Sunday, July 5, 2015

What Americans Want

Why 2016 Matters
By Nick Paleologos

Is the American media obsessed with polls or what? Everywhere you turn, craven politicians on cable tv are endlessly pontificating about “what Americans believe” and “what the country wants.” Newsflash: America—as a nation—tells us what it wants every four years during presidential elections. This is the only time in our democratic system when the collective will of the country is officially expressed—bestowing upon the winner a mandate to move the country in the direction advocated.
Mid-term elections, on the other hand, exist primarily to determine how expeditiously the president’s voter-approved agenda can be implemented. And most of the time, Americans use mid-terms to slow things down. Nevertheless, setting a course for the country is always the exclusive prerogative of presidents—and by extension, the people who elected them. That means you and me.
Along those lines, America made a historic decision in 2008. We sent a black guy to the White House for the first time in history. He promised to stop shipping American kids overseas to fight other peoples’ wars; he pledged to create jobs at home and to rebuild our economy. He also vowed to extend affordable healthcare to millions of uninsured Americans. And we elected him by a margin of nearly 10 million votes.
In his first term, he did pretty much all of those things.
“Four” may not be the perfect number of years between national plebiscites. But it’s the best we’ve got. And it certainly gives us enough time to experience the consequences of our choices. In 2012, the choice facing America was clear. Change direction? Or stay the course? The president’s opponent said the country was on the wrong track. He promised a hard turn to the right: spend more money on wars abroad; cut taxes on the wealthy even further; and get rid of the Affordable Care Act.
He lost. In fact, he lost by more than 5 million votes.
What does that tell you? It tells me that the forces of equity and tolerance are on the rise again in our country--and not a moment too soon. Thirty-five years of slavish adherence to a national agenda that routinely sacrificed fundamental fairness to an unfettered free market has left America’s middle class bereft, bankrupt and bewildered. The one place where we’ve been able to register our frustration—indeed our fury--has been in presidential elections. Like the one we’re having next year.
We don’t yet know who the final two candidates for president will be. But we do know that they will have to navigate a riptide of cultural crosscurrents while their Twitter feeds are bursting with hashtags that will include: income inequality; black lives matter; Citizens United; immigration reform; free (and fair) trade; climate change; and rebuilding America for a new millennium—among many others.
At the end of the day, 2016 will be about following questions:
1)   Is America ready for a woman to be president?
2)   Should our wealthiest citizens and corporations pay the same effective tax rates as everybody else?
3)   Should we build upon and improve the Affordable Care Act?
4)   Should debt-free college education be a basic right for every qualified kid in this country?
5)   Is it time to require a background check before anybody can buy a gun in America?
I'm guessing that only one candidate will answer yes to all five. And by so doing, provide America with a third consecutive opportunity to send a clear and unambiguous message to congress, the chatter class, and beyond. What we “want” is a safe country for our kids--where freedom and fairness are not mutually exclusive; and where healthcare and higher education are rights--not privileges.
Is that too much to ask?

Friday, July 3, 2015

Credit Where Credit Is Due...

Amid health care, gay marriage victories, no one invokes DiMasi

Sal DiMasi (right) watched then Governor Mitt Romney sign the health care bill.

By Jim O’Sullivan Globe Staff  July 02, 2015

It took a federal court to cement Sal DiMasi’s legacy. And, this time, almost no one noticed.

It wasn’t the Moakley Courthouse, the one where DiMasi had to answer for his crimes born of greed and corruption. But rather the big one across the street from the US Capitol, where DiMasi’s lasting impact was, over the course of the past week, writ large. While he rots in a prison cell in Butner, N.C., the two causes that Sal DiMasi went to the wall for — maybe more than anyone else — passed from controversial wayposts to the virtually unshakable law of the land.

President Obama likely wouldn’t have had the chance to pass his 2010 federal health care expansion if DiMasi, the former Massachusetts House speaker, didn’t stick to the left during the 2006 debate here. There are valid arguments that DiMasi was not the prime mover behind the Massachusetts health care bill that provided a model for the national version (former Senate president Robert Travaglini and governor Mitt Romney might quibble), but it wouldn’t have gotten done without him.

A year later, gay marriage was at the gallows on Beacon Hill. It had been law here for three years, but a few votes or a slip of the foot in either direction would have dealt it a blow that might have frozen the whole movement and robbed sanctimonious Democrats in 2015 of the ability to overlook the fact that it was an institution their own president didn’t support until six months before his reelection — and Hillary Rodham Clinton didn’t support until a full year after that.

DiMasi went to the wall for gay marriage, in old-school, arm-twisting fashion, including the successful persuasion of one state rep who said his father-in-law offered him a new car to vote against it. There are valid arguments that others did more — Senate President Therese Murray, for instance, had the fortitude to call for the fateful 2007 vote — but that wouldn’t have gotten done without him, either.

Twice in the past decade Massachusetts has established a far-reaching, long-resonating beachhead in the progressive campaign. There was one constant.

“He was a hero, but too often an unsung hero, a not-acknowledged-enough hero of our community,” Arline Isaacson, a longtime gay rights advocate, said this week. “We would not have made it as far or as fast legislatively towards equality had it not been for him.”

There is a valid argument to be made that no one has done more over the past four decades on the side of liberalism in Massachusetts than Sal DiMasi.

A gay rights bill in 1983 that established rock-bottom civil rights thresholds for gay people. The 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act, requiring an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Together with Travaglini, DiMasi helped pass landmark stem cell research legislation that social conservatives opposed, an oft-forgotten legislative battle that marked the first big win of the DiMasi speakership.

“Despite all of the personal issues that Speaker DiMasi faced, he always maintained a very aggressive progressive agenda,” said Aaron Michlewitz, a former DiMasi aide who succeeded him in the House. “A lot of what has taken place on the national level originated from that work that Speaker DiMasi did.”

Governor Deval Patrick shook hands with House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi after signing a bill repealing a law preventing gay couples from other states from marrying in Massachusetts.

There was another echo of DiMasi’s career last week, this one not an enduring success, but a short-lived victory that thrilled the liberals who now won’t speak his name.

Plainridge Park Casino opened June 24, a day long delayed by DiMasi’s opposition to expanded gambling. He fought unions, a sitting governor of his own party, pernicious rumors about his motivations based on his ethnicity — but DiMasi held casinos and slot parlors at bay until after he left office.

Indeed, there is a valid argument to be made that no one — not Ted Kennedy, not Deval Patrick, not Mike Dukakis — has done more over the past four decades on the side of liberalism in Massachusetts, and with sweeping repercussions beyond, than Prisoner 27371-038.

DiMasi’s crimes are embarrassing to honest public officials and almost humiliatingly penny-ante. He went to prison for, essentially, taking $65,000 in bribes to steer several million dollars in contracts. The jury found him crooked, selling his office to enrich himself. He is paying his debt to society.

But, if his family is to be believed, his treatment since he entered the federal penal system has been virtually inhumane — symptoms of cancer ignored and allowed to fester.

And the lack of credit paid DiMasi after historic affirmations of his policy and political work should be almost as galling, except that almost no one noticed. Several prominent Massachusetts Democrats declined to speak on the record for this column.

On the steps of the State House last Friday evening, a raucous crowd celebrated the court’s same-sex marriage decision. Speakers praised the activists and legislators who had defended same-sex marriage in Massachusetts.

The tremendous amount of happiness was rivaled closely by self-congratulation. Speaker Bob DeLeo, who once opposed same-sex marriage while DiMasi was whipping votes in favor, took the stage to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.”

And no one mentioned Sal DiMasi.

In his day — and in those since — no one has wielded power on Beacon Hill the way DiMasi did. After a slow start that prompted questions about whether his would be a weak speakership, DiMasi found his footing and brought to fruition the liberal causes that had animated much of his career. He vexed conservatives, but they’re not the ones turning their backs on him now. It’s the liberals who crow about DiMasi’s achievements as if they were their own, as if they ever would have happened without him.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Why Are We Number One?

Because, according to the Guardian of London newspaper, the US had 88.8 guns per 100 people in 2007 — compared with 54.8 in the second-closest country, Yemen.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Citizens United Against Citizens United

When the Supreme Court is this wrong, it’s time to overrule them

By Doris Kearns Goodwin and Jeff Clements
June 2, 2015

Police form a line after arresting demonstrators on the steps of the 
U.S. Supreme Court, on the anniversary of the Citizens United decision, 
in Washington, January 20, 2012. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Surveys show that a large majority of American citizens across the political spectrum oppose the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that opened the door to unlimited political spending by global corporations and powerful unions. Yet when asked about the prospect of passing a constitutional amendment to reverse the decision, too many people argue that it would be “too hard,” even “impossible.”

This argument lacks historical perspective. Every step on the path to fulfill the promise of the American Revolution was “too hard,” but Americans did it anyway. Hard, yes; yet constitutional amendments have come in waves during times of challenge — and Supreme Court obstinacy — much like our own.

The Bill of Rights and the post-Civil War amendments may be the most well-known examples, but this pattern has recurred. A generation after the Civil War renewed the promise of American equality and democracy, for example, the Supreme Court began elevating money to a privileged place in the Constitution. It struck down basic public-interest laws, including the minimum wage, worker safety, the federal income tax and even child labor laws.
The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, May 20, 2009. REUTERS/Molly Riley

The American public took matters into their own hands during the Progressive era at the turn of the 20th century. With the 16th amendment in 1913, Americans reclaimed the power to levy a progressive income tax, without which many of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal social programs would not have been possible.

The 17th amendment that same year provided for popular election of U.S. senators. This replaced the old system of election by state legislatures, in which, according to the New York Times, a millionaire, either by outright bribery or contributions to a party’s campaign coffers, could buy a Senate seat “just as he would buy an opera box, or a yacht or any other luxury in which he could afford to indulge himself.” Finally, with the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920, women gained the right to vote after a struggle that had lasted for more than half a century.

Four decades later, two additional constitutional amendments removed further barriers to political equality. The 24th amendment in 1964 protected the right of all Americans to vote in federal elections, regardless of the ability to pay a poll tax. President Lyndon B. Johnson hailed “the triumph of liberty over restriction, declaring “there can be no one too poor to vote.” The 26th amendment in 1971 reduced the voting age from 21 to 18, which ensured that young adults eligible to serve in the armed forces were able to vote.

Each of these fights required hard work, tough challenges and resilience. This is as it should be. Constitutional amendments are warranted only by what James Madison called “extraordinary occasions.” That is why enacting and ratifying an amendment to the U.S. Constitution is no easy matter.

The situation we face today with regard to campaign finance is one of those “extraordinary occasions.” Overwhelming political spending by a relative handful of organizations and extremely wealthy people is marginalizing the voices and participation of most Americans. In the 2012 presidential election, a few dozen super-PAC donors exceeded all the contributions of $200 or less from the nearly four million donors to the Romney and Obama campaigns combined.

The 2014 midterm elections brought even greater concentration of big spenders. Indeed, virtually all political spending now comes from far less than 1 percent of Americans, and increasingly from global corporations using “dark money” entities to obscure the source.

The result of such unbalanced concentrated power in the U.S. system of government is exactly as Madison and other founding fathers feared: failure of effective republican self-government due to powerful factions and corruption.

The Supreme Court that issued the Citizens United decision will not correct itself. Over the past five years, the sharply divided court has only expanded the ruling. In a series of decisions, it has invalidated traditional powers of the states, striking down longstanding anticorruption laws in Montana and nullifying new approaches to strengthen voter-funded elections in Arizona and Maine. In the 2014 McCutcheon decision, the court struck down a limit as high as $123,000 on total contributions to candidates for Congress. In Hobby Lobby and other recent decisions, courts are empowering corporations to seek even more exemptions from laws based on ever-broadening theories of corporate rights, including speech, religion and equal protection as “persons.”

To hope that the current court will fix things is folly. That is why the 28th amendment is necessary to overturn Citizens United, just as Americans have used the amendment process to overturn the Supreme Court six times before.

The 28th amendment would restore the power of Americans to enact reasonable election spending laws that protect the political equality of all. Specifically, the Democracy For All Amendment, which more than 165 senators and representatives have introduced, restores the authority of Congress and the states to enact election spending laws and to distinguish between human beings and corporations in doing so.

Five years after Citizens United, it is time to accept the historical gravity of our situation. It is time for Americans of all political viewpoints to come together to win the 28th amendment — and to renew U.S. democracy again.

Doris Kearns Goodwin is a presidential historian & Pulitzer prize-winning author, most recently of “The Bully Pulpit." Atty. Jeff Clements is author of “Corporations Are Not People: Reclaiming Democracy” & co-founder of Free Speech For People. 

Friday, June 5, 2015