Friday, June 10, 2005

Political Odyssey Pt. 1

The first presidential election I can remember being aware of was the one that pitted Gerald Ford against Jimmy Carter in 1976 when I was turning 11. I urged my parents to vote for Ford that year. I don’t know who they actually voted for.
The reason I liked Ford was that I had seen him on TV that summer presiding over the Bicentennial celebrations at the nation’s capitol. At some point he urged every American to go out and ring a bell to celebrate the nation’s 200th birthday. I was so excited that I rushed around the house looking for a bell. When I couldn’t find one I settled for clinking a glass with a spoon and I went outside happily ringing my makeshift bell.
Four years later when I was a freshman in high school my government class held a mock election between the incumbent President Jimmy Carter and his Republican challenger Ronald Reagan. I cast my “vote” for Carter. I had a thing about supporting incumbents back then, I guess. I urged my parents to vote for Carter, too. I don’t know who they voted for.
As you might surmise from this, my parents were pretty much apolitical when I was growing up. Politics was rarely discussed at home and I was not pushed to support or oppose either political party. My dad was a Vietnam veteran and both my parents worked in the oil and gas industry. But the world of politics rarely if ever invaded our little world as we moved from one small Texas town to another.

Reagan’s victory made little difference to me at first. I probably wouldn’t have thought much about it, but then came the assassination attempt the next year that riveted the entire nation’s attention. I remember being shocked that such a thing could happen in America. I anxiously read about and watched every update on the president’s condition and was impressed both with his courage and his good nature throughout the ordeal. It was hard not to like Reagan after that point and I certainly had no reason not to.
When the next election rolled around and I was finally old enough to vote I was firmly in the Reagan camp. I was a freshman in the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M where maintaining traditions was all important. The bulletin board in my dorm room was neatly decorated with pictures of Reagan and bumper stickers from his re-election campaign. A good friend of mine from back home told me he was planning to vote for Walter Mondale and I thought he was crazy. I didn’t know anything about Mondale, but I knew that I did not like him because he was daring to challenge my hero - Ronald Reagan.
I never attended a College Republicans meeting but my dorm was blanketed with their literature such as the flyers that said “Walter Mondale could be your next president. If that doesn’t scare you, it should.” When I cast my first ballot, I didn’t stop with voting for Reagan, I voted straight Republican down the line - Phil Gramm for Senate, Joe Barton for Congress, etc. There was no question that I was a Republican.
But something happened during the next four years that turned all of that on its head. By the time the next election rolled around I was rabidly anti-Republican and pro-Democrat. I voted for Jesse Jackson in the primary - just to make a statement - and then volunteered to work on the local Dukakis campaign in College Station against George H.W. Bush.
So what happened? How and why did I make such a dramatic leap in just four years? I’ve often wondered about that and I will try here as best as I can to explain it. I can’t recall precisely when each of these events occurred, so I can’t draw a neat little timeline that says this lead to that, but in total these are the things that most effected the direction of my political odyssey.

When I voted for Reagan in 1984 it was because I was enamored with Reagan the man. I had given little thought to the political ideologies that lay beneath the various candidates. I wasn’t really a conservative in the political sense. I remember getting into an argument at some point with my friend Eddie over whether or not the state should provide education for the children of illegal immigrants. I decided if they weren’t legal residents then they should not get any of the benefits of our society such as a free education. But Eddie (my former high school debate partner) made a passionate case in favor of educating everyone who lives within our borders regardless of their immigration status. Not only was it best for society to not have uneducated youths running around causing mischief, but we had a moral responsibility as a society to educate all human beings in our midst. I suddenly found myself unable to argue the position I had started out with and it made me question many of my other core beliefs. What did I really believe? I had to have some core principles to stand on and I wasn’t willing to just let those be dictated to me by some political party.
At some other point, and I can’t remember exactly when, I attended a symposium at Texas A&M on the death penalty by someone from Amnesty International. Of course, I was in favor of the death penalty. Who wasn’t? It just seemed like such an obvious thing and I had never given it a second thought, so the idea that someone would try and make a case against it was intriguing to me. Once again, I found myself feeling intellectually outmatched as I listened to the speaker go through the myriad reasons why the death penalty is wrong. He didn’t even go into all of the religious arguments against capital punishment. He just went over all the data showing that executions don’t deter crime. How the punishment is applied disproportionately to the poor and to minorities. How almost every other industrialized nation had eliminated capital punishment. How many times it has been used against people who were later proven to have been innocent. I remember walking out of that symposium wondering how many other political views I held that I could not defend.
These were both key occurrences that served to shake up my not-so-set-in-stone belief system back then. But there were two other events that were even more crucial to my transformation - the Iran-Contra scandal and the JFK assassination. More on those in the next installment.

Republicans defunding PBS

Originally uploaded by mwthomas87.

My little boy is just starting to get interested in some of the childrens’ shows on PBS like Barney, so imagine my delight when I saw this story in the NYTimes today.

A House Appropriations panel on Thursday approved a spending bill that would cut the budget for public television and radio nearly in half and eliminate a $23 million federal program that has provided some money for producing children's shows that include "Sesame Street," "Clifford the Big Red Dog," "Between the Lions" and "Dragon Tales."

By a voice vote, the House Appropriations subcommittee adopted a measure that would reduce the financing of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the organization that directs taxpayer dollars to public television and radio, to $300 million from $400 million. The subcommittee also eliminated $39 million that stations say they need to convert to digital programming and $50 million for upgrading aging satellite technology that is the backbone of the PBS network.

The Republicans obviously see this as payback for public broadcasters who they deem to be too “liberal.” Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, the Bush-appointed head of CPB who has been leading a Republican takeover of PBS programming, warned stations earlier this year that if they fail to cooperate with his plans to “balance” their programming it could prompt the Republican-controlled Congress to significantly reduce financing. Now we see that threat coming to fruition.

"It is clear the G.O.P. agenda is to control public broadcasting or to defund it," said Representative David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. "House Republicans have gutted funding for public broadcasting stations across the country."

This is utterly contemptible. It’s clear that this administration cares nothing about running up budget deficits, so the argument that they are making these draconian cuts in such a tiny budget item to save money is ludicrous. This is just them being spiteful.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Bashing Perry

Gov. Rick Perry takes a beating today in the pages of the Wall Street Journal editorial section and, coincidentally, in the San Antonio Express-News.

The WSJ features an opinion column by J.R. Labbe of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that lampoons the “Godly Governor” for trying to focus on “political accomplishments” dealing with abortion and gay marriage while downplaying what was supposed to be the No. 1 issue - school finance reform.

Such social issues are more appealing to the governor than thorny problems like this term's lack of education reform. The failure of reform might point to Gov. Perry's own failed leadership, or worse. Quality of education was never the stumbling block in Austin; it was how to pay for the learning the kids do receive, which means uttering the word that dare not cross the lips of a Texas Republican if he or she wants to get re-elected in '06: TAXES.

The WSJ also writes an editorial today (not available online) titled:

What's the Matter With Texas?
The do-nothing GOP legislature.

“What was supposed to be the most productive session of the Texas legislature in history ended last week in a legislative version of the Alamo.”

The editorial points out that Republicans control “every lever of political power in Austin for the first time since Reconstruction” and still could not get anything done.
They cast their first stone at Democratic lawmakers for blocking a school voucher plan dear to right-wingers’ hearts. But after that they grudgingly admit that the “other failings of this legislature must be laid at the feet of the Republicans.”

Of course, what the WSJ editorial writers are upset about is that the Republicans steered away from making the kinds of budget cuts that would have placed Texas on par with a Third World nation. Now they are demanding that Gov. Perry call a special session and “announce that nobody leaves until they’ve approved his call for a cut of at least 20 percent in property taxes...”

That will happen about the same time that all the WSJ editorial board members take their children out of their fancy New York private schools and enroll them in underfunded public schools in Texas.

“...If property taxes aren’t cut meaningfully right now, the Republicans might not be coming back to Austin after the next election.”

We can certainly hope so!

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

San Antonio's new mayor

Phil Hardberger
Originally uploaded by mwthomas87.

Well I called it wrong way back when this city election was just getting started. I assumed as many people probably did that Julian Castro would sweep to victory in the San Antonio mayoral contest. But late last night he fell short by 3,829 votes in a squeaker of an election.
One of those votes that put Phil Hardberger over the top was mine. While I had assumed that Castro would probably win, I remained undecided up until the fiasco involving the city manager candidate from Phoenix. Castro’s lead role in derailing Sheryl Sculley's bid for the city manager job at the last moment is the point where he lost my vote. By joining in with the short-sighted mob mentality that harangued over the trivial details of Sculley’s compensation package, I lost faith in Castro as someone with a big-picture view of San Antonio.

But Castro supporters should not despair. All they need to do is wait four years and thanks to San Antonio’s idiotic term limits policy he can take the mayor’s job then. That is unless he decides to run for the congressional seat that Henry Bonilla will be vacating when he runs for the Senate seat that Kay Baily Hutchison will be giving up to challenge Rick Perry in the 2006 governor's race.

In the meantime, we have a new mayor who has the distinction of being both a long-time San Antonio political figure and an outsider to city government. I wish him well and hope that he has a relatively scandal-free term in office.

Bush administration edits climate reports

This is absolutely outrageous! I can’t believe the Bush administration is getting away with this. Unbelievable!

A former lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute with “no scientific training” is given free reign to “edit” government climate reports.

A White House official who once led the oil industry's fight against limits on greenhouse gases has repeatedly edited government climate reports in ways that play down links between such emissions and global warming, according to internal documents.

In handwritten notes on drafts of several reports issued in 2002 and 2003, the official, Philip A. Cooney, removed or adjusted descriptions of climate research that government scientists and their supervisors, including some senior Bush administration officials, had already approved. In many cases, the changes appeared in the final reports.

The dozens of changes, while sometimes as subtle as the insertion of the phrase "significant and fundamental" before the word "uncertainties," tend to produce an air of doubt about findings that most climate experts say are robust.

Mr. Cooney is chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the office that helps devise and promote administration policies on environmental issues.

Before going to the White House in 2001, he was the "climate team leader" and a lobbyist at the American Petroleum Institute, the largest trade group representing the interests of the oil industry. A lawyer with a bachelor's degree in economics, he has no scientific training.

How anyone can continue to have any faith or trust in this administration is beyond me.

Eat the Rich

This New York Times editorial is right on target about the ill effects of Bush’s tax cuts. It appears that even the modestly rich people are being screwed by this administration while the super-rich are making out like bandits.

With all of the debate about taxes, the economy and domestic spending, it is hard to imagine anyone supporting the notion of taking money from programs like Medicaid and college-tuition assistance, increasing the tax burden of the vast majority of working Americans, sending the country into crushing debt - and giving the proceeds to people who are so fantastically rich that they don't know what to do with the money they already have. Yet that is just what is happening under the Bush administration. Forget the middle class and the upper-middle class. Even the merely wealthy are being left behind in the dust by the small slice of super-rich Americans.

In last Sunday's Times, David Cay Johnston reported that from 1980 to 2002, the latest year of available data, the share of total income earned by the top 0.1 percent of earners more than doubled, while the share earned by everyone else in the top 10 percent rose far less. The share of the bottom 90 percent declined.

President Bush did not create the income gap. But the unheralded effect of his tax policy is its unequal impact on the modestly well to do. By 2015, those making between $80,000 and $400,000 will pay as much as 13.9 percentage points more of their income in federal taxes than those making more than $400,000, assuming the tax cuts are made permanent. Below $80,000, most taxpayers will see their share of taxes rise slightly or stay the same....

The divide between rich and poor is unfortunately an old story, but income-class warfare among the top 20 percent of the scale is a newer phenomenon. One cause is that the further up the scale one goes, the more of one's income comes from investments, which under the Bush tax cuts enjoy about the lowest rates in the tax code. But many families making between $100,000 and $200,000 are not exactly on easy street. They don't face choices anywhere near as stark as those encountered further down the income ladder, but they face serious tradeoffs not experienced by the uppermost crust, particularly when hit with the triple whammy of college for the children, care for aging parents and preparing for their own retirement.

There is something deeply wrong about a system that calls into question a comfortable retirement or a top-notch education for people who have broken into the top 20 percent of income earners. It starts to seem politically explosive when you consider that in a decade, those making between $100,000 and $200,000 will pay about five to nine percentage points more of their income in federal taxes than those making more than $1 million, assuming the Bush tax cuts are made permanent.

This is not about giving wealthy people more money to invest back into the economy. At this level, it's really about giving more money to those who have nothing to do with it except amass enormous estates for their heirs. Fixing the problem will require members of Congress to summon the courage to say no to a president who wants more for the richest of the rich at the expense of everyone else. We're not holding our breath.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Bunker Mulligan - R.I.P.

I just saw the sad news today about the passing of Mike Reed who ran the Corpus Christi-based blog Bunker Mulligan and who was the founder and inspiration behind Texas Bloggers, which serves as a neutral gathering area for Texas bloggers of all political stripes and persuasions.
My condolences to his friends and family.

Pining for Reagan

There was an op-ed in the HoustonChronicle Sunday which unfortunately I cannot link to but still want to comment on.
It was written by a recent high school graduate from Houston who is currently a freshman at Ohio University. It is essentially an ode to Ronald Reagan entitled “Reagan: We love the man we didn’t know; Why ex-president is an inspiration to young conservatives”.

I find the article interesting because it gives one a glimpse of the mindset of a young conservative today. The girl is obviously enamored with Reagan the same way I was when I was a freshman in college 20 years ago. The only difference is that Reagan was still president when I was in college and she wasn’t even born yet.

She begins the article by using some weak anecdotal evidence to try and establish that conservatives are slowly gaining ground on liberals, who she believes are still the dominant political force in the country. She attended a taping of CNN’s Crossfire - probably as part of a group of College Republicans - and notes that when asked who was their favorite president the audience cheered most loudly for Reagan. She also describes how Bush-Cheney campaign posters adorn “several bedroom doors” at her sorority house and how “one room was nearly wallpapered with them.”

Then she makes the following observation:
“When our parents were in college, students wore black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. Today, you won’t see many armbands, but you will see plenty of cars and backpacks adorned with yellow ribbons - a symbol of support for the troops.”

The only reason we aren’t seeing daily mass protests against the war is because we have an all-volunteer military doing the fighting. If we still had a draft that was forcibly sending young people from all walks of life to face the roadside bombings and snipers in Iraq you would see more than just black arm bands at this point.
But aside from that, one should not assume that yellow ribbon stickers equal unqualified support for Bush’s war. I have a yellow ribbon sticker on my truck (next to my Kerry-Edwards bumper sticker) because I too support the troops. But my idea of supporting the troops is to bring them home as soon as possible, not leave them hanging out to dry in some never-ending quagmire.

Next, she tries to explain why there has been this “generational turn to the right” by linking it to 9-11.
”In a post-9/11 nation, 1960s feel-good liberalism is no longer practical. As young people, my generation witnessed the most devastating attack ever to occur on American soil. It traumatized us. The peacnik vision of ‘Give Peace a Chance’ and disarming the enemy with love and kindness is a nice dream, but most of us reject it as not only foolish, but potentially deadly. We can’t deny the very real threat of terrorism.”

Wow. I guess I missed that plank in the Democratic Party platform about disarming the terrorists with love and kindness. I wonder too, what she would think if liberals had actually been in charge of things when 9/11 happened, instead of a Republican Congress and a Republican president who had repeatedly ignored the warnings of the top terrorism expert in the government.
But even though the Democrats in the last election nominated a Vietnam era war hero to go up against a guy who went AWOL from the National Guard, they are still viewed by young conservatives as the party of Flower Power Hippies handing out beads and chanting anti-war slogans at every opportunity.

Then we get into the favorite meme of today’s young conservatives - the everybody’s out to get us victimization syndrome. Conservatives were becoming dominant on college campuses back when I was in school. Republicans have controlled the White House for 24 of the last 36 years and currently control both Houses of Congress and have appointed 7 of the 9 justices on the Supreme Court. And yet we get treated to the argument in this essay that young conservatives are under attack and are having to buck the system in order to get their views heard:

”It’s no secret that liberal thought dominates almost every aspect of the university - from the administration to the student newspapers. Like the campus leftists of the previous generation, conservative students are eager to ‘Question Authority.’ We argue with professors, write passionate letters to the local papers and join the College Republicans to meet other like-minded students. Our lack of representation fuels the fire. Talk to any conservative student and you’ll find that we often view ourselves as an oppressed minority constantly fighting to make our voices heard.”

Lack of representation?? An oppressed minority fighting to make our voices heard??? What planet is this girl living on?!?
It absolutely amazes me that in spite of controlling every aspect of our government for the past five years, Republicans can still persuade their impressionable youth that they are an oppressed minority fighting against a liberal establishment. What will it take for them to finally admit that they are in power and to start taking responsibility rather than blaming it all on “liberals” or whatever the current bogeyman of the day is?

Capping off her essay, the young conservative explains why her generation would rather embrace the late-Ronald Reagan than current President George W. Bush.

”Unlike George W. Bush - criticized even by conservatives for being too divisive - Reagan was the Great Communicator, speaking of America as the ‘shining city upon a hill’ and restoring hope to an entire nation. He led us out of the darkness of the late 1970s and into a decade of peace and prosperity...”

In Bush’s defense, Reagan was considered divisive during his tenure too. The difference perhaps is that Reagan actually had to work with a Democratic Congress to get things done, something that Bush has not been constrained to do. So Reagan came across as more amicable in some areas where Bush has been seen as very one-sided and partisan. But there was also a dark side to the Reagan administration that this young conservative has probably never been exposed to - such as the way they opted to use illegal channels to pursue their foreign policy goals when they could not get what they wanted through the Congress. With Iran-Contra, Reagan authorized the sale of weapons to the Ayatollahs in Iran and then funneled the profits down to Nicaragua to finance the anti-government insurgency there. When Reagan went on national television shortly after the scandal was exposed and lied about it I began to lose my faith in his presidency.
As for prosperity during the Reagan years, that was mostly financed with massive deficit spending on military programs that led to a tripling of the national debt. It was the next decade - the 1990s - where the country actually experienced what I would call ‘peace and prosperity’ under a Democratic president who balanced the budget for the first time in years and helped guide the country during an unprecedented boom time that far exceeded what we saw during the Reagan years. But that all came to an end when Bush the Younger came to power. Since then we have been mired in a never-ending economic stagnation, record deficits and a war in Iraq that was launched under false pretenses and now threatens to bog us down for years to come both militarily and financially.

It’s no wonder young conservatives today would rather pine for Ronald Reagan than laud George W. Bush.