Friday, October 30, 2015

Not “politically correct” – offensive or appealing?

Candidates seem increasingly to give themselves the right to say something not “politically correct.”
So what,” they say in effect, “I call them as I see them and I don’t care if that meets the standards of the current political debate.” It’s a way of appearing bold, appealing to some supporters without worrying about the affront to others.
Sometimes, not being politically correct is simply not being factually correct. Are poor Latinos flocking to the U.S. to make sure their children can be born here and automatically become American citizens? In fact, the people doing that these days are wealthy Chinese.
Coming to America to have your children be Americans is made to seem to be cheating. Yet the Constitution provides for children born here to be Americans and the ancestors of a great many Americans, coming after the Civil War, took advantage of that constitutional rule.
Aside from dismissing the truth as being politically disposable, such statements are often offensive to a person or a group of people. But that’s all right, because the speaker does not care or intends to be offensive.
Recently, GOP candidate Donald Trump, after proclaiming repeatedly that he was a Presbyterian, commented on his competitor Ben Carson’s religion. “I mean Seventh-day Adventist,” he said, “I don’t know about. I just don’t know about.”
In context, he was making a barely veiled criticism of Carson for having an unusual religious affiliation. “I just don’t know about electing a guy with a weird religion,” he might have been saying.
Of course, his words did not disparage Carson’s beliefs – technically. So Carson should not be offended, according to Trump. But Seventh-day Adventists, singled out in this way, might well be offended.
Aside from claiming that nothing offensive was said, another response may be that a statement merely opposed conventional wisdom. That could be true if the remarks were not a direct or indirect attack on a person or group.
Another course for those saying something not politically correct is to claim it was only a joke. Maine Gov. Paul LePage’s remarks that men should not let their wives control the family checkbook was passed off that way. Without the negative reaction, would he have explained it at all?
Because political discourse in this country has improved, notably with the decline of pure racist expressions, it is not acceptable for anybody to speak negatively about another’s race, religion, sexual orientation and many other attributes. This change is taken as a sign of more civilized behavior.
Political correctness may go too far at times. Applying today’s standards to the past seems unfair. Maine Democrats renamed their annual dinner to drop Thomas Jefferson, the party’s founder, because he kept slaves. But we have always known that as well as his considerable achievements for his country.
Recently Harry Truman, the president who integrated the armed forces, was criticized because of a 1911 letter to his future wife when he used the “n” word and “Chinaman.” He undoubtedly held the prejudices of his region, but by 1940, he was campaigning for civil rights before a white audience in Missouri.
President Lyndon B. Johnson, also criticized, used racist language at the same time as he convinced southern senators to support civil rights legislation that, a hundred years late, made good on post-Civil War constitutional amendments.
To transgress the new standards of what is deemed reasonable public speech increasingly requires the speaker to show a kind of false boldness that comes packaged as not being politically correct. Such boldness may please some supporters, but it makes less political sense than it once did.
If most illegal immigrants are undesirable, law-breaking Mexicans (in fact, not a true statement), what is the political advantage from alienating Mexican-Americans? For some, the statement might show politically incorrect courage, but Latino voters may see it as simply incorrect and offensive.
At best, not being politically correct is simply a political tactic aimed at recruiting supporters who hold generally unspoken positions. That may help in gaining a presidential nomination, but is not likely to help win the general election.
At worst, it reflects an attempt to rally those who want to delay or prevent the inevitable ethnic changes taking place in the United States. People of color will be the American majority, and some people oppose policies, like increased immigration, aiding that change.
The First Amendment guarantee of free speech allows people not to be politically correct, but it does not make what they say true – or just plain correct.

Friday, October 23, 2015

New big money rules impact U.S., Maine politics

Big money is transforming the American political system. It obviously affects the 2016 presidential race. But, this year, what started at the U.S. Supreme Court has reached Maine.
The Court blocked the Maine system, which paid matching funds to campaigns so they could compete with spending by candidates not relying on the Clean Elections payments. The Court then removed the cap on campaign contributions by corporations and groups like the NRA or the Sierra Club.
The result was fewer Maine candidates using public campaign finance. This year, Maine voters will face Question 1, a proposal to raise both the amount of public funding and the cap on what publicly funded candidates can spend.
Where will the new money come from? Some may come from increased individual contributions, but most should come from state funds. To find the extra money needed, the Legislature would consider increasing corporate taxes.
But there’s no guarantee about closing corporate loopholes. If no changes are adopted by the Legislature, publicly funded candidates could still spend up to the new higher limit using private contributions. In other words, the supposed revival of public funding could well do nothing more than raise the limit on what candidates can spend.
Much of the money supporting the supposed reform comes from big, out-of-state interests, just like last year’s bear-baiting referendum. Maine seems to be a tempting state for outsiders to try to influence, and they have been advertising early and often.
The Court has made it clear that private political contributions cannot be prevented, so we will not have purely publicly funded elections. But, in light of the increased political activity by big players, it is questionable if the Maine hybrid proposal would reduce the role of money.
The approach historically used both by Congress and the Legislature has been to limit the size of political contributions or even to ban corporate campaign spending. But the Court has gradually whittled away at such limits.
The 2010 Citizens United decision opened the floodgates to political contributions. In effect, anybody can contribute without limit, and the wealthiest people have done just that.
The New York Times reported that just 158 families have until now contributed almost half of the presidential campaign money. GOP candidates like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have survived to this point thanks to such gifts on their behalf.
Most major donors support Republicans. They assert that labor unions, traditional supporters of the Democrats, will also be able to spend freely. But the calculations have to be manipulated considerably if the unions are seen to be anywhere near the total of major private contributions.
When he was being confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Chief Justice John Roberts said a judge was an umpire, not making rules, only applying them. But, in Citizens United, he reportedly forced a second round of hearings just so he could have a slim 5-4 majority overrule a 1990 decision limiting corporate contributions and individual “independent” spending.
Does that affect Maine? By stimulating corporate and private political spending, the new system is raising the amounts spent on campaigns. And few doubt the Citizens United rule will be extended to those states having limits. The new proposal is being sold as a way of countering the effect of these changes.
Because it is a Supreme Court decision, Citizens United seems to be immune to further modification. If so, the Maine Clean Elections law and small contributions will become futile in a political system dominated by the wealthy.
Of course, one way to overrule the Citizens United decision would be to amend the Constitution. But that requires two-thirds of both houses of Congress and three-quarters of the states. That won’t happen.
Another way would be for an inventive lawyer to find a new way to challenge the court’s decision. Just as the Court overruled its earlier decision, it could later overrule Citizens United.
Eventually, a new president will appoint new justices to the Supreme Court to be confirmed by a new Senate. If voters don’t want a political system controlled by big money, they need to ask candidates where they stand on Citizens United, just as they question candidates about other key issues.
A major early test on campaign finance comes, somewhat surprisingly, in Maine. The intention of the current referendum may be to give publicly funded candidates a better chance to compete with candidates backed by big money, but it stands on a single, wobbly leg – closing corporate tax loopholes. So it could have a reverse effect, leading to more private, campaign funding.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

GOP split could bring third party

Controversies within the Republican Party in Washington and Augusta could foreshadow an historic political change, perhaps resulting in the creation of a major third party.
The possibility arises because the most strictly conservative Republicans are willing to confront members of their own party who are more willing to compromise. While both sides are conservative, the hardliners vehemently reject traditional political decision-making, especially deals made across party line.
The strict conservatives would even block government action if they cannot gain complete acceptance of their own policies. And embarrassing Democrats and opposing whatever they may propose, even if acceptable to conservatives in substance, is a key element of their strategy.
The difficulties Republicans have had in choosing a new speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives reflects the deep split between the hardliners and the more traditional Republicans.
Much the same seems to be true of the conflict between Gov. Paul LePage and some of his fellow Republicans in the Maine Legislature.
Because of their need to reach out to a diverse national electorate, both major political parties should reflect a broad ideological range. Democrats from West Virginia and California may disagree on many issues, just as could Republicans from Maine and Alabama. But they have usually agreed on enough to keep their parties reasonably coherent and competitive.
Third parties or independent presidential candidates are not unusual. They may have enough appeal to erode the voting support of the major parties. They range from the State Rights and Progressive parties in 1948 to the independent candidacy of H. Ross Perot in 1992.
But such incursions in the two-party system have not produced a change in the system itself. Their influence has been temporary, because they did not bring about any change in the dominance of Congress by the two major parties.
The last time a new major party arose occurred when the Republican Party was created in the 1850s out of a crumbling Whig Party. That began the long period of control by the Republicans and Democrats.
Why could the political situation now be ripe for the creation of a new political party, able to challenge the two existing major parties?
The right wing believes voters worry the country has moved too far toward liberal positions ever since the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s and 40s. They see the possibility of gaining majority support based on revolutionary era conservatism.
The most obvious explanation is that strict conservatives believe they can achieve control of the Republican agenda and either replace other GOP officeholders or force them to align their views with the right wing. They are ready to fight for control of the party.
To achieve their goal, they insist on ideological purity. Beyond completely opposing the Democrats, they also are willing to treat other Republicans as the enemy and punish them.
Perhaps the resulting chaos will force Republican voters to decide between the two approaches offered by their elected leaders. But if that proves to be impossible and they remain divided, the possibility of a formal split emerges.
If the strict conservatives take over the party, they could drive out traditional Republicans. Some would become moderate or conservative Democrats, but others might be tempted to build a new moderate party, hoping to attract some Democrats.
If the strict conservatives were defeated in the GOP, they could create their own party, even if that brought on Democratic victories. Their obstinacy would be meant to threaten their fellow Republicans that unless they gave in, the Democrats would control for the long haul.
It is likely that GOP leaders realize they are at this juncture. In withdrawing from the election of House speaker, Rep. Kevin McCarthy acknowledged he could not bridge the divide among his GOP colleagues. That’s exactly why Speaker John Boehner said he would resign.
In Maine, LePage asserts his right to control the GOP agenda and override more moderate Republicans. The state party has a long tradition of political moderation and progressive policies, notably on environmental matters, but he does not accept it.
In recent years, strict conservatives, who seem to participate in the party’s operations more actively than other Republicans, have sought to seize control of the state party. Their most well known success came when LePage took over the Blaine House.
From his governor’s chair, LePage seems determined to roll over fellow Republicans and bring them into line behind his policies. Should he succeed, a possibility not to be ignored, he would promote a party split, made even more likely if the national GOP splinters.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Second Amendment, mass shootings and politics

President Obama says he wants to “politicize” the gun control issue.  That happened a long time ago.

Opposing him is the National Rifle Association.  It is a major political player, helping elect many candidates sympathetic to its position, which is based on three main points. 

The Second Amendment to the Constitution allows people to own firearms, and the NRA opposes any limits on that basic constitutional right.

One of the concerns when the Constitution was adopted in 1789 was that an overly powerful government, as the British had been, would oppress citizens.  The people should be allowed to keep arms to support a state militia, a military force able to resist a central government’s use of excessive power.

Aside from the Constitution, if people have guns, the NRA says, they can protect themselves against armed lawbreakers.

The NRA view is that, if the government controls gun ownership and use, it can erode citizens’ ability to exercise their rights.  In fact, the NRA says it fears that even the first steps in gun control, like expanded background checks of gun purchasers, would lead to further steps ending with a ban on gun ownership.

The NRA’s critics include some people favoring an outright ban on guns.  But others, worried about the high number of mass shootings and armed killings, insist they do not demand a ban, but just some reasonable limits.

This debate relates both to the Second Amendment and to the realm of practical politics.

Nobody doubts that the amendment, which received little discussion during the adoption of the Constitution, could have been better drafted.  Its casual drafting is one reason for arguments about its meaning.

In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court clearly ruled that the Second Amendment allows people to own firearms and not merely for the limited purpose of a state militia.  But the Court also said, “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.”

Writing for the Court, Justice Antonin Scalia continued, “nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

This statement places the Court and the Constitution on the opposite side from those insisting that the right “to keep and bear arms” must be unlimited to prevent government from invading or eliminating the right itself.

There is much evidence relative to other constitutional rights, ranging from “freedom of speech” to freedom from “cruel and unusual punishments,” that rights have been limited by government without being abolished.  Courts interpret broad constitutional statements and prescribe limits in specific circumstances.

On the question of whether the government would seize power, creating some form of dictatorship by overturning the Constitution, during its 226-year history, there has been no serious sign of that happening. 

The outcome of two presidential elections – in 1876 and 2000 – in which a majority vote was overridden by actions of the federal government did not cause a rebellion such as has occurred in many other countries.  A common commitment to the American system and its institutions and not individual gun ownership caused political stability.

In short, there are issues with the NRA’s arguments that the Second Amendment right cannot be limited and must be absolute.

Aside from constitutional considerations, gun owner groups say that, if people are armed, they can police themselves by using their guns against armed lawmakers.  But, with a more heavily armed population, the U.S. does not have a lower violent crime rate than other developed countries.  It has a much higher homicide rate.

Recognizing public concern about mass shootings, the NRA and its allies answer that society should pursue the obviously impossible goal, however desirable, of identifying every mentally unbalanced person who might wield a gun and denying them ownership.

The NRA’s political critics point out that gun manufacturers, seeking more sales, back the organization.  With revenues from them and over four million members, the NRA enjoys great political influence flowing from its ability to influence elections by its campaign spending.  Given the NRA’s political clout, the president’s announcement looks almost futile.

Perhaps the only for comfort gun control advocates may come from same-sex marriage.  The quick reversal of majority opinion on that question reveals how public opinion can change on a major issue.  It suggests that repeated mass shootings could move voters to support successfully some gun control while still respecting gun ownership.

Friday, October 2, 2015

GOP weakened by its purists

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner announces his resignation.  Maine Gov. Paul LePage vetoes almost all bills, won’t make executive appointments and blocks bond issues.

What do these events have in common?

You could call it “my way or the highway” politics.

Like much of American politics these days, they reflect the battle between purists and pragmatists pursuing “the art of the possible.”

Politicians on the right believe strongly in the policies they advocate.  They would bring government to halt – denying even basic services – to force others to accept their policies.

In reality, they rely on their opponents being willing to accept compromises as the way of doing the public’s business.  The majority might be forced to give ground on some issues to keep government from shutting down.  If the minority purists win using that strategy just once, they would keep trying to control government.

The purists in Congress see themselves as having promised their constituents the legislation dictated by their conservative ideology.  As a result, they believe, if they compromise, they would break faith with their voters.

Most are relatively new to elective politics, and they find themselves in conflict with more experienced members of Congress.  While almost all other Republicans are also conservative, they have learned that partial progress, gained through compromise, produces better results than insisting on complete victory. 

Seeing Planned Parenthood as a ripe target, thanks to videos of an organization official talking callously about disposing of fetal material for research, the purists want no further government money for the organization and are will to shut down the federal government over the issue.

If members of Congress think keeping the government in operation is valuable, they can support defunding Planned Parenthood.  If not, even if they are ideological allies, they become the enemy.  No matter that if GOP legislators shutter the government, they may turn voters away from the party’s 2016 presidential nominee.

Boehner wanted to prevent a government shutdown by allowing a short-term bill including funds for Planned Parenthood, though continuing the ban on funding for abortions.  The bill could pass with the votes of most Republicans and almost all Democrats.  Defunding Planned Parenthood had no chance.

But one of the most conservative members charged that Boehner had “subverted the Republic.”  A group on the right was ready to see if they could dump him, making his survival depend on Democratic votes.  In effect, they claimed to be the guardians of political truth and, if he disagreed, he was a traitor to his country.

In Washington, the insurgents are outsiders, anxious to stop the traditional operation of government by “the establishment.”  In Maine, the insurgent is an insider, the governor, anxious as well to stop the traditional operation of government.

In both cases, the insurgents would rather suspend many of government’s basic services than compromise with others to gain at least some of their objectives.  In a country where voter participation is relatively low and knowledge of the issues is often sketchy, they claim to know a lot about the electorate’s demands.

One recent national survey showed that the biggest problem for voters was that government was “corrupt.” That it was “too big” only came in fifth among concerns.  By corrupt, another new poll suggested they might mean the country gets the best government that money – campaign contributions – can buy.

Gov. LePage, supported by a GOP Senate majority and his own good election results, could have successfully negotiated much legislation to his liking, though probably not 100 percent.  Instead, he gains little, does less for Mainers than he might and, in the view of some, embarrasses the state.

By turning to referendums to get around the Legislature, the GOP also lets the voters get around their governor.  If they think next year’s referendums will help the GOP presidential candidate, it could work the other way, with a winning Democrat bringing out a vote against LePage’s proposals.

The reason why the traditional system produced results was that, in a mass democracy, the only way to take action is through compromise.  That isn’t a plot by “the establishment” to thwart outsiders.   It’s the only way the government of hundreds of millions of people can work.

The Democrats, never a party with the kind of organized discipline favored by the Republicans since the 1990s, naturally understand compromise.  By contrast, the Republicans are undergoing a real split between purists and pragmatists that could end up weakening their hold on government while failing to give the insurgents the uncompromising and absolute power they demand.