Happy Earth Day, Hippies!

[ Posted Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014 – 17:14 PDT ]

Today is Earth Day, and I'd like to take the occasion to give some credit to an oft-maligned group of people: hippies. I say this in all seriousness, without a trace of condescension or irony whatsoever, since they regularly get that sort of thing elsewhere (by the truckload). I say it because the radicals known as hippies have actually been amazingly victorious in changing American culture in all sorts of ways -- even though they seldom get any credit for pioneering ideas that were once considered (at best) "far out," but are now so mainstream that they fit comfortably in every suburb across the land. And Earth Day is a perfect time to do so, since it is the "hippiest" (to coin a phrase) of all the modern holidays and celebrations.

Now, I realize how a lot of people look down their noses at hippies and sneer -- both now and in the past. For many, in fact, the term is never used without the preface "dirty," which just goes to show how low their public image has almost always been. From the 1960s John Birchers to today's South Park, hippies haven't enjoyed much of a cheering section. Also, I should point out at the start that the term itself has changed over time, so that the hippies of today (or 1996, or 1983...) aren't quite the same as the hippies of the 1960s and early 1970s. I'm mainly going to refer to the original hippie culture of the Summer of Love and San Francisco that (later) moved out to communes to "live off the land," just to be clear. Call them "paleo-hippies," if you will.

What might be called the "triumph of the hippies" (a title I even considered for today's article) is pretty astounding when viewed from a historical perspective. It's a story of radical notions, crazy outside-the-box thinking, and far-out concepts becoming more and more acceptable -- until some of them are so ingrained into everyday life that it's now hard to even comprehend how radical and controversial their origins truly were. I'm going to start with two examples that don't even really fit my main narrative, just because they show how mainstream American public attitudes can change, over time.

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What's Wrong With Meet The Press

[ Posted Monday, April 21st, 2014 – 16:39 PDT ]

NBC's Sunday morning political talk show Meet The Press has one thing going for it that almost no other television show can lay claim to: it will never ever be cancelled. The reason for this fundamental certainty is that NBC, by continuing the show, can continue to claim that they've got "America's longest-running television show." And NBC is never going to give up that bragging right, for any reason. So the show itself isn't in any kind of trouble, because there will be something airing on Sunday mornings called Meet The Press long after all of us are dead. It's about as permanent as you can get in the media business, in other words. It's been around for well over six decades, and it's not going away any time soon.

On the other hand, whether current host David Gregory is around for very much longer is becoming more of an open question these days, especially after the Washington Post just published a long story about the woeful state of affairs at Meet The Press under Gregory's lead. Ratings are down. Way down -- down to third place, behind both ABC's This Week and CBS's Face The Nation (which is currently leading the ratings pack), although still ahead of Fox News Sunday (which trails far behind in a distant fourth).

While most are focusing on a juicy tidbit from the Post story about a consultant hired to figure out what is wrong -- not with the show, but with Gregory himself -- what struck me was the tenor of the comments on the Washington Post website. Lefties and righties don't much agree on the reasons why, but they do agree on one basic concept: David Gregory is a terrible host. I didn't see a single comment defending him, in fact (although this is a purely subjective sample, I freely admit).

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Friday Talking Points [300] -- Our 4/20 Acronym Contest Challenge

[ Posted Friday, April 18th, 2014 – 17:24 PDT ]

Three hundred of these columns? To coin a phrase... far out, man.

We'll get to patting ourselves on the back in a bit, but first we'd like to propose a party game for this weekend's big 4/20 festivities across the land. So put this in your (metaphorical) pipe and smoke it.

The rules for this contest are pretty simple. First, you've got to picture a day in the future when the Weed Wars are completely over, with marijuana reform having won the biggest victory of all: a complete change in the federal government's viewpoint. Not just rescheduling, but descheduling, in other words. The feds throw in the towel and decide to treat marijuana not as a dangerous and illegal drug, but as a regulated vice like tobacco and alcohol. In other words, total victory for the reformers.

OK, got that image in your mind? Here's where you need to get creative. If marijuana is descheduled, what would happen to it, in terms of the federal government? Well, they would take it away from the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and hand it off to the official "vice control" agency. But (and here's where the contest comes in) then they'd have to rename this agency.

The obvious choice would be to add it to what used to just be called "ATF" or sometimes "BATF" -- the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. This name was expanded a while back to include explosives, making "BATFE." Now, the easiest way to change the name gives us a rather strange acronym for the new Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, Explosives, and Marijuana: "BATFEM." Um... we're not sure that's an improvement over "Batgirl," really.

So our challenge is to come up with a better acronym. The rules: you can use either "marijuana" or "cannabis," and you can change "bureau" to "agency" or "commission" or any other governmental collective noun. This means you can add an M or C to the core letters A, T, F, and E; and then use a B or A or C (or whatever) at either end. Got that? So who has a better acronym than BATFEM for the real end to marijuana reform: what to call the bureau or agency that would federally regulate marijuana? This once seemed like pie in the sky -- too much to even hope for -- but is now within the bounds of possibility. So scramble those letters, and post your entries in the comments! Get creative!

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Democrats' Evolution On Marijuana Policy

[ Posted Thursday, April 17th, 2014 – 17:20 PDT ]

Over the past five or ten years, Democratic politicians have all but completed a full evolution (to use President Obama's term) on the subject of gay marriage. In 2008, both Hillary Clinton and Obama were against gay marriage. In the 2012 election, Obama came out in support while Hillary did so about a nanosecond after she stepped down as Secretary of State. It is now getting tougher and tougher for any Democratic politician to not support gay marriage. As I said, the evolution is almost complete within the party. The question I now ask is how long that evolution is going to take on a different subject: marijuana reform.

The reason the question is in the news is that Maryland's governor, Martin O'Malley, just signed a law which decriminalizes marijuana in his state. This is interesting for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it is no secret that O'Malley sees himself as future presidential material and he'll soon be running hard (for at least Hillary's veep slot in 2016) to achieve this goal. What is more interesting is that O'Malley initially didn't support the bill, and in fact spoke out against it as it was being debated. But now he has signed it, because his own party in the legislature disagreed with O'Malley. It remains to be seen whether he'll actually become a champion of the law or not, but he sure sounds pretty positive about it so far.

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Are Political Lies Constitutional?

[ Posted Wednesday, April 16th, 2014 – 16:11 PDT ]

Are political lies constitutionally-protected free speech? That's an intriguing question, and one that the Supreme Court is going to take up next week. What makes the question interesting is how a valid argument could be made either way, no matter what your personal politics. Both sides resent well-funded politicians who blanket the airwaves with what they see as the baldest of falsehoods, but on the other hand political free speech is an absolute bedrock of the American system of government. Where do you draw the line? Should a line even be drawn?

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Good News For Obamacare

[ Posted Tuesday, April 15th, 2014 – 16:41 PDT ]

If life were but a metaphor, the headlines would now be reading: "Train Does Not Wreck, Pulls Into Station 7 Minutes Early." Of course, I am speaking of Obamacare, a subject which Republicans have all but reduced (in their own minds, at least) to a mumbling mantra: "trainwreck... trainwreck... trainwreck." But as more and more good news appears, the real story (with apologies to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of course) is "the train which did not wreck in the night."

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Democrats Should Widen Focus On Voter Suppression

[ Posted Monday, April 14th, 2014 – 16:17 PDT ]

What with the ceremonies at the L.B.J. presidential library last week to commemorate the Civil Rights Act of 1964 becoming law, the subject of current-day voter suppression was brought up by several Democrats, including President Obama. While it was important to spotlight Republican efforts to move backwards on expanding voting rights in the speeches, what was noticeable on the weekend political talk shows was how adept Republicans are at centering their entire argument around voter identification laws. Democrats presenting their own case seemed willing to go along with this, for the most part.

Now, Democratic willingness to directly take on the arguments of voter ID laws is admirable. Democrats know that the facts are on their sides, and they repeatedly point out that voter fraud is pretty much non-existent in America today. If you added up all the successfully-prosecuted cases of voter fraud for the past three or four election cycles, the total would be not be enough to swing even a statewide race, much less a national one. The Republican efforts are nothing short of a "solution" in search of a problem.

That's a good case to make, and Democrats (to their credit) have been pretty strongly making it. But if Democrats focus solely on the voter ID laws -- as the conversation always seems to do -- they wind up ignoring a much wider and much more sweeping political case they could instead be focusing on. I am not suggesting here, to put this another way, that Democrats back off on defending their position at all. I am merely pointing out that focusing solely on voter ID means leaving a more-powerful argument on the table, undiscussed. Which is a shame.

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Friday Talking Points [299] -- Happy 50th, Civil Rights Act Of 1964!

[ Posted Friday, April 11th, 2014 – 17:14 PDT ]

We have some "old business" to take care of here, first, before we begin. Last week, the subtitle of this column was "And Counting," which referred to the 7.1 million signup figure reached by the Obamacare exchanges. Our point was for all Democrats to always tack this phrase onto any stat quoted about Obamacare, to make a very basic point. We're happy to report that one week later, the official number has now changed. Which means the new slogan is:

"Obamacare signups: 7.5 million. And counting."

OK, enough of that, let's get on with the week that was. Tax time is right around the corner, and the I.R.S. is in the news again, and not in a good way. Seems due to a clause someone (nobody will admit to it) in Congress tacked on to a bill awhile back, the federal government can now go back further than 10 years to collect unpaid debts. Doesn't sound so controversial, until you hear what "unpaid debts" really means to them: some ancient overpayment from the government (on Social Security, for instance) that they don't even have records to prove -- which were overpaid not to the people the I.R.S. is now going after, but instead, to their parents. Wow. I mean, just... wow. Paul Ryan better hope his family's paperwork was in order.

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I Don't Care Who Is On Before Craig Ferguson

[ Posted Thursday, April 10th, 2014 – 17:00 PDT ]

To borrow (or, more accurately, "to blatantly steal") a phrase: "It's a great day for America!"

Those of you who understand why that previous sentence (in relation to this article's title) is a joke, please keep reading. Those of you who don't, well, I apologize because this column has seemingly wandered into some sort of Bizarro World, what with two columns discussing popular television programs this week (which has to be, to put it mildly, a first here at Today, the subject du jour is late-night television, specifically that which airs on CBS. So if you're one of those people who never watches such things at midnight (or thereabouts), then I would strongly suggest you occupy your time today with other things than this column. Seriously, even watching a funny cat video will likely be a more productive use of your time.

Where was I? Oh, right... the greatness of today for America.

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Election-Year Posturing From Congress Defines Campaigns

[ Posted Wednesday, April 9th, 2014 – 16:43 PDT ]

Congress is now doing what it normally does, in an election year. This is not intended to sound cynical, as I actually think it is a good thing for a divided Congress to stand up for its divided beliefs -- even while knowing that almost none of the bills it now votes on have a prayer of becoming law before the election. But these bills do serve an important purpose, and that is to define the two parties' differing agendas and priorities for the campaign. The clearer the picture that emerges between Democrats and Republicans, the better idea the citizenry has of what it is supporting in the ballot box, come November. So I actually welcome all the posturing which is now happening in both houses.

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