bush’s Mexican-American wife, he has been relatively tough on Trump. Asked in Spanish about Trump’s comments about Mexicans at an event in Las Vegas, Bush replied in Spanish that Trump spends his life fighting with people and doesn’t represent the values of the Republican Party, according to Bloomberg News. In English he said that “I don’t agree with him. I think he’s wrong.”

Bush also gets a straight-talk citation for calling the Confederate flag a “racist” symbol — while in South Carolina, no less. In a Winthrop University poll last year, 61 percent — including nearly three-quarters of whites — said the flag should continue to fly on the statehouse grounds. Views are changing, but there’s still risk given the state’s early and influential presidential primary. In 2012, exit polls showed that 98 percent of voters in the GOP primary were white.

On domestic policy, Bush has stuck with his support for Common Core education standards as many other GOP hopefuls have run from them, and he continues to back legal status for many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country as part of a comprehensive immigration solution.

In a private phone call with Alabama Republicans that was reported by The Washington Post, Bush berated fellow Republicans for abandoning their views and said they should not “bend in the wind.” He says similar things in public. “I’m not backing down from something that is a core belief,” he told the Club for Growth in February. “Are we supposed to just cower because at the moment people are all upset about something? No way, no how.”

The old adage of show, don’t tell applies to the 2016 race in spades. Don’t tell us you’re going to tell it like it is. Just live it. And don’t be surprised to find stiff competition for the title.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Image: DonkeyHotey via Flickr

The Confederacy Crashes In A Week. It Only Took 150 Years.

The rush to ditch the Confederate battle flag is making the country’s shift in favor of gay marriage look like slow motion. A groundbreaking 2003 ruling from the highest court in Massachusetts was the first to legalize same-sex marriage. In 2011, Gallup reported another first: Gay marriage now had majority support.

If eight years is a sea change in the blink of an eye, the sprint away from the Rebel flag by politicians and CEOs qualifies as whiplash. It was at full speed less than a week after the Emanuel AME church tragedy in which a white supremacist shooter apparently took succor and affirmation from the flag as he laid his plans to murder nine people. “The flag now is owned by him. It’s the flag of the murderer in our time,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a GOP presidential candidate, told CBS.

Everything that has been said about the flag in the past week has been true for the past 150 years. It represents treason and brutality, white supremacy and black bondage. So how much credit should today’s “leaders” get for their sudden bid for distance from Dylann Roof and that flag?

It is tempting to go with a safety-in-numbers theory. Politicians and businesses may recognize a unique moment of opportunity to act on principle without paying a penalty. It’s like speeding at the same rate as other cars when you’re in a long line of traffic. Everyone’s doing it, so nobody’s likely to get a ticket or — in this case — lose votes or customers.

The risk has been high until now. For instance, a Winthrop University poll last November showed 61 percent of people in South Carolina — including 73 percent of whites — wanted to keep the flag on the Capitol grounds. Gov. Nikki Haley, an Indian-American Republican running for re-election that month, called it a non-issue in her campaign. But this week, surrounded by Democrats, Republicans, blacks, and whites, she called it part of the state’s past and said it needs to go. And with that she set off the swarm.

The GOP’s 2016 presidential candidates were first to say they agreed. They were quickly followed by governors and legislators in other states suddenly feeling moved to exorcise statues, flags and license plates. And then came the national and state business communities. WalMart, eBay, Amazon.com, and Sears said they would stop selling Confederate flag merchandise. Boeing, BMW, Michelin, and multiple chambers of commerce in South Carolina fell in line behind Haley. Perhaps most miraculously, so did the state legislature. The state House voted 103-10 to allow debate this summer on removing the flag. The state Senate agreed by voice vote.

Obviously, it would have been admirable for all of this to have happened without the cruel shock of a massacre of innocents, and without the pressure of an early presidential primary in South Carolina. And there were some people who did what they considered to be the right thing long ago — among them former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, who shrank the Confederate battle emblem on his state flag and says that’s the main reason he lost his 2002 re-election bid; and 2016 presidential candidate Jeb Bush, who moved the Confederate flag to a museum when he was the governor of Florida and reportedly advised Haley on her course in the current crisis.

The lightning reactions of the past few days suggest to me that many people have been uneasy about Confederate flags and symbols for many years. Whatever their reasons, they have seized this moment to act. It didn’t hurt that the same week as the church killings, the Supreme Court ruled Texas does not have to issue Confederate flag license plates. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe promptly announced he would phase them out in his state.

The conversation continues to spread, with Tennessee leaders calling for the removal of a bust of Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest from the state Capitol, and a petition filed to remove a statue of Jefferson Davis from the University of Texas campus in Austin. The sudden consensus is that these men, these flags, these emblems, are history. They belong in museums or on personal property. They don’t belong at seats of learning and government, where they contradict our national values and ideals by their very presence.

This discussion is too valuable to quibble about who waited too long and who did not. It’s more than enough that it’s happening at all.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com. 

The Confederate and South Carolina State flags fly during a march in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Andrew Aliferis via Flickr.com)

Blame Congress If Obamacare Subsidies Die

When the Supreme Court rules on the latest challenge to the Affordable Care Act, I’m hoping the justices will say the intent of the law is crystal clear, uphold the subsidies that help people pay for health insurance, and spend at least a few pages reaming out Congress for not doing its job. Twice.

Democrats’ harried search for a way to pass the ACA, after slow-walking through 2009 and losing their filibuster-proof majority in early 2010, will not soon be forgotten by anyone who followed the rock-strewn path to enactment. Still, that’s no excuse for “established by the State” — the phrase that has thrown into question whether residents of states with federal rather than state insurance marketplaces are eligible for the subsidies that make coverage affordable. Think of all the time and energy that lawyers, politicians, judges, lobbyists, and health policy analysts could have devoted to more productive pursuits had just one Democrat on Capitol Hill noticed that sentence and tacked on “or the federal government.”

Even worse, think of how easy it would have been for Congress to fix the problem once it became known. Congressional Republicans despise the law so deeply, or at least profess to, that nearly every single one of them ran on vows to repeal it. But they are having tremendous difficulty coming up with an alternative to Obamacare. They can’t even agree on whether or how to simply preserve subsidies for a while should the Supreme Court strike them down in King v. Burwell, a decision expected within the next couple of weeks.

The case has put some 6.4 million people at risk of losing their subsidies and coverage, a possibility that has begun to worry some Republicans. They could have saved themselves and everyone else a lot of trouble by passing a temporary fix with an expiration date. That would have been smart politically, too, since most of those relying on subsidies live in presidential and Senate battleground states.

For as long as the ACA has been under discussion — six years now — Republicans have let ideology override practicality and even principle. That’s been evident in their refusal to make technical fixes (usually routine after a major new law takes effect) or even changes that move the ACA in a more conservative or business-friendly direction. It’s also been evident in the refusal of most Republican governors to set up their own insurance marketplaces and to rely instead on the federal exchange — a triumph of hostility toward President Obama and Obamacare over devotion to state control and autonomy.

Underpinning the relentless resistance is the hope and faith that the law will disappear. But that’s not going to happen. The need for it, or something like it, is simply too profound.

The most obvious proof is in the numbers. The ACA has led to a net increase of more than 14 million people with coverage, according to Charles Gaba at ACASignups.net, and Gallup pegs the rate of uninsured at 11.9 percent this year — down from 18 percent at one point in 2013. There’s far more to the law than that, however. It has helped people in largely unheralded ways that fall mostly under the often forgotten first phrase of its official name, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

I was reminded of that protection twice this month. Once was when Extra correspondent Jerry Penacoli said in a Rose Garden interview with Obama that the ACA helped him survive melanoma and thyroid cancer. The law bans lifetime coverage limits, enabling him to receive the treatment he needed. “You pretty much saved my finances and my life,” Penacoli told the president.

The other reminder came when I opened a file folder and discovered a long-ago letter to my son. It was dated a month before he turned 19. “Recently, we were notified of your loss of dependent eligibility status on October 31, 2004,” the letter said. “As a result, your current coverage ends.”

I remember the shock of learning he had been kicked off the family policy and the scramble to figure out how to get him covered. Now, under the ACA, insurance companies must give parents the option of keeping kids on the family plan until they turn 26. So that is a shock and a problem no one will ever have again. The same is true for running up against annual or lifetime limits on benefits, and for getting rejected by an insurance company for having a medical condition, even a minor one.

For millions of others, the law and its subsidies have also ended the problem of being priced out of health insurance. But it will be back if conservative justices on the Supreme Court grab the opening handed to them by a sloppy Democratic Congress and an intractable Republican one.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com. 

Photo via Flickr

Chris Christie Is No John McCain

It’s no surprise that Chris Christie has adopted the straight-talk strategy that carried John McCain to a huge upset victory over George W. Bush in the 2000 New Hampshire primary and helped him win the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. It’s a natural fit given the New Jersey governor’s blunt, outspoken personality.

Yet McCain was in first or second place in polls of New Hampshire at this point both times he ran. Christie is in single digits, and as far back as ninth in one poll of the large Republican pack.

There’s a reason it’s not working. There’s no way to break this gently: Chris Christie is no John McCain.

In McCain, the Arizona senator, you had a bona fide Vietnam War hero who had spent more than five years as a prisoner of war. You had a presidential candidate whose candor on the 2000 trail was startling, sometimes charming and occasionally quite personal.

When a voter in rural New Hampshire complained about substandard medical facilities, McCain said that was the price for the voter’s choice to live in a gorgeous setting instead of a more populated area. When another New Hampshire voter worried aloud about whether his child would be able to get a factory job, McCain advised him to aim higher for his child. He undercut his own anti-abortion position when a reporter asked if he’d forbid an abortion for his teenage daughter if she became pregnant — saying he’d discourage that but the final decision would be hers. When the predictable furor erupted, he did not kick the press off the bus.

With McCain, you also had politician who was publicly and continually remorseful about his role in a campaign finance scandal, who then became passionate about breaking the connection between money and influence. This defining ethics challenge came in 1987. That’s the year McCain and four other senators asked federal regulators to drop charges against the Lincoln Savings and Loan chaired by Charles Keating Jr., a donor to all their campaigns.

Taxpayers were on the hook for a $3 billion bailout when Lincoln S&L collapsed in 1989. McCain called his intervention on behalf of Keating “the worst mistake of my life.” A decade later he made campaign finance reform the centerpiece of his first presidential campaign.

Bridgegate has been Christie’s defining ethics challenge. The massively disruptive four-day traffic jam on the Fort Lee approach to the George Washington Bridge was engineered by his aides in 2013 as political revenge against a Democratic mayor who did not support him for re-election that year. For nearly a week, their fake “traffic study” turned 30-minute commutes into three and four hours. The New York Times offered a sampling of who was trapped in the crippling gridlock: first responders in police cars and ambulances; buses of kids headed to the first day of school; a longtime unemployed man who was late for his first day at a new job, and a woman who couldn’t reach the hospital in time for her husband’s stem-cell transplant.

Christie said he had been “blindsided” by the plot. He said he was embarrassed and humiliated and apologized to “the people of New Jersey” and “the people of Fort Lee.” He also denied creating an atmosphere that led to such behavior and maintained that “I am not a bully.” If he had followed the McCain model, Christie would have then become a highly visible national advocate for good government, political civility and excellence in public service. He might have started an organization to that effect, or joined one. Alternatively, perhaps he would have launched or lent his name to an anti-bullying organization.

Unlike McCain, Christie does not have a heroic personal biography to cushion problems. He does have a long, mixed, and controversial record as governor. He also has a long trail of viral videos that show him insulting and shouting at people who disagree with his policies. That image was a boon for his popularity and his fundraising for his party. He used to revel in it. Now, not so much. Now he is trying to morph into a policy truthteller on entitlements, taxes, and national security.

“Real. Honest. Direct. Tell It Like It Is.” According to National Journal, that’s the banner that advertised Christie’s recent appearance at The Village Trestle tavern in Goffstown, New Hampshire. But there’s a difference between confrontational straight talk and the McCain 2000 brand of straight talk. Christie, belatedly realizing that the first kind is not presidential, is trying to transition to the latter. But his problems go deeper than that, as do his differences from McCain.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com. 

Image: The National Memo