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Who Says Money In Politics Doesn’t Buy Influence?

By Rekha Basu, Des Moines Register (TNS)

One recent day, my newspaper had two front-page stories related to money and politics. One was about financial contributions made from the political action committees of prospective presidential candidates to Iowa office-seekers of the same party. Another reported that former Texas Governor Rick Perry has been appointed to the board of the corporation planning the controversial Bakken pipeline.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled money in politics is free “speech,” and doesn’t buy influence. But both of those stories offered small examples of how it might. In the first, potential presidential candidate Rand Paul wants Iowa operatives in his camp, so he donates some of his PAC funds — a thousand here or there — to their campaigns. They in turn may feel grateful enough to repay the favor by talking Paul up to their supporters.

In the second case, prospective presidential candidate Perry gets a direct financial stake in a controversial oil-pipeline proposal. The Bakken pipeline, which would stretch from North Dakota to Illinois, is widely opposed by environmental and other groups. But by investing in Perry and his campaign, the company could bank on having a friend in the White House to create a climate favorable for such projects. In 2012, the head of Energy Transfer Partners gave a quarter million dollars to a SuperPAC for Perry. And now Perry has a seat on its board.

A Perry spokesman said Perry won’t be publicly promoting the pipeline, but he doesn’t have to. His board presence is endorsement enough.

Traditional PACs are chicken feed compared with the filet mignon influence SuperPACs can buy. The first allow a group of people with a common goal — say, reducing environmental regulations — to donate up to $5,000 to a candidate in each round of an election campaign, and $15,000 a year to a national political party. But SuperPACs — authorized by the 2010 Supreme Court ruling, Speechnow vs. FEC — can raise and spend unlimited amounts of corporate, union or private dollars to promote or discredit a candidate in a federal election. They just can’t donate directly to the candidate or party.

The Center for Responsive Politics reports that in 2014 elections, 1,300 SuperPACs had raised more than $695 million. They ranged from the liberal Senate Majority PAC, which raised $67 million, to the conservative American Crossroads PAC, which raised $23 million. Ten billion dollars were spent in the 2012 election cycle — combining the presidential, local, state and regional races — according to national journalist/author John Nichols. But for all that spending, Nichols told a Des Moines audience, 2014 had the lowest turnout in midterm elections since 1942.

Nichols, the Washington correspondent for the progressive Nation magazine and co-author of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America was brought to Iowa by the Quaker American Friends Service Committee to kick off a project provocatively titled “Governing Under the Influence.” It aims to focus attention in Iowa and New Hampshire, the leadoff presidential selection states, on the distorting impact of money in politics, enabled by Supreme Court rulings.

In a rousing speech in the basement of a United Methodist Church, Nichols said most Americans feel too overwhelmed to know what to do. Rather than motivate voters, the excess negativity of political ads causes many not to vote. But Nichols maintains that Iowans get more one-on-one time with presidential candidates than anyone else and should use that to grill them. “Iowans should be saying, ‘How much money have you taken from this interest?'” and how do they stay independent of it, he said. He suggested everyone ask the candidates if they agree with the Supreme Court that corporations are people, and if unlimited spending to influence elections is protected free speech.

Ultimately, those rulings can only be overridden by a constitutional amendment. But history, notes Nichols, was filled with people organizing in response to an injustice and getting the constitution changed — like the 19th amendment, ratified in 1920, granting women the right to vote, the 13th amendment (1865), abolishing slavery and the 15th amendment (1870) giving black people voting rights.

It takes either a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress or in two-thirds of state legislatures to amend the constitution. That must be ratified by three-quarters of the states. But some states have begun the process. Montana and Colorado voted differently for president in 2012, but both voted to amend the constitution to curb money in elections.

It’s a long and laborious process. The 27th amendment, on congressional pay, was submitted in 1789, but not ratified until 1992. On the other hand, the 26th amendment, giving 18-year-olds voting rights, took only three months to be ratified in 1971. Most Americans understood the absurdity of drafting young people who couldn’t even vote. I hope most Americans also understand the absurdity of politicians using their office to return a debt to the deep pockets that helped get them elected.

Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at rbasu@dmreg.com.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Nation’s Voting Rights Laws Headed In Wrong Direction

One of the most painful scenes in Ava DuVernay’s film, Selma, about Martin Luther King Jr.’s protest marches in Selma, Ala., shows nurse Annie Lee Cooper, played by Oprah Winfrey, being turned away from registering to vote because she can’t name the state’s 67 county judges. Such ploys to block black people from voting were used in the South even after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. They ensured that unequal laws and systems endured, since elected officials were answerable only to the whites who had elected them. It took the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to make that civil right binding. Yet today that victory that legions of volunteers fought for is under attack.

Last year the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Texas law to require voters to show photo ID cards. The law had been challenged by the U.S. Justice Department and struck down by a federal judge who said 600,000 registered voters in Texas had no government-issued ID, and that African-Americans were thrice as likely as whites to not have one. But the law was upheld by a federal Court of Appeals. Texas found ammunition in a 2013 Supreme Court ruling, Shelby County (Alabama) v. Holder, striking down a section of the Voting Rights Act that had required states with a history of voter discrimination to get federal approval before changing voting procedures. Various states have responded with new voting restrictions.

“If you live in rural Mississippi, and you have no license, you have no ID,” says Patti Miller, who just completed a documentary about the role of Iowans in the 1964 Freedom Summer. She noted that Hispanics in urban areas face the same problem.

Iowans Return to Freedom Summer, depicts five young white people, including Miller, who grew up in overwhelmingly white Iowa and answered a call from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee to aid desegregation efforts in Mississippi. They were among 700 college students from around the country who flocked to Mississippi to help register black voters, teach black children in Freedom Schools and organize community centers. The experiences were life changing.

“I’m not sure if that sense of purpose has happened since,” reflected Miller at a preview of her film Monday. “It affects everything you do, your attitudes and outlook on life.”

For Marcia Moore, one of the Freedom Summer volunteers, seeing how hard Mississippi fought to keep black people down brought tough reckonings about her own country. Richard Beymer (who subsequently played Tony in West Side Story) found that summer a joyful time, even though “we were at war, in a sense.” He lived with seven other civil rights workers in a rented house without indoor toilet or shower, all resolute about confronting racism. Stephen L. Smith never fully got over a severe beating at the hands of Mississippi police. Yet he remained politically active, becoming the first American to burn his draft card. All reflect on their experiences in Miller’s film.

There were disagreements within SNCC about including white students, Miller recalls. “A lot felt it should be only blacks. But whenever white people were involved, the press covered it.”

The white students’ activism also “lit a fire” that prompted black people to start protesting, observes Lenray Gandy, a black Mississippi native, in Miller’s film. The movie depicts a Mississippi that didn’t just force blacks and whites to use separate drinking fountains and waiting rooms, but where black people weren’t allowed to try on shoes at the shoe store. A black man couldn’t walk down a street where a white woman was walking. Blacks couldn’t sit in the front of a bus and were expected to keep their eyes downcast when addressing whites.

But the deprivation that ensured all the others stayed in place was being unable to vote. Registrars would use a 95-question test to reject prospective black voters, according to Shel Stromquist, now a professor emeritus from the University of Iowa who took part in Freedom Summer and appears in the film.

Miller formed the Keeping History Alive Foundation because, as the saying goes, those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But remembering may not be the problem for politicians enacting current voting restrictions. More likely they see some political advantage to suppressing the minority vote. So the question is whether fair-minded Americans will insist that Congress pass legislative fixes to ensure all qualified Americans have their voices heard.

Miller will forever be affected by the power of committed black and white people living, cooking, eating, working and risking their lives together. She went on to work with King’s organization in Chicago. So it’s disheartening for her to visit college campuses these days and see black and white students self-segregate in dining halls.

It’s easy to get complacent about battles won long ago. But rights not safeguarded can be eroded or lost. Celebrating King’s birthday, as we do this week, shouldn’t just mean reflecting on how far we’ve come, but on where we’re going, and what it will take to stay on track.

Photo: Kelley Minars via Flickr

Whose Values Did The Torture Program Uphold?

By Rekha Basu, Des Moines Register (TNS)

Who are we?

That’s one question begged by the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s torture of detainees after Sept. 11. There are other questions, but this may be the key one. And it is getting harder to answer.

“That’s not who we are,” President Barack Obama declared of the abusive pressure tactics used by American interrogators on detainees in foreign holding tanks, supposedly to extract information about terror plots. But some of those seem so gratuitously abhorrent, it’s a stretch to even call them interrogations. Where is the interrogation component of force-feeding people their meals rectally? How much valid information could you get on the 17th day of one long, round-the-clock interrogation? What investigatory purpose is served by leaving a prisoner naked until he dies of hypothermia?

Politicians may quibble over the semantics of the practices and the politics of the report’s release, just before Democrats lose control of the Senate. Apologists for the program, both from the Bush administration and the CIA, reject the word “torture.” Former Vice President Dick Cheney goes so far as to call the 6,300-page report “full of c–p,” even as he acknowledges no authorization was given for rectal force-feeding. Call it what you want, but when the purpose is to terrify, degrade, in some cases bring people convicted of no crime to the brink of death, and leave them emotionally and physically broken down, one can only hope those tactics would be anathema to most Americans.

Elected leaders, including Obama, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, whose committee brought out the report, and Republican Sen. John McCain, who knows torture first-hand, believe its release will show the world, as Feinstein said, “that we are in fact a just and lawful society.” McCain said Americans need to know “when the values that define our nation are intentionally disregarded by our security policies.”

Whose values did the program uphold — The CIA’s? The Bush administration’s? That’s hard to answer since the report doesn’t look at individual culpability. Cheney’s justifications aside, the CIA did not inform the administration or get approval for some measures. On the other hand, secret legal memos sent by the Bush administration set forth a covert CIA program abroad to conduct such interrogations. Officials claimed an anti-torture treaty only applied inside the U.S. And though one of Obama’s first acts in office was to ban those practices, even Obama officials reportedly considered upholding the interpretation.

So, who are we? Are there two different sets of American values to employ selectively, according to circumstances? Was the CIA satisfying itself that the ends justify the means, even though those harsh techniques were of little ultimate value in capturing Osama bin Laden? Did agents grow oblivious to the boundary lines and become dehumanized like the Abu Ghraib captors, rogue elements with enough power to abuse? Or were they opportunists like James Mitchell, the Florida psychologist who designed and implemented the program with his partner for a cool $80 million, though never schooled in the mindset or tactics of al-Qaida?

Now that this has happened, can we still claim to have those shared values in the rule of law? Can we still claim the moral authority to condemn human rights violations in Yemen or North Korea? Even though we braced for global fallout from the report, knowledge of our abhorrent interrogation practices have already contributed to terrorist recruitment efforts, even of U.S. citizens.

Americans are not unique. Like everyone, whether we do bad or good depends largely on the cues we get from our environments. Those who lack faith that the system treats everyone equally might not see a need to play by the rules. Much has been made, for instance, of the looting and rioting in the wake of a Ferguson grand jury’s failure to indict a white police officer for the fatal shooting of an unarmed young black man. Without revisiting the merits of that case or justifying the behavior, there was clearly an element of nihilism that didn’t spring from bad upbringings, as some people have claimed. It reflected a lack of belief that justice is for all. So hold the looters responsible but in the long run, let’s make sure our police forces, prosecutors and courts model the rules of fair play.

We Americans can’t change what took place in our names in secret faraway holding pens, but we can press for those responsible to be held accountable. We can vow not to let it happen again on our watch. We can use our votes and our voices to assert our common values when our leaders sometimes seem to have lost their way.

Who are we? We are the voters and the taxpayers, the office-seekers and marchers and peaceful protesters, guided by an enlightened Constitution, a belief in doing what is right and a democracy that demands our engagement.

Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at rbasu@dmreg.com.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Gun Limits Are A Key Women’s Issue

By Rekha Basu, Des Moines Register (MCT)

What wasn’t said said everything.

Gabby Giffords came to Des Moines last week to talk with women about gun safety. But after a few opening sentences, the former congresswoman from Arizona didn’t speak again.

And that fact spoke louder than anything anyone could have said about the need to keep guns out of the wrong hands.

It was nearly three years ago that Giffords, now 44, was shot in the head while holding a public meeting with constituents outside a Tucson supermarket. At first it was unclear if she would survive — six other people at the scene did not — and then if she’d be able to read or write, walk or talk.

She walks with a cane now. When there is something to applaud, she does it by slapping one hand against a knee; the other is paralyzed. She still has trouble talking thanks to a condition called aphasia, which sometimes makes it hard to understand speech or writing, or to call up the right words. It’s associated with strokes and head injuries.

It happened to “Gabby,” as she is widely known, because a mentally ill man with a history of drug abuse who spouted conspiracy theories and didn’t think women should hold political office could buy a 9-mm pistol from a sportsmen’s store and fire on a crowd.

“Dangerous people with guns are a threat to women,” Giffords said firmly but haltingly. “Criminals with guns, abusers with guns, stalkers with guns. That makes gun violence a women’s issue — for mothers, for families, for me and you.”

Giffords was on a nine-state tour with the organization she cofounded with her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly (both gun owners) called Americans for Responsible Solutions. They did so in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. Its fact sheet explains why this is a women’s issue:

Women in America are 11 times more likely to be killed by a gun than women in other advanced industrialized countries.

In the 12 years ending in 2013, more U.S. women were killed by intimate partners using guns — close to 6,500 — than U.S. troops were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

The risk of death in a domestic dispute increases five-fold when there’s a gun available.

This is the time of year, before elections, when organizations are out lobbying hard for their issues. It might be human-services spending or the federal debt. It may be climate change or agricultural subsidies. But it was clear from this panel of women, in law enforcement, domestic violence prevention, human and civil rights, that this one is already an issue for them.

The immediate priority for Giffords’ organization is fixing weaknesses in federal and state laws. At the federal level, even though people convicted of domestic abuse and felony stalking can’t legally buy guns, those convicted of misdemeanor stalking can. And the domestic abuser prohibition doesn’t apply to dating relationships, though in 2008 almost half of all domestic violence homicides were committed against someone who was or had been a dating partner.

Proposed fixes to the law also would prohibit people under temporary restraining orders from owning firearms, expand federal background checks and improve domestic violence records submissions to the national crime database. Another gun-safety organization, Moms Demand Action, notes that in 29 states, convicted stalkers can buy and own guns.

Giffords sat and listened as women talked about particular acts of gun violence, polls and loopholes. She nodded, leaned forward, occasionally wrinkled her forehead and applauded as the situation demanded. But she didn’t talk.

I returned to the office stirred by her determined demeanor despite the horrible reality of what was done to her, only to get another reality check. It was a news release from the organization Iowa Gun Owners.

“Gun-grabbers will only be more emboldened if they can attack our gun rights in the legislative session and feel no push-back in their districts when election season comes along,” it said. So it was distributing scorecards showing how every state legislator had voted on guns.

“Gun-control zealots in Iowa are learning a painful lesson,” said the news release. “If you come after our gun rights, you will be held accountable.”

Painful? They don’t understand the meaning of that word. They should meet Gabby Giffords.

Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at rbasu@dmreg.com.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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Elizabeth Warren Is Right: America’s Middle Class Needs A Boost

By Rekha Basu, Des Moines Register (MCT)

Her father was a janitor in Oklahoma City and her mother stayed home and cared for the four kids. When the youngest and the only girl came along unplanned in 1949, some belt tightening was needed. It would be needed again, when her father had a heart attack and her mother, vowing not to lose the house, took a minimum-wage job at Sears.

No one in the family had been to college. Her three brothers joined the military. But Elizabeth Warren won a debate scholarship to George Washington University. And though she let an early marriage derail it two years along, she got back on track and rose to become a Harvard law professor specializing in bankruptcy, a prominent White House official and now a U.S. senator. She’s been described as the nation’s top authority on the beleaguered American middle class.

It’s one of those rags to riches stories that have long earned America bragging rights as a place of opportunity for anyone who works hard enough and shows enough drive. That is why Elizabeth Warren is worked up now, why she gets indignant at the paucity of rules to ensure “nobody steals your purse on Main Street or your pension on Wall Street.” Why she decries the lack of public investment in education and infrastructure, the hostility to a minimum wage, the disappearing power of unions to ensure a decent pension and a balance between worker and employer clout.

And it is why Warren draws large, cheering crowds when she speaks, as she did Sunday at a Des Moines, Iowa, campaign event for Bruce Braley, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate. Enough people seem hungry to hear from someone who gets it, has lived it and is passionately and unabashedly willing to name it. The 65-year-old Democratic senator from Massachusetts has a striking ability to tell a personal story about how government can help build opportunity, by supporting a decent minimum wage, investing in public education, safeguarding social security and backing college loans. The America that gave her a fighting chance also invested in roads, highways and electrical grids and in an educated workforce that would allow small businesses to get launched and repay the debt in good jobs. It invested in scientific research.

“I’m the daughter of a janitor who ended up in the U.S. Senate because I was in an America that was building a future for all its children,” declared the former Republican.

But then came the ’80s, disdain for public investments, and deregulation. Instead of shared wealth, we got “trickle-down” economics. The cops on Wall Street were fired, allowing banks to feed off consumers through sub-prime mortgages, inflated hidden fees and penalties on banking, and solicitations to high risk investments. Yet while people who invested and lost their life savings went into free fall, the government made sure the banks couldn’t fail, no matter how much wrong they did.

In 2008, Warren was named to head a Senate congressional panel overseeing the $700 billion bank bailout. She took the job seriously enough to investigate the bank failures and demand accountability from Treasury Department officials who had been doling out the TARP money without monitoring how it was used, or taking action against those that misused it. Warren helped the Obama administration create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to guard consumers against abusive lending practices. But industry lobbyists, with the backing of members of Congress, opposed her heading it, and she was bypassed. “It would be her immense knowledge of banking practices that would make her such a dangerous and natural foe to Wall Street,” wrote Suzanna Andrews’ in the November 2011 Vanity Fair.

But it was people, not banks, at whom Republican Joni Ernst, Braley’s Senate opponent, aimed her derision in recently disclosed remarks. She decried “a generation of people that rely on the government to provide absolutely everything for them.” She said it would take “painful” education to wean people away from their dependency, while government “will just give away anything,” rather than let the poor eat from food pantries.

“No one should work full time and still live in poverty,” Warren told the hundreds who came to see her in Des Moines. It’s a message I would urge my libertarian-leaning friends to take to heart. Whatever might aptly be said about the overreach of government into people’s personal business, governments have a responsibility to at least make sure the deck is not stacked in favor of big business, and that those in poverty have a chance.

We can discuss later the dilemma many Democrats will find themselves in should Elizabeth Warren heed calls to enter the presidential race and end up facing Hillary Clinton in a Democratic primary. For now, let’s just heed her reminder that it matters who gets elected, and every vote counts. Minnesota’s Al Franken, as she pointed out, won his Senate seat by 312 votes.

Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at rbasu@dmreg.com.

Photo: Senate Democrats via Flickr

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Uncompromising Congress A Threat To National Security

By Rekha Basu, Des Moines Register

Many of us around the country have had about enough of the intense political divisiveness showing up in campaign ads. But our angst apparently is nothing compared to the frustration being felt in the nation’s capital on both sides of the political aisle. There, members of the defense establishment believe the partisan divide is actually undermining our national security.

At a two-day national security conference in Washington, D.C., sponsored by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism this month, speaker after speaker voiced the same frustration over the budget sequester and the failure of Congress to negotiate.

“Congress is about as worthless an outfit as I’ve seen in 40 years,” declared Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine Corps. major general, who chairs the National Defense Industrial Association and the Reserve Forces Policy Board, which advises Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Reserve and National Guard matters.

“The sequester is one of the stupidest things Congress has ever done.”

Yet that “worthless outfit” holds ultimate power over our national security, Punaro said. The defense budget that came out of the sequester’s automatic spending cuts is both bloated and insufficient to meet current military demands, he said.

He predicts that in ten years, the United States will have a fighting force that is both too small and unprepared to deal with the new nature of the threats we face while “health care costs and entitlements are turning DOD into an entitlements company that occasionally kills a terrorist.”

We might disagree on those entitlements, but Punaro is worth listening to when he says we can’t use the same deterrence methods to deal with ISIS as we did to deal with the Soviets during the Cold War, without getting to the root causes of the fight.

In an interview with USA TODAY, Leon Panetta, President Obama’s former defense secretary, recently said Obama should not have warned Syria’s President Bashar al Assad against using chemical weapons and then failed to follow through in 2013. Panetta said the empty threat left international allies reluctant to join us in fighting ISIS. Obama wanted congressional authorization — in my view, appropriately — which he didn’t get.

But it’s one thing to say we want members of Congress to stop pointing fingers and cooperate, and another to hear experts say we are less safe because of their failure to do so.

Michele Flournoy was undersecretary of defense for policy from 2009 to 2012 and now is CEO of the Center for New American Security. She shares the view that the failure to get a “rational” budget deal and the paralysis of Washington will become a national security issue, breeding a lack of confidence in the United States and opening the door for terrorism.

“It will hurt us in our ability to lead and in the perception of us as a power,” said Flournoy, who was principal adviser to the defense secretary on security and defense policy.

She says there are workable solutions, but the politics, rather than the substance of the disputes, is blocking them. Members of Congress fear they won’t win primaries if they are seen as working with the other party.

“Now the most dangerous thing you can do is agree to compromise,” said Flournoy.

“My fear is that something really bad will happen. We will have some operational failure because we were penny-pinching.”

Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Talley, senior leader for the U.S. Army Reserve, said sequestration is affecting its force.

“I’m 20 percent of the total Army but 5.8 percent of the Army’s budget,” he said noting the majority of U.S. Army missions, including now fighting Ebola, “can’t be done without us.”

Congress funds only 39 days of training for the Reserve a year.

When the government shut down a year ago, training for the Army Reserve and the National Guard was halted. The Guard and Reserve account for just under half of the 2.3 million men and women in uniform.

Joseph Collins, a retired Army colonel who served in the Pentagon for a decade and was active in the early planning of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, is now a director at the National Defense University. He argues that the U.S. is “pricing ourselves out of superpower status,” and Congress should be closing unnecessary military bases that cost too much to maintain. Taxpayers are also “spending huge amounts to modernize the nuclear arsenal,” though nuclear weapons are redundant, he said.

“This government is not going to work if the Congress won’t do the work it’s supposed to,” he said.

From my view, the blame is not equally shared between the two parties. The Tea Party element has pushed Republican members of Congress to the far right and made it a matter of honor not to negotiate with the president.

“Our revolution was a compromise,” said Punaro, who also noted the corrupting effect of political spending by outside groups on our politics. “Our Constitution is a compromise.”

Here’s the bottom line: How can we expect to win any foreign wars if some of our elected leaders have made their top priority being at war with each other?

Photo: Speaker Boehner via Flickr

Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at rbasu@dmreg.com.

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Iowa Summit Serves Reminder Of Why Religion, Politics Don’t Mix

By Rekha Basu, Des Moines Register

Of everything coming out of this year’s Iowa Family Leadership Summit, the fear factor is what stayed with me.

It was a constant, discomfiting undercurrent, like a loose nail poking up in your shoe. It was organization President Bob Vander Plaats declaring this a time of “spiritual warfare,” and speaker Joel Rosenberg announcing America is “on the road to collapse” and “implosion,” and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, warning grimly, “We are living in some very dangerous times.”

The third year of the event sponsored by the self-described Christ-centered organization that seeks to influence policy and elections, brought big name politicians Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Ted Cruz and Rick Perry to Ames, Iowa, this past weekend. They were there to rally the Republican base in the lead-off caucus state. But the upbeat, love-God-and-country tone of previous events appeared at times to have been replaced by a somber, calamitous note of foreboding. Even Satan got a few mentions.

Projected onto a giant screen to punctuate Vander Plaats’ remarks was a video filled with haunting images of Osama bin Laden, Adam Lanza and the Boston marathon bombings. It depicted a rising national debt, marijuana, Boys Scouts, gay rainbow flag and a woman holding up a “Keep abortion legal” sign. It ended with someone yelling, “God is dead. Hail Satan!”

Sponsors and speakers still exalted matrimony and procreation in heterosexual relationships, called for putting God back in the classroom and government, and called abortion murder. But this year’s message was: The nation is in moral decline. Ignore it at your own peril. That was even carried into foreign policy.

Rosenberg, an evangelical Christian born to a Jewish father, said the United States must not support a two-state solution in Israel because a sovereign Palestinian state “defies the biblical mandate.” Interesting that a Christian American would presume to tell Palestinian Muslims they don’t deserve a homeland because of what the Bible says. This follows an evangelical belief that Jews from around the world will gather in Israel, where the second coming of Christ will occur, and — though Rosenberg didn’t spell this out — be converted to Christianity.

“God loves you but if we don’t receive Christ, there are consequences,” Rosenberg warned.

Is fear a new strategy for the Family Leader and its affiliated Family Research Council and Focus on the Family? Is it a response to flagging interest and political losses? Organizers said there were 1,200 attendees, and that there has been steady growth in three years. But many seats were empty. Is it a concession they’re losing the battle over abortion and gay rights? Abortion has not been completely outlawed, even under a conservative U.S. Supreme Court majority. Having succeeded in getting three justices of the Iowa Supreme Court voted out over same-sex marriage, a few years ago, the Family Leader failed in its more recent campaign against a fourth. Same-sex couples are celebrating wedding anniversaries with children and grandchildren, and the planet has survived.

What the planet might not ultimately survive — global warming — wasn’t on the agenda. In fact, if this were a true gathering of faith leaders, one might have expected some commitment to keeping the environment healthy, some compassion for the poor and immigrants. There were calls for abolishing the entire tax system that sustains the poor in times of need. There were calls for boosting border patrols to turn back young asylum seekers before their cases are heard. Iowa’s governor, Terry Branstad, boasted of having cut 1,400 state employees and cut property taxes, which fund education, more than ever in Iowa history.

But if it were a political forum to vet candidates, a Jewish, Muslim, agnostic or atheist one would have had no place there. In one video, Billy Graham’s daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, said, “The only place you get right with God is at the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ.”

Outside in the parking lot, some protestors from Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers, which describes itself as a social and educational organization, objected. “The summit is attempting to define legislation through Christian dogma,” said protestor Jason Benell. “They want to blur the line between church and state. That’s not what Iowans want.”

He also objected to the idea that faith was necessary to have a good family. His group sees a ramping up of religious rhetoric in response to the Family Leader’s “fear of losing its base.”

Everyone will, of course, vote according to their own priorities. But America is not a theocracy, so it’s alarming to see politicians, by attending and playing to the sponsors, play into the notion that worshiping Jesus should be a prerequisite for federal or state office. America also cannot base its Mideast policy on some biblical interpretation about Israel. Whatever our religious affiliation or lack of it, I’d guess most voters have better explanations for Sept. 11 or the Sandy Hook shootings than God’s revenge — and would like to practical, reason-based solutions from those seeking office.

Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at rbasu@dmreg.com.

Photo: Dave Davidson via Flickr

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Honor James Brady By Taking Real Action On Gun Violence

By Rekha Basu, Des Moines Register

Some of the most powerful lessons about what is good for a nation begin with one person’s tragedy. But too often, they’re not implemented until more people are martyred to the cause.

When he went to work as Ronald Reagan’s press secretary in 1981, James Brady could scarcely have imagined that gun control advocacy would become his life’s purpose. His boss had touted Second Amendment rights in his presidential campaign. Tea Party activists even made a poster of the former president saying, “You can’t get gun control by disarming law abiding citizens.” With his signature, Reagan made it easier to transport guns between states and ended federal records keeping on ammunition sales.

But the shooting two months into Reagan’s administration that injured him and left Brady paralyzed turned Brady and his wife, Sarah, into influential gun-reform activists.

Brady died Monday at 73, 22 years after becoming collateral damage to John Hinckley Jr.’s twisted fantasies about killing the president to win the affections of actress Jodie Foster. “There are few Americans in history who are as directly responsible for saving as many lives,” Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said in a statement.

Brady’s signature achievement is the law that bears his name. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act requires federal background checks on gun purchases. According to Gross, it has blocked 2 million gun sales to criminals, domestic abusers and other dangerous people. Though introduced in 1987, it didn’t become law until after Reagan had left office. It takes a lot of courage to stand up to the gun lobby, especially while courting Republican constituencies.

But Reagan did eventually come around. The former president who once wrote in Guns & Ammo magazine that gun control is pointless because murder can’t be prevented, wrote a 1991 New York Times opinion piece saying the 1981 shooting might not have happened if the Brady Bill had been law then. “This level of violence must be stopped,” he wrote, noting 9,200 people were murdered in a year by handguns. Reagan later joined former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in calling on Congress to pass an assault weapons ban, which still hasn’t happened.

Meanwhile, the number of gun fatalities has inched steadily upward. Congress has passed no significant gun control measures since 1993. It is now legal to carry a concealed weapon in all 50 states, according to the National Gun Victims Action Council, a nonprofit network of gun victims, survivors and the faith community. We’ve gotten used to seeing bodies — even tiny ones — carried out of schools, colleges, movie theaters and places of worship on the nightly news. Twenty-one states have recently taken it upon themselves to enact gun laws, but there is much more to be done. The Brady campaign rates every state.

NGVAC offers a common-sense set of proposals that could make us all safer without taking away gun owners’ rights. They include: That every gun owner be licensed and every gun be registered and insured; that criminals, mentally ill people and those legally prohibited from buying guns be barred from buying them at gun shows or over the Internet; that no one be allowed to carry guns into restaurants, bars, schools, and other gathering places; and that every gun have a smart trigger so it can only fire after recognizing the owner’s fingerprint.

Part of NGVAC’s approach is to lobby corporations to prohibit guns from their premises in much the same way the anti-smoking campaign did to get rid of second-hand cigarette smoke. Starbucks, Sonic Drive-In, Chipotle, Jack in the Box and Target already don’t allow people to carry guns in their stores, according to the organization.

It’s unfortunate that it has to take tragedies before politicians muster up the fortitude to say no to a lobby or a political stance. Ironically, years after Reagan came around to gun-control advocacy and was suffering from Alzheimer’s, his wife Nancy Reagan, broke ranks with another Republican president, George W. Bush, to plead for federal embryonic stem-cell research that might help people like her husband. Real life can intrude on hard-line stances.

But when it does, it can have an impact. “Jim and Sarah demonstrated that it was possible to turn a terrible tragedy into real change,” said the statement by the Brady Campaign president. Let’s not let Brady’s life pass without dedicating ourselves, as leaders, as parents and as individuals, to sensible gun-safety measures. We don’t need another human face to attach to the cause. We have enough legacies now, from Tucson, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Aurora, Newtown and beyond to have this lesson learned.

Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at rbasu@dmreg.com

AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan

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Iowa’s Branstad Among Governors In The Wrong On Immigration Issue

A few days after Iowa’s governor was spotlighted on MSNBC for declaring undocumented children from Central America unwelcome in his state, Meet the Press highlighted one Iowa city’s plan to welcome them.

Governor Terry Branstad is this week digging in his heels, even after drawing wide criticism for his hard-line stance. Meanwhile, Davenport Mayor Bill Gluba is talking logistics with leaders from hospitals, schools, charities and churches.

Branstad raised the issue last week after returning from Tennessee, where the federal Health and Human Services secretary was appealing to various governors to house immigrant children. Iowa’s governor refused, but Davenport’s mayor reached out to the White House on his own.

This is not a Democrat vs. Republican issue. It’s a humanitarian crisis. Since October, 57,000 children, mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, have arrived without parents or papers and are waiting for their cases to be reviewed by immigration officials. Border patrol stations are overflowing. So HHS officials are scrambling to find places for the children while the president appeals for money for faster processing of their cases.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who was in Iowa days earlier, campaigning for a fellow Republican governor, has said he was willing to take in some children if asked. “We are an empathetic people in this country and we don’t like seeing people suffer,” CNN reported him saying.

Former Republican Iowa governor Robert Ray responded to a call following the Vietnam War in the 1970s to take in thousands of Southeast Asian refugees. But Branstad says the situations aren’t comparable because those families arrived intact and legally, while the Central American kids were brought without papers by crooked people. “They told them lies that if they could get here, they could stay,” declared Branstad. “That is not true.”

So if the kids were exploited and lied to, that should be grounds for our turning our backs on them, too?

Texas Governor Rick Perry used the occasion to mobilize up to 1,000 National Guard troops to secure the border. Declaring that drug cartels, human traffickers and individual criminals “are exploiting this tragedy for their own criminal ends,” Perry said, “I will not stand idly by while our citizens are under assault and little children are detained in squalor.”

But he might just exploit it for political ends — blame the president for not securing the borders and then close the door on the kids.

What Perry, Branstad and others ignore is that the current situation has roots in a bipartisan 2008 law Congress passed on “unaccompanied alien minors,” intended to protect potential child trafficking victims. It requires border patrol agents to turn unaccompanied children from Central America over to HHS within 72 hours to be placed in appropriate short-term housing while their cases are studied for evidence they were being trafficked for labor or sex.

The law came in response to concern that young trafficking victims were being turned away at the border before their circumstances could be evaluated, notes Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, who heads the State Department’s anti-human trafficking office. “It didn’t create an incentive to lie or send kids here,” he said.

CdeBaca said the law was the result of, “folks who normally wouldn’t have been working together on an immigration issue coming together to say, ‘What do we do to protect children?'”

Religious and business communities see it as a matter of conscience and compassion for the most vulnerable. A Des Moines businessman who runs a charitable foundation has started “1,000 Kids for Iowa,” which is working on finding homes for as many kids. But an Iowa nonprofit agency that wanted to set up a shelter to house 48 immigrant children on space it rents from the state backed off after meeting with state officials.

Sequel Youth and Family Services, which runs a program for troubled youth on correctional facility space, responded to a request from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement in May. It had advertised for Spanish-speaking case managers for the shelter. But state agency heads didn’t think the space was appropriate, and said the plan would stretch resources, according to a Branstad spokesman.

Or was it that his administration didn’t want to be seen as cooperating with Obama’s?

Either way, governors like Iowa’s who take such an unyielding stance in the face of a humanitarian crisis may find themselves outnumbered by local leaders and individuals who recognize this is about protecting innocent children — and mobilize to help.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr