As frightening a prospect as it is for progressives and liberals and other assorted Democrats, it is now impossible not to contemplate what two years of a Republican-led Senate would be like. While Democrats are still putting on a brave face about their chances in the 2014 midterms ("Our ground game is going to win the day!"), the possibility of Republicans picking up the six Senate seats they now need to gain control of the chamber is very real and even (according to many election forecasters) probable. But what would this mean for President Obama's last two years in office?
That headline, of course, quotes the cover to the fictional Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy: "Don't Panic." This week, it seems like timely advice, as the news media and American politicians go into full-blown panic mode over one death and two illnesses within the United States.
We'll get to all that in a bit, since we will be pre-empting our talking points this week for my own "Don't panic!" rant (which, for science-fiction fans who were already thrilled with this week's title, will also quote the learned philosopher Ellen Ripley). But first let's quickly run through some other political news, before we get to the idiocy of the "travel ban fever" running rampant among American politicians.
Ebola is in the news these days.
This is what is known as a satirical understatement, which I use mainly because these days, it seems, Ebola is the news -- all the news, pretty much all the time. It has not only been the lead story on the nightly news for the past three weeks or so, the story has grown to overwhelming proportions on the airwaves. And that's not even counting what's going on over on cable news, where they have a full 24 hours to fill each day rather than just 30 minutes each night. Fear of the unknown, of course, sells a lot of newspapers, attracts a lot of viewers, and draws a lot of eyeballs to websites. This has always been the case, and it obviously hasn't changed (although the metaphors continue to evolve -- once, just "sells a lot of newspapers" would have been enough).
For one television news personality, at least, things are getting so out of proportion that he had to issue a call to reason. Shepard Smith of Fox News (of all places), recently begged his viewers to ignore what all the other "journalists" have been guilty of, lately:
Welcome back to my intermittent overview of the 2014 midterm Senate races. On that note, I should add that from this point forward I'll be doing these columns on a weekly basis, right up until the Monday before the election when I'll make my final election predictions.
The past week was a busy one out on the various campaign trails, as many candidates participated in televised debates. There were no monumental gaffes or screwups (so far) in these debates -- at least, not ones that gained national attention. Mitch McConnell did (hilariously) try to convince Kentucky voters that Kynect was somehow separate from the Obamacare he's sworn to try to kill "root and branch" (technical note: it is not separate, it is part of Obamacare and would not exist without Obamacare), but that was about it, really.
Some races moved towards Republicans this week, and others moved towards Democrats. A third-party candidate died in a plane crash in Iowa this week, but the media (following the "ignore all third parties, all the time" rule, no doubt) barely took note. The Republican candidate down in Georgia may have torpedoed his own chances of winning, by proudly noting his own personal history of outsourcing jobs, and the Democrat in Kentucky seems to be getting a bit desperate.
The big question is whether Republicans will be able to take the six seats they need to gain control of the Senate. This is still a largely unanswerable question, as they've only locked up two pickups and only clearly lead in three others -- leaving them one short.
The Colorado Senate race this year will be a close contest (no matter who wins), if the polling is correct. Poll after poll shows a very tight race. However, pollsters' predictions of who exactly will "turn out" to vote may be flawed this year, in this particular state. Because Colorado, for the first time, will be joining two other states in the West by conducting their election by mail. Every registered voter gets a real ballot (not just a "sample ballot" or a "practice ballot") in the mail, and will be able to easily return their filled-out ballot by mail. They won't be "turning out," one might say, instead they'll be "turning in."
The other two states with full vote-by-mail elections are Oregon and Washington. In 1998 Oregon passed a voter initiative which changed their system to all-mail voting. Washington changed their election law in 2011. In Colorado, 2014 is the first election to be conducted under the vote-by-mail scheme.
In all three states (I believe), voters who are offended by change -- call them "traditionalists" -- still have the option of going down to the local polling place to cast their ballot. Except that it's not really a polling location anymore, so much as a "drop box" for filled-out ballots to be handed in. But for those who consider voting to be a civic rite, a trip down to the polling spot is still possible (this also benefits procrastinators, too -- people who wait until the last minute to vote).
I considered just taking Columbus Day (or Indigenous People's Day, take your choice) off today, but an article in the morning news caught my eye. So I decided to instead run two extended clips -- one I wrote a while ago, and today's news from the Vatican.
The Catholic Church is contemplating some rather big modernizations, led by the charismatic Pope Francis. How far-reaching such changes wind up being remains to be seen, but so far the indications are that Francis intends to significantly move the Church's direction on a number of subjects. Today's news is a preliminary move toward this new direction (which we'll get to in a minute).
I address this desperate attempt at communication to any remaining survivors in America of the apocalyptic scourge that is Ebola. Is there anybody still out there? Because, according to my television for the past few weeks, the death rates have been climbing so high that hundreds of millions of Americans should be pushing up the daisies by now. So, with full sorrow for the uncounted lives lost over the past few weeks, I humbly wonder whether anyone is left on the internet to read this lonely missive.
What's that? There's only been one death? No... wait, that can't be right....
The American news media, already a shadow of its former self, has discovered once again that there is simply no reason not to operate in full-blown panic mode, all the time. Instead of "the apocalyptic scourge that is Ebola," we have "the scourge that is media hyperventilating over Ebola in apocalyptic tones." Panic draws eyeballs to the screen. Panic sells. This spills over into the world of politics on an even more primitive level, one that harkens back to Machiavelli: "fear works." It is easier for politicians to get the populace to fear than it is to love. 'Twas always thus.
Two weeks ago, I wrote an article commending Apple and Google for introducing smartphone technology that encrypted user information so well that federal police couldn't access it even if the phone was confiscated under a search warrant. I began the story with a rather extraordinary viewpoint, from the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigations:
James B. Comey is upset because Apple and Google have recently announced that they will be providing privacy -- via strong encryption -- as a feature in their personal computing products. Comey reached out to the companies to convince them to change their minds about their decision to, as he put it, "market something expressly to allow people to place themselves beyond the law."
One counter to the argument I made in this article (which was basically: "Go Apple! Go Google! Right on!") is to wonder why any upright citizen would object to police searching their photos and data, especially under a court-ordered search. It's not like the cops are going to misuse that data, right?
Welcome back once again to our ongoing pigeonholing exercise for this year's midterm Senate races. The big question, of course, is whether Republicans will pick up the six seats they need to wrest control of the chamber from the dastardly (according to them) Harry Reid and his Democratic minions. The answer to this pressing question is still not clear, and it actually may not be definitively answered until long after election night (for various interesting and wonky reasons).
Still, that doesn't stop the punditocracy ("wonkocracy," perhaps?) from making our predictions, so let's just dive in and make some rash and reckless prognostications, shall we? As always, in making these determinations I use the criteria of: news I've read about each race, all polling data available, and a good dose of common sense. That last one could also be read as "what my gut is telling me about each race," I fully admit.
The public is increasingly paying attention to each individual race, and in many states public debates have been held in the past week or so. Some races have firmed up as a result, and some are more chaotic than ever.
Yesterday's announcement that the Supreme Court would not review the marriage equality cases before it was a solid victory for marriage egalitarians (a term I just made up in the hopes everyone will immediately start using it). It was a solid defeat for the anti-egalitarians. Marriage equality will soon be reality in at least 30 out of 50 states. The others are likely to quickly follow, one way or another (as I sat down to write this I noted that yet another ruling from an appeals court was just announced, striking down anti-egalitarian laws in two more states -- something that has become so common, it is barely considered newsworthy any more). The only real question now is whether it'll take another Supreme Court case or just happen organically among the various federal appellate courts.
America has come a long way to get to this point. The past two years, the issue has moved forward at lightspeed in both the world of politics and the arena of public opinion. Social change is always a big rock that must be slowly and painfully pushed up a hill, but when you get to the top the rock starts rolling faster and faster by itself, gaining speed and momentum all the while.
Today I am taking a victory lap of sorts, because while the term "tipping point" is now in a lot of headlines, I actually predicted this chain of events a year and a half ago, in the column below. That doesn't sound like a whole lot of time, but consider that when I wrote this the following was true: