Thursday, June 23, 2016

Short Takes

House Democrats sit-in for a vote on gun control.

North Korea fires off two ballistic missiles.

Bernie Sanders: “It doesn’t appear I’ll be the nominee.”

Colombia and rebels agree to a cease-fire in 50-year conflict.

Michigan A.G. sues two companies over Flint water crisis.

The Tigers beat the Mariners 5-1.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Short Takes

Senate confirms Eric Fanning, first openly gay Secretary of the Army.

TSA apologizes, promises hundreds of new staffers at O’Hare.

Senate passes bill to allow 9/11 families to sue Saudi Arabia.

Human error, high speed blamed for deadly train wreck in Philadelphia last year.

Better late than never: Court orders Mississippi school district to desegregate.

Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau introduces bill to protect transgender rights.

The Tigers beat the Twins 7-2.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Sunday Reading

Listen, People — An excerpt from President Obama’s commencement address at Howard University yesterday (HT John Cole at Balloon Juice).

And finally, change requires more than just speaking out — it requires listening, as well. In particular, it requires listening to those with whom you disagree, and being prepared to compromise. When I was a state senator, I helped pass Illinois’s first racial profiling law, and one of the first laws in the nation requiring the videotaping of confessions in capital cases. And we were successful because, early on, I engaged law enforcement. I didn’t say to them, oh, you guys are so racist, you need to do something. I understood, as many of you do, that the overwhelming majority of police officers are good, and honest, and courageous, and fair, and love the communities they serve.

And we knew there were some bad apples, and that even the good cops with the best of intentions — including, by the way, African American police officers — might have unconscious biases, as we all do. So we engaged and we listened, and we kept working until we built consensus. And because we took the time to listen, we crafted legislation that was good for the police — because it improved the trust and cooperation of the community — and it was good for the communities, who were less likely to be treated unfairly. And I can say this unequivocally: Without at least the acceptance of the police organizations in Illinois, I could never have gotten those bills passed. Very simple. They would have blocked them.

The point is, you need allies in a democracy. That’s just the way it is. It can be frustrating and it can be slow. But history teaches us that the alternative to democracy is always worse. That’s not just true in this country. It’s not a black or white thing. Go to any country where the give and take of democracy has been repealed by one-party rule, and I will show you a country that does not work.

And democracy requires compromise, even when you are 100 percent right. This is hard to explain sometimes. You can be completely right, and you still are going to have to engage folks who disagree with you. If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want. And if you don’t get what you want long enough, you will eventually think the whole system is rigged. And that will lead to more cynicism, and less participation, and a downward spiral of more injustice and more anger and more despair. And that’s never been the source of our progress. That’s how we cheat ourselves of progress.

We remember Dr. King’s soaring oratory, the power of his letter from a Birmingham jail, the marches he led. But he also sat down with President Johnson in the Oval Office to try and get a Civil Rights Act and a Voting Rights Act passed. And those two seminal bills were not perfect — just like the Emancipation Proclamation was a war document as much as it was some clarion call for freedom. Those mileposts of our progress were not perfect. They did not make up for centuries of slavery or Jim Crow or eliminate racism or provide for 40 acres and a mule. But they made things better. And you know what, I will take better every time. I always tell my staff — better is good, because you consolidate your gains and then you move on to the next fight from a stronger position.


So that’s my advice. That’s how you change things. Change isn’t something that happens every four years or eight years; change is not placing your faith in any particular politician and then just putting your feet up and saying, okay, go. Change is the effort of committed citizens who hitch their wagons to something bigger than themselves and fight for it every single day.

That’s what Thurgood Marshall understood — a man who once walked this year, graduated from Howard Law; went home to Baltimore, started his own law practice. He and his mentor, Charles Hamilton Houston, rolled up their sleeves and they set out to overturn segregation. They worked through the NAACP. Filed dozens of lawsuits, fought dozens of cases. And after nearly 20 years of effort — 20 years — Thurgood Marshall ultimately succeeded in bringing his righteous cause before the Supreme Court, and securing the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that separate could never be equal. (Applause.) Twenty years.

Marshall, Houston — they knew it would not be easy. They knew it would not be quick. They knew all sorts of obstacles would stand in their way. They knew that even if they won, that would just be the beginning of a longer march to equality. But they had discipline. They had persistence. They had faith — and a sense of humor. And they made life better for all Americans.

Meet the Mom Who Helped Expose Flint’s Water Crisis — Julia Lurie reported in Mother Jones.

On a chilly evening last March in Flint, Michigan, LeeAnne Walters was getting ready for bed when she heard her daughter shriek from the bathroom of the family’s two-story clapboard house. She ran upstairs to find 18-year-old Kaylie standing in the shower, staring at a clump of long brown hair that had fallen from her head.

Walters, a 37-year-old mother of four, was alarmed but not surprised—the entire family was losing hair. There had been other strange maladies over the previous few months: The twins, three-year-old Gavin and Garrett, kept breaking out in rashes. Gavin had stopped growing. On several occasions, 14-year-old JD had suffered abdominal pains so severe that Walters took him to the hospital. At one point, all of LeeAnne’s own eyelashes fell out.

The family, as you have probably guessed, was suffering from the effects of lead in Flint’s water supply—contamination that will have long-term, irreversible neurological consequences on the city’s children. The exposure has quietly devastated Flint since April 2014, when, in an effort to cut costs, a state-appointed emergency manager switched the city’s water source from Detroit’s water system over to the Flint River.

Elected officials toasted the change with glasses of water, but some longtime residents were skeptical, particularly since Flint-based General Motors had once used the river as a dumping ground. “I thought it was one of those Onion articles,” said Rhonda Kelso, a 52-year-old Flint native. “We already knew the Flint River was toxic waste.”

The lead exposure persisted for 17 months, despite repeated complaints from residents of this majority-black city. It is in no small part thanks to Walters, a no-nonsense stay-at-home mom with a husband in the Navy, that the Flint situation is now a full-blown national scandal complete with a class-action lawsuit, a federal investigation, National Guard troops, and many people—including Bernie Sanders—calling for the resignation of Gov. Rick Snyder. “Without [Walters] we would be nowhere,” Mona Hanna-Attisha, the head of pediatrics at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center, told me. “She’s the crux of all of this.”

It was the summer of 2014 when Walters first realized something was very wrong: Each time she bathed the three-year-olds, they would break out in tiny red bumps. Sometimes, when Gavin had soaked in the tub for a while, scaly red skin would form across his chest at the water line. That November, after brown water started flowing from her taps, Walters decided it was time to stock up on bottled water.

The family developed a routine: For toothbrushing, a gallon of water was left by the bathroom sink. Crates of water for drinking and cooking crowded the kitchen. The adults and teenagers showered whenever possible at friends’ houses outside Flint; when they had to do it at home, they flushed out the taps first and limited showers to five minutes. Gavin and Garrett got weekly baths in bottled water and sponge baths with baby wipes on the other days. Slowly, the acute symptoms began to wane.

In January 2015, Flint officials sent out a notice declaring that the city’s water contained high levels of trihalomethanes, the byproduct of a disinfectant used to treat the water. Over time, these chemicals can cause liver, kidney, and nervous system problems. The advisory warned that sick and elderly people might be at an increased risk, but it said the water was otherwise safe to drink. “That was when I went to my first city council meeting,” Walters told me.

Role Reversal — Rebecca Solnit at The Nation speculates on what the race would be like if Donald Trump were a woman and Hillary Clinton were a man.

“Frankly, if Hillary Clinton were a man, I don’t think she’d get 5 percent of the vote. The only thing she’s got going is the women’s card,” said Donald Trump last month. And then the Grumpy Witch of the Midwest came along in a twinkling of GMO corn showers and earnestness and handed a women’s card to Donald Trump, since Trump thought it was such a helpful thing to have. While she was at it, the brown-haired fairy in low-heeled shoes handed Hillary Clinton a man card. This is the ballad of Donaldina Trump, madcap heiress and train wreck, and the distinguished if problematic statesman Hillaire Rodham.

Hillaire Rodham, or Hill, as his friends called him, grew up in Ohio, did well in law school, professional life, toed the line as a senator and secretary of state. People supporting Bernadette Sanders, the elderly but charmingly fiery rival candidate, did make hay of the fact that Rodham had campaigned for Barry Goldwater when he was 16, but the mainstream media hurried to remind everyone that Rodham had then gone to college, had a political awakening, campaigned for the progressive candidates in 1968 and 1972, registered Latino voters in Texas with his then-girlfriend, the scandalous Southern belle Wilhelmina Clinton (whom Rodham divorced in 1983), and then helped purge the nation of Richard Nixon during his uneventful but respected service on the Watergate Committee. Neither the very early right-wing nor later left-wing campaigning apparently defined Rodham, a solidly status-quo candidate and a widely admired policy expert. He had much to be forgiven for by 2016, but unto those who are distinguished men, much is forgiven. Republicans felt very comfortable with this centrist candidate, despite his early civil-rights work and support for reproductive rights. On the rare occasions when people talked about his appearance, he was compared to Robert Redford, another weathered blonde with a confident demeanor and piercing blue eyes. This was thought to help him with the women’s vote.

When did the Grumpy Fairy hand Donaldina Trump the woman card? Say it came at birth, since fairies have retroactive cursing powers. Donaldina was never more than a dutiful redheaded daughter who got a dowry, a clutch of trophy husbands, expensive divorces, credit cards from all the major department stores, and some coverage in the society pages. She was not set up in business by her father and seized no real-estate business deals—since there were none for feckless young women to step into in the 1960s. She engaged in no branding of herself as some sort of Genghis Khan of commercial opportunity—since female Genghis Khans are not much admired. She was instead institutionalized and medicated for constant angry outbursts and megalomania. Narcissistic personality disorder with delusions of grandeur and poor self-control, her chart read.

The Strump, as tabloids nicknamed the publicly lecherous aging heiress, or Trumpestra, for her stridency and tantrums, was widely mocked. “It’s as though Paris Hilton ran for president,” Breitbart opined, for the two did have reality-TV careers and real-estate inheritances in common. The Donaldina’s odd looks and odder hand gestures received major media coverage, and The Washington Post ran a series of articles on whether her hair color was faded tangerine or washed-out carrot and whether she should have sued her hairdresser for the strange immobilized mass atop her puffy, pouchy, orange face that was forever bunching up into odd expressions that stand-up comics loved to imitate. Her appearance also begat an entire series in The New York Times on spray tans. Ann Coulter did reach out to her to offer beauty tips, but the two got into a fight about whether women should ever accuse anyone of being a rapist. The Donaldina had never held elected office and was treated as a sort of circus act when she announced her presidential candidacy. She did not get $2 billion of free publicity from the media, but she did get a lot of late-night standup jokes about her stocky, aging body, her face, her sexual boasting, her temper, and her tendency to say things so factually challenged that George Stephanopoulos quipped that Donaldina made Sarah Palin seem like Angela Merkel. She was forever being called hysterical, and all the men on the TV show Meet the Nation’s Men spent a Sunday morning advising her on how to talk into a microphone and what tone of voice befits a lady. Ladies should not be angry, any more than they should be orange. The Donaldina never polled above single digits. She blamed her woman card, but everyone mocked her self-pitying refusal to take responsibility. Mean girls finish last.

And thus did the charismatic progressive reformer Elbert Warren, senator from Massachusetts, become the 45th male president of the United States.

Doonesbury — Hope springs eternal.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Short Takes

Capitol Hill shooting — One police officer slightly wounded, gunman in custody.

Prosecutors in Belgium released the one suspect in custody in the bombing last week for lack of evidence.

California goes for the $15 an hour minimum wage.

Idaho allows those 21 and older carry a concealed gun without a permit within city limits.

Now we have “induced earthquakes.”  I wonder what the frack is causing them.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Making A Mockery

I can usually come up with a joke about anything, but even I know that there are some things you don’t make fun of at the expense of people who are being poisoned.

The latest e-mails released  from Gov. Rick Snyder’s office on Thursday include playfully written messages about the quality of Flint’s drinking water and the challenge of confronting the issue.

One was sent from a DEQ district engineer who repeatedly told residents that drinking water from the Flint River is safe and downplayed suggestions otherwise from reporters and other officials.

“Thanks Richard…now off to physical therapy…perhaps mental therapy with all of these Flint calls….lol,” engineer Mike Prysby wrote to fellow DEQ official Richard Benzie on Sept. 18, 2014, five months after Flint switched to the Flint River as its drinking source. Prysby did not immediately respond Thursday to an e-mail requesting comment.

“I cannot provide the context for a message I did not compose, and for which I cannot recall the circumstances from more than 18 months ago,” Benzie wrote in an email responding to a request for comment.


Sunday, March 20, 2016

Sunday Reading

Sound Familiar? — Matthew Delmont at The Atlantic takes us back to 1964 when Jackie Robinson confronted a Trump-like candidate.

“The danger of the Republican party being taken over by the lily-white-ist conservatives is more serious than many people realize,” Jackie Robinson cautioned in his syndicated column in August 1963. He was worried about the rise of Barry Goldwater, whose 1964 presidential bid laid the foundation for the modern conservative movement. Today, Goldwater’s shadow looms over Donald Trump’s campaign for the Republican Party’s nomination.

“During my life, I have had a few nightmares which happened to me while I was wide awake,” Robinson wrote in 1967. “One of them was the National Republican Convention in San Francisco, which produced the greatest disaster the Republican Party has ever known—Nominee Barry Goldwater.” Robinson, a loyal Republican who campaigned for Richard Nixon in 1960, was shocked and saddened by the racism and lack of civility he witnessed at the 1964 convention. As the historian Leah Wright Rigueur describes in The Loneliness of the Black Republican, black delegates were verbally assaulted and threatened with violence by Goldwater supporters. William Young, a Pennsylvania delegate, had his suit set on fire and was told to “keep in your own place” by his assailant. “They call you ‘nigger,’ push you and step on your feet,” New Jersey delegate George Fleming told the Associated Press. “I had to leave to keep my self-respect.”

The 1964 campaign was pivotal for Republicans because, despite Goldwater’s loss, the GOP came away with a dedicated network of people willing to work between election cycles to build the party. The GOP has won more presidential elections than it has lost since Goldwater. Donald Trump’s campaign plays on fears and resentments similar to those that fueled Goldwater’s presidential bid five decades ago. It is not yet clear, however, how this strategy will play out with an electorate that will be the most racially and ethnically diverse in U.S. history (over 30 percent of eligible voters will be racial or ethnic minorities).

As the Draft Goldwater campaign expanded in early 1963, the editors at the Chicago Defender warned that Goldwater’s “brand of demagoguery has a special appeal to ultra conservative Republicans” and that he “cannot be laughed off as a serious possibility as is being done in some quarters unfriendly to him.” After the 1964 Republican National Convention, the Defender suggested, “Goldwater in the White House would be a nightmare from which the nation and the world would not soon recover.” Another editorial two days later struck a stronger tone: “The conviction is universal that Goldwater represents the most diabolical force that has ever captured the leadership of the Republican Party. After 108 years of exhortation to freedom, liberty, and justice, the GOP now becomes the label under which Fascism is oozed into the mainstream of American politics.”

In 1964, unlike 2016, it was not a foregone conclusion that the vast majority of black voters would support the Democratic Party. Republicans Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon received 39 percent and 32 percent of the black vote in the 1956 and 1960 presidential elections, compared to 6 percent for Goldwater in 1964. No Republican candidate since Goldwater has earned support from more than 15 percent of black voters.

“A new breed of Republicans has taken over the GOP,” Robinson wrote just after Goldwater claimed his party’s nomination. “It is a new breed which is seeking to sell to Americans a doctrine which is as old as mankind—the doctrine of racial division, the doctrine of racial prejudice, the doctrine of white supremacy.” He continued, “If I could couch in one single sentence the way I felt, watching this controlled steam-roller operation roll into high gear, I would put it this way, I would say that I now believe I know how it felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.”

The Derp Runs Deep — Charlie Pierce on the hearings in Congress about Flint’s water.

So Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and EPA administrator Gina McCarthy had their day before the House Government and Oversight Committee on Thursday, where they were grilled on the poisoning of the people of Flint, Michigan. Sides got chosen fairly early on: The Democratic members of the committee were anxious to put Snyder on a spit, while the Republicans clearly wanted to hang most of this on the EPA. The hearings were somewhat startling in their ferocity, and most of the interrogations ended with congresscritters demanding resignations and yes or no answers. Yes or no, dammit!

Jesus, what a mess. But the howling hypocrisy of conservative Republicans feigning concern about environmental safety, and the howling hypocrisy of conservative Republicans pretending that they expected the EPA to take care of this crisis, was extraordinarily hard to take. Nine days out of ten, they’d be baying at the moon about regulations strangling business and about devolving federal functions to the states, which are run by people like Rick Snyder. Today, though, rather than confront the complete failure of that entire theory of government in this awful episode, it was time for them to argue that the EPA wasn’t tough enough in regulating Snyder’s bungling. Where were the jackboots, they seemed to be saying, when the citizens of Flint could have used them.

(Snyder, of course, was terrible, constantly saying what a “humbling experience” this episode was and how fervently he has apologized. Hey, dude, it’s a helluva lot worse for the people who are washing their hair once every couple of weeks with bootleg Poland Spring. And this guy had to be blackjacked into appearing before Congress at all.)

It was profoundly nauseating to listen to Congressman Jason Chaffetz waxing wroth about what was done to the poor people of Flint, smirking his way through his questioning, over and over again, and blaming “career bureaucrats” in the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality for letting down poor Rick Snyder. Chaffetz has had the knives out for the EPA ever since he slithered into Congress. He has a lifetime rating of three percent from the League of Conservation Voters. On at least three occasions in 2015 alone, Chaffetz voted in ways harmful to clean water regulations. He’s a climate denier. He’s one of the leaders of the movement to prevent the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases. He wants to privatize federal lands for the purpose of exploitation. And his basic point yesterday was that Barack Hussein Obama’s EPA didn’t do enough to force the Republican governor of Michigan to do his freaking job.

(Congressman Bill Clay of Missouri caught him at it and made a tasty cocktail out of the chairman’s crocodile tears. He also ran down the list of people, including He, Trump and Tailgunner Ted Cruz, and my new friend, Joni Ernst, who want to do away with the agency and hand its responsibilities over to Rick Snyder, as well as Scott Walker, the goggle-eyed homunculus hired by Koch Industries to manage their Midwest subsidiary formerly known as the state of Wisconsin, who wants to turn the EPA into some sort of glorified mediation service to resolve the disputes that arise when one state’s pollution poisons another state’s water.)

It was profoundly depressing to hear Congressman Glenn Grothman, one of the dimmer bulbs in the chandelier, use his time to sympathize with Snyder at how the poor man was hamstrung by civil service employees. “Some of us like less government because it’s hard to get it to work,” Grothman observed. This is especially true when people like Glenn Grothman get elected to work in government, and Glenn Grothman believes that a farm family can keep its well water safe from a 1000-foot deep open-pit mine being blasted open a mile from their home if they just “caulk it.” And his basic point yesterday is that there is not sufficient inexperience among our government employees.

It was profoundly ridiculous to hear Congressman Buddy Carter of Georgia, who seems to be something of a clown, suggest that McCarthy had a responsibility to go beyond the law in warning the citizens of Flint. “The law, the law,” Carter fumed. “I don’t think anybody here cares about the law.” Congressman Buddy also was proud of his ability to find and use a dictionary. “I looked up the word, ‘protection,'” he inveighed. Why don’t we just change the acronym?”

Congressman Buddy is the proud owner of a Zero rating from the League of Conservation Voters. He has voted against, among other things, a bill that would have informed the public of the dangers of coal ash, and another bill that would have protected wetlands that provide drinking water for the communities around them. He has also voted for a bill that would have reduced public input on water issues in the western states. And his basic point yesterday was to yell about the word “Protection” in the name of the EPA.

Regardless of who sent what memo to whom and when they sent it, the crisis in Flint is the result of a full implementation and exercise of a philosophy of government that noisy pissants like Chaffetz, Grothman, Carter, and Rick Snyder have proposed as a solution to almost all the nation’s problems—government is bad, government bureaucrats are always incompetent, devolve federal powers to the states, and that government is best that is limited and, preferably, run like a business. The two primary contenders for the Republican presidential nomination want to eliminate the EPA. Absent as a cudgel against environmental protections that he wants to gut, the 100,000 people in Flint wouldn’t matter a damn to Jason Chaffetz. “A government is not a business and it shouldn’t be run like one,” said Rick Snyder to Congress, and his tongue did not burst into flames.

Bienvenidos a Cuba — Julie Hirschfeld Davis in the New York Times on President Obama’s historic trip to Cuba.

Obama cuba poster 03-20-16President Obama and his family will arrive in Cuba on Sunday afternoon aboard Air Force One and receive a red-carpet welcome from a country that has been a bitter adversary of the United States since before he was born.

He will stroll the streets of Old Havana and meet with Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro; watch Cubans and Americans face off in a baseball game; and deliver a televised address in the historic theater where Calvin Coolidge, the last American president to visit, spoke 88 years ago. He will meet with entrepreneurs and dissidents, Cubans who have found ways to challenge the status quo in a country undergoing vast change.

But Mr. Obama does not plan to use his visit to issue an ultimatum to Mr. Castro on human rights, nor does he go bearing pledges to end United States democracy programs in Cuba that aim to undercut the communist government there.

The president is also not expected to announce that he is giving up the United States’ naval base at Guantánamo Bay, and is not in a position to lift the trade embargo that still looms as an impediment to the normalization he sees as a pivotal piece of his foreign policy legacy — only Congress can do that.

Mr. Obama’s trip, rich with symbolic significance, represents the start of a new era of engagement between the United States and Cuba that could open the floodgates of travel and commerce, and that has already unlocked diplomatic channels long slammed shut. But it also underscores the deep disagreements that persist between two countries separated by only 90 miles but a wide ideological divide.

The president is determined to sweep aside those disputes and do as much as he can to render irreversible the policy change he set in motion 15 months ago, buoyed by evidence that the American public was eager for a new approach. Mr. Obama and his aides point to public opinion polls that show Americans — including majorities in both political parties — lopsidedly in favor of re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, a step the administration took in July, as well as lifting the embargo.

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner, has endorsed repealing the embargo. Donald J. Trump, who is leading the Republican field, has been muted in his criticism of Mr. Obama’s Cuba policy, and has merely said Mr. Obama “should have made a better deal” before moving toward normal relations.

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, another Republican presidential contender, whose father was born in Cuba, has been sharply critical of Mr. Obama’s approach, and said last month that the president was traveling there “to essentially act as an apologist.”

Other critics, including some in Mr. Obama’s own party, have dismissed the president’s approach as naïve and dangerous, arguing that Mr. Obama has embraced a brutal regime and citing the recent increase in Cuba of detentions of antigovernment activists.

“I understand the desire to make this his legacy issue, but there is still a fundamental issue of freedom and democracy at stake,” Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a Democrat and son of Cuban immigrants, said in a 30-minute speech last week from the Senate floor. He mentioned a young dissident, Carlos Amel Oliva, who met in Miami this month with Benjamin J. Rhodes, Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser. Mr. Oliva was detained upon his return to Cuba for what the government called “antisocial behavior.”

“Unless the Castros are compelled to change their dictatorship — the way they govern the island and the way they exploit its people — the answer to this won’t be different than the last 50-some-odd years,” Mr. Menendez said.

Mr. Rhodes said the president would address human rights head-on in his private talks with Mr. Castro, 84, as well as in his speech, which is expected to be broadcast in both Cuba and the United States.

“The difference here is that in the past, because of certain U.S. policies, the message that was delivered in that regard either overtly or implicitly suggested that the U.S. was seeking to pursue regime change, that the U.S. was seeking to essentially overturn the government in Cuba or that the U.S. thought that we could dictate the political direction of Cuba,” Mr. Rhodes said.

This time, he added, Mr. Obama “will make very clear that that’s up to the Cuban people.”

There are limits to the new spirit of openness. The president will not meet with Fidel Castro, 89, who embodies the rancorous history between the United States and Cuba. And as of Friday, there were no plans for Mr. Obama and the younger Mr. Castro to take questions from the news media after their meeting, a standard element of the president’s schedule when he meets with foreign leaders overseas.

At the heart of Mr. Obama’s policy is a gamble that the thaw will eventually force changes on Cuba’s communist government by nurturing the hopes of its citizens, particularly a younger generation more interested in Internet access and business opportunities than in Cuba’s grievances against the United States.

“Obama would like to be remembered as the president who ended the Cold War in Latin America and normalized relations with Cuba, so he needs to do as much as he can to make it difficult for the next president to reverse this,” said Geoff Thale, a Cuba specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America.

But suspicion of the United States remains potent in Cuba. This month, Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, published a lengthy editorial admonishing Mr. Obama not to expect Cuba to “abandon its revolutionary ideals” as part of the opening.

[Photo by Enrique de la Osa/Reuters]

Doonesbury — Tough question.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Short Takes

President Obama welcomed Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau to the White House.

Michigan Gov. Snyder released more e-mails related to Flint’s water crisis.

Trump supporter charged with assaulting protestor.  (Yes, he was wearing a brown shirt.)

Senate votes 94-1 to pass bill to combat drug abuse.

Brazil seeks to arrest ex-president for graft.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Friday, February 19, 2016

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Sunday Reading

The Death of Antonin Scalia — Evan Osnos in The New Yorker looks at what lies ahead now that he’s gone.

Scalia gesture 02-14-16The abrupt death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia—the fiery, funny, polarizing face of the Court’s modern conservative turn—ended a chapter in legal history and opened a political battle of a kind that America has not seen in decades. The bitter divide of this Presidential election season—over visions for the economy, national security, and immigration—has widened to include the ideological composition of the nation’s highest court.

At seventy-nine, Scalia was the Court’s longest-serving Justice, a father of nine, and an outsized personality who thrilled conservatives and infuriated liberals like nobody else in Washington. Though he maintained close friendships with some of his combatants, including fellow Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and always hired a “token liberal” among his clerks, he openly relished the political implications of the Court’s affairs. Ever since he was nominated by President Ronald Reagan, in 1986, he dedicated himself to combating the notion of a “living” Constitution that evolves in step with the nation. The very announcement of Scalia’s death was accompanied by a political declaration. In the first official notice, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said, “We mourn his passing, and we pray that his successor on the Supreme Court will take his place as a champion for the written Constitution and the rule of law.”

The 2016 election has become a contest not only to determine control of the White House and the Congress but also to shape the future of the Supreme Court. The next President was expected to make multiple appointments to the court. (On Inauguration Day, Ginsburg will be nearly eighty-four, Anthony Kennedy will be over eighty, and Stephen Breyer will be seventy-eight.) With Scalia’s death, the partisan composition of the Court is now already up in the air. In a hastily arranged address on Saturday night, President Obama said he planned to name a nominee, over the protests of Republicans who could seek to prevent the Senate from voting on it. “I plan to fulfill my constitutional responsibility to nominate a successor, in due time. There will be plenty of time for me to do so, and for the Senate to carry out its responsibility for a timely vote,” he said. The issues at stake, he added, “are bigger than any one party. They are about the institution to which Justice Scalia dedicated his life.”

The outcome of the process has the potential to reshape American law on abortion, affirmative action, voting rights, energy, campaign finance, and many other issues. The political effects on the Presidential race cut in multiple directions: Will the suddenly inescapable vision of, say, a Cruz Presidency and a Cruz-chosen nominee bring more Democrats to the polls? And to which Democrat does that benefit accrue? Will the risk of a Sanders Court inspire evangelical voters to consolidate behind a Republican choice?

As news of Scalia’s death spread, hours before a Republican debate, the call for a moratorium on political strategizing around the news, in order to honor his achievements, was brief. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a statement that, in effect, called on President Obama to refrain from naming a replacement and allow the Court to operate with eight Justices. “The American people‎ should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President,” McConnell said.

Ted Cruz, the Texas senator who was a clerk for former Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, agreed, marking Scalia’s passing in a tweet: “We owe it to him, and the Nation, for the Senate to ensure that the next President names his replacement.” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid called on Obama to nominate a replacement immediately, saying, “The Senate has a responsibility to fill vacancies as soon as possible.” Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner, called for the Senate to “delay, delay, delay” if President Obama attempts to name a successor.

Hillary Clinton said that Republicans who want the seat to remain vacant until the next President is in office “dishonor our Constitution” for partisan reasons. Bernie Sanders, who defeated Clinton last week in the New Hampshire primary in part by presenting himself as a different kind of politician, avoided any mention of the political implications: “While I differed with Justice Scalia’s views and jurisprudence, he was a brilliant, colorful and outspoken member of the Supreme Court. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and his colleagues on the court who mourn his passing.”

When Obama does nominate a successor to Scalia, that could set the stage for a Republican filibuster in the Senate. If there is a filibuster of a nominee, it will be the first time that has occurred since 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson, blocked by Senate Republicans and Southern Democrats, reluctantly withdrew the nomination of his confidant Abe Fortas, whom he had appointed to the Supreme Court three years earlier, to succeed Earl Warren as Chief Justice.

That drama began in June of that year when Warren, a Republican known for his liberal decisions, informed Johnson that he intended to retire. Just months before Election Day, Johnson moved swiftly to nominate Fortas as a successor to the Chief Justice. But it emerged that Fortas had attended White House staff meetings, briefed Johnson on Court deliberations, and pressured senators to limit their opposition to the Vietnam War. Moreover, Fortas had been paid outside his salary to speak to students at American University. The Illinois Republican Everett Dirksen and others withdrew their support—sparking the first and, so far, the only Senate filibuster over a Supreme Court nomination. (Scholars and partisan opponents have debated, ever since, whether it was technically a filibuster or another form of parliamentary procedure, though Laura Kalman, a professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, has said that “Abe Fortas and L.B.J. are spinning in their graves at the notion there was no filibuster.”)

While the White House weighs potential nominees, the courts and Presidential contenders face a range of puzzling implications. What will happen if the Supreme Court reaches a tie in any of the cases that are currently before the Justices? (The lower court ruling would stand but would not set a legal precedent.) Is there any liberal nominee who stands a chance of winning confirmation in a Republican-controlled Senate? (Early bets landed on Federal Appeals Court Judge Sri Srinivasan, an Indian-American jurist who has worked in both Democratic and Republican Administrations.) In his nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Srinivasan won, in 2013, that rare achievement for a Democrat in today’s Washington—unanimous confirmation, with praise from Republicans.

It’s Not Just Flint — David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz report that a lot of cities and towns have bad water.

“I know if I was a parent up there, I would be beside myself if my kids’ health could be at risk,” said President Obama on a recent trip to Michigan.  “Up there” was Flint, a rusting industrial city in the grip of a “water crisis” brought on by a government austerity scheme.  To save a couple of million dollars, that city switched its source of water from Lake Huron to the Flint River, a long-time industrial dumping ground for the toxic industries that had once made their home along its banks.  Now, the city is enveloped in a public health emergency, with elevated levels of lead in its water supply and in the blood of its children.

The price tag for replacing the lead pipes that contaminated its drinking water, thanks to the corrosive toxins found in the Flint River, is now estimated at up to $1.5 billion. No one knows where that money will come from or when it will arrive.  In the meantime, the cost to the children of Flint has been and will be incalculable.   As little as a few specks of lead in the water children drink or in flakes of paint that come off the walls of old houses and are ingested can change the course of a life. The amount of lead dust that covers a thumbnail is enough to send a child into a coma or into convulsions leading to death. It takes less than a tenth of that amount to cause IQ loss, hearing loss, or behavioral problems like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the government agency responsible for tracking and protecting the nation’s health, says simply, “No safe blood lead level in children has been identified.”

President Obama would have good reason to worry if his kids lived in Flint.  But the city’s children are hardly the only ones threatened by this public health crisis.  There’s a lead crisis for children in Baltimore, Maryland,Herculaneum, Missouri, Sebring, Ohio, and even the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., and that’s just to begin a list.  State reports suggest, for instance, that “18 cities in Pennsylvania and 11 in New Jersey may have an even higher share of children with dangerously elevated levels of lead than does Flint.” Today, scientists agree that there is no safe level of lead for children and at least half of American children have some of this neurotoxin in their blood.  The CDC is especially concerned about the more than 500,000 American children who have substantial amounts of lead in their bodies. Over the past century, an untold number have had their IQs reduced, their school performances limited, their behaviors altered, and their neurological development undermined.  From coast to coast, from the Sun Belt to the Rust Belt, children have been and continue to be imperiled by a century of industrial production, commercial gluttony, and abandonment by the local, state, and federal governments that should have protected them.  Unlike in Flint, the “crisis” seldom comes to public attention.

Hollywood Comes to Cuba — Victoria Burnett reports for the New York Times on lights, camera, and action in newly-reopened Havana.

Cuba PosterDuring a shoot for the Showtime comedy series “House of Lies” last month, Don Cheadle sat outside a cafe in Old Havana, puffing on a fat cigar and clinking glasses with three compadres.

It was a novel scene — an American actor filming an American TV show on a Cuban street — and one that, until last month, would have been illegal under the United States’s economic embargo.

But regulations published by the Treasury Department on Jan. 26 now allow Americans to shoot scripted movies and shows in Cuba for the first time in half a century. The rules opened the door to American projects — which could include scenes for the next “Fast & Furious” movie and an Ethan Hawke film — and to collaboration between Hollywood and the island’s underfunded film sector.

“The world just got bigger because Cuba has become accessible,” said Matthew Carnahan, creator of “House of Lies.”

As a location, Cuba was inspiring, if challenging, he said, but added, “I’m dreaming up reasons to go back.”

A stream of American filmmakers needing to hire Cuban equipment and crews would be a boon to the country’s independent production industry, which sprouted in the late 1990s as digital technology made filmmaking more accessible and state money for movies ran dry.

Some Cuban filmmakers worry, though, that their government will open its arms to Hollywood while continuing to give its own filmmakers the cold shoulder. Independent production companies in Cuba operate in a legal limbo, getting little or no funding from the state and often struggling to get their movies past the censors.

“It’s great that people from Hollywood want to come to Cuba, but it’s caught us at a bad moment,” said Carlos Lechuga, a Cuban director. “We have stories to tell, and right now we don’t feel that we can do that.”

The thaw between the United States and Cuba in 2014 prompted a swell of inquiries from Americans eager to shoot there. The next “Fast & Furious” installment may be partly shot in Cuba, a spokeswoman for its studio, Universal Pictures, said, adding that the company “is currently seeking approval from the United States and Cuban governments.”

And Cuban filmmakers have been fielding inquiries. “There isn’t a day that I am not meeting with a potential client from the United States,” said Oscar Ernesto Ortega, 29, whose El Central Producciones produces music videos, commercials and documentaries for clients like the Puerto Rican band Calle 13 and Red Bull Media House from offices in Miami and Havana.

Boris Crespo, founder of BIC Producciones, in Havana, said he had been working flat out for the past year, providing production services for Conan O’Brien’s four-day visit to Cuba last year and the History channel’s “Top Gear,” which filmed an episode in Cuba in January.

Mr. Carnahan, who worked with Island Film, another Havana production company, said he was struck by the “passionate” crew and the quality of Cuban actors. (The “House of Lies” shoot was planned before the new regulations went into effect, so producers had to get a license from the Treasury Department.)

What Cuba is missing, he said, are decent cellphone connections, fast Internet access and even “basic things — hammers — things that we don’t give much thought to.”

And the process of procuring shooting permits was extremely slow, he said.

Mr. Crespo said that the state-funded Cuban Institute of Cinematic Art and Industry “drowns in its own bureaucracy.”

The Strip from The New York Times (Doonesbury’s site was off-line at the time of publication.)

The Strip 02-14-16

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Sunday Reading

Poisoning PeopleThe New York Times on the Republicans’ refusal to help Flint.

A House oversight committee held a hearing on Wednesday whose purpose was purportedly to identify those responsible for the Flint crisis and determine what could be done to alleviate it. But the committee failed to summon Rick Snyder, the Republican governor of Michigan, whose environmental officials and emergency managers were the ones who made monumental blunders that led the city to draw water from the polluted Flint River without treating it properly. Instead, Republicans heaped blame on the Environmental Protection Agency, which made mistakes but was a bit player in this drama.

Then on Thursday, in the Senate, negotiations between Republicans and Democrats on a financial aid package for Flint, to be attached to a bipartisan energy bill awaiting passage, broke down, and Democrats refused to approve the bill without the aid package, pushing any hope of assistance into next week.

The Democrats have already yielded a lot of ground, cutting their original $600 million aid package to less than half of that, only to meet Republican objections that the costs were not fully offset by other cuts in federal spending and that no money should be provided until Michigan had a more thorough plan on how the money would be spent.

There is little doubt that some, perhaps all, of Flint’s corroded pipes will need to be replaced, at a cost that the governor estimates at $767 million and others say could be above $1 billion. We believe that the Army Corps of Engineers ought to do the job and bill the state for its services. It is outrageous that Flint residents, even though the city has switched back to cleaner water from Lake Huron, still have to rely on bottled water and filters because the lead continues to leach from the pipes.

There is no doubt that thousands of Flint residents will need monitoring, medical supervision and educational support for many years to come. Some 8,000 or more children under the age of 6, whose developing brains can suffer irreversible damage from exposure to lead, drank the poisoned water, and some are already showing symptoms. They need immediate access to supportive preschool programs; monitoring by school nurses and teachers trained to spot and care for children with developmental difficulties (Michigan ranks last in the ratio of school nurses to students); and nutritious meals high in calcium, vitamin C and iron, which mitigate the effects of lead.

Experts are uncertain about the degree of permanent brain damage caused by the amount of lead ingested by Flint youngsters. That may take years to assess fully, but these youngsters and their parents deserve every bit of support they can get for the harm they have suffered and will continue to suffer from the government’s mistakes.

And children are not the only victims. Lead poisoning can have severe consequences for people of all ages. It will be crucial for everyone — every baby, adolescent and adult — to be monitored by a primary care doctor who can keep close watch on his or her medical needs. Providing that service will require immediate money from the state and federal governments — and a long-term commitment from the state to the victims for decades to come.

The Ten-Word Answer — Jamelle Bouie on Marco Rubio’s disastrous debate performance last night.

Some politicians, unlucky ones, make mistakes that define their entire careers. For Dan Quayle in the 1988 presidential election, it was a brief comparison with John F. Kennedy. For Howard Dean in the 2004 Democratic primary, it was “the scream.” For Rick Perry in the 2012 Republican primary, it was “oops.” These weren’t the worst mistakes ever made, but they were emblematic of each candidate’s weakness—flubs that reinforced critiques from rivals and the media. Dean screamed just as pundits questioned his temperament for the White House, while Perry stuttered in the face of uncertainty about his intelligence.

Sen. Marco Rubio is a gifted politician and talented communicator. But he’s faced a repeated attack in his six years on the national stage—that his smooth charisma conceals a man of little substance. That, on a fundamental level, he’s not ready for the Oval Office. And on Saturday night, Rubio gave substance to the charge in a remarkable exchange with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at the eighth Republican presidential debate.

It began with a question. The moderators asked Rubio to list accomplishments in his record that have prepared him for the presidency. Rubio cited work on foreign policy and issues such as veterans affairs before moving to well-worn rhetoric meant to counter these experience questions by tweaking a popular conservative notion about Barack Obama. “Let’s dispel once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing,” he said. “He knows exactly what he’s doing. Barack Obama is undertaking a systematic effort to change this country, to make America more like the rest of the world.” And in this implicit analogy, Rubio is the Republican Barack Obama who will make a “systematic effort” to make America unique again. “When I’m president of the United States,” he continued, “we are going to re-embrace all the things that made America the greatest nation in the world, and we are going to leave our children with what they deserve: the single greatest nation in the history of the world.”

It’s a good line, designed for applause. But this time, Rubio had pushback, in the form of Christie.

Behind in national polls and struggling for air in a crowded field, Christie has focused on his experience—as an executive—to make the case to New Hampshire voters and Republicans nationwide. And against Rubio’s disdain for experience, he scoffed. “You have not been involved in a consequential decision where you had to be held accountable,” Christie said. “You just simply haven’t. And the fact is—when you talk about the Hezbollah sanctions act that you list as one of your accomplishments, you weren’t even there to vote for it. That’s not leadership. That’s truancy.” He finished with a swipe. “I like Marco Rubio, and he’s a smart person and a good guy, but he simply does not have the experience to be president of the United States.”

In this debate, the candidates could respond to one another, and Rubio countered with a swipe at Christie’s record on fiscal management, accusing the governor of worsening New Jersey’s debt problem. And then he did something strange. He slipped back into his line about Obama.

“But I would add this,” Rubio said. “Let’s dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He is trying to change this country. He wants America to become more like the rest of the world,” ending in the same place he had finished just a few minutes earlier.

Immediately, Christie pounced, locking eyes with the camera as he slammed Rubio for the strange repetition.

“You see, everybody, I want the people at home to think about this—this is what Washington, D.C., does,” said Christie. “The drive-by shot at the beginning with incorrect and incomplete information, and then the memorized 25-second speech that is exactly what his advisers gave him.” He continued, moving from a body slam to a pile drive. “See, Marco, the thing is this: When you’re president of the United States, when you are a governor of a state, the memorized 30-second speech where you talk about how great America is doesn’t solve one problem for one person. They expect you to plow the snow. They expect you to get the schools open. And when the worst natural disaster in your state’s history hits you, they expect you to rebuild their state, which is what I’ve done. None of that stuff happens on the floor of the United State Senate.”

Rubio tried to respond. He tried to jab Christie for his absence from New Jersey from the storm. But his hits wouldn’t land. He was too flustered.

At this point, Rubio could have ended the exchange with silence. Instead, he went back to his talking points. He repeated himself about Obama. “Here’s the bottom line,” he said, like a program trapped in an infinite loop. “This notion that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing is just not …”

Christie cut him off. “There it is! There it is. The memorized 25-second speech. There it is, everybody.” The fight was over. Rubio was shook. Later in the night, Rubio would fall into that rhetoric again, unable to break from his stump speech.


Rubio needed a win on Saturday. He needed to show Republicans that Iowa wasn’t a fluke, that he could consolidate support and charge ahead of Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz. Instead, at best, he gave a mixed performance, with good answers overshadowed by one of the most uncomfortable moments of the entire Republican debate season.

It’s far too much to say that it will cost him the nomination. But it could push him down the ladder in New Hampshire and create renewed chaos in the nomination fight, as candidates such as Jeb Bush, Christie, and Gov. John Kasich rise, and Trump—largely unscathed—holds his spot on top.

Lesson for Mr. Rubio from Jed Bartlet:


Banking Scandal for Bernie — Andy Borowitz in The New Yorker.

MANCHESTER, NEW HAMPSHIRE (The Borowitz Report)—Scandal rocked Bernie Sanders’s Presidential campaign on Friday as the candidate was forced to admit that he received free checking from several big banks.

In a press conference in Manchester, New Hampshire, a chastened Sanders acknowledged that, over the past two decades, he received free checking from Bank of America, Citibank, and JPMorgan Chase in exchange for maintaining a five-hundred-dollar minimum balance.

“I should have acknowledged my relationship with these banks earlier,” a subdued Sanders told reporters. “For that, I am sorry.”

The Clinton campaign immediately seized on the revelation, with one senior Clinton aide alleging that Sanders’s cozy relationship with the banks “effectively strips him of the label ‘progressive.’ ”

“Quite frankly, I don’t know of too many progressives who make five-hundred-dollar payoffs to the big banks,” the aide said. “This doesn’t pass the smell test.”

The news of Sanders’s ties to the banking industry comes just days after damaging reports that he leveraged his relationship with the American Automobile Association to obtain a discount on renting a Nissan Sentra.

Doonesbury — Fantasy.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Friday, January 29, 2016

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Short Takes

Cleveland Police fires, suspends officers over deadly 2012 shooting.

Lead pipes not being removed from Flint water system.

F.B.I. arrests Milwaukee man for planning temple attack.

Denmark approves seizing refugees’ valuables.

Italy covers up nude statues during Iran presidential visit.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Fed Help For Flint


With chanting protesters demanding his resignation in the background, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder announced Monday that he plans to ask for federal aid to deal with the lead-poisoning crisis in Flint.

At a press conference, Snyder was repeatedly questioned about the state’s admitted mishandling of the water emergency and whether he knew it was a major problem before he addressed it in a press conference in early October.

“I have a degree of responsibility,” he said.

No shit, Sherlock.

It’s always ironic — if not tragic — that all the Republicans who demand states’ rights and run for office on a platform of smaller government, get-the-feds-out, and local control, come running to Washington whenever something like a tornado or a hurricane overwhelms their state.  The first thing they do is demand federal assistance, and they usually do it while saying something along the lines of “Well, we pay all those taxes, we might as well get something out of it.”  That’s code for “Holy crap, we are in over our heads.”

What’s worse, though, is a governor who refuses to ask the federal government for help even though they’re in way over their heads and it either becomes glaringly clear that they’re up the creek or there is a mob of chanting citizens getting on CNN.  Gov. Snyder could have asked for federal help six months ago, but no, he had to be all for freedom and shit until he realized that the state of Michigan will be on the hook for fixing this problem for the rest of the decade, long after he’s logged into the history books as just another right-wing bean-counter who would rather suck up to his Tea Party flakes than actually govern like a grown-up.

It would be just desserts for him if the federal government took their own sweet time to think about sending help to Flint.  But that’s not how they roll; at least not under a Democratic administration.  That’s because they actually care about the people injured by the disaster, not by what political points they can score.