We know there's that pesky clause in the Constitution and all, but doesn't it seem like today would have been more appropriate for Donald Trump's inauguration? That's our way of saying "Happy Friday the 13th" to everyone, we should point out. Ahem.
During certain periods of the year, we have been known to overuse sports metaphors when talking about politics. But our guess is that the favorite quotes to overuse for the next four years will be those from Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass. We were reminded of one of these while watching the week unfold, from a Trump press conference to the confirmation hearings to the Republicans smacking into reality on their "repeal and replace with nothing" dreams for Obamacare. Here's the quote:
Alice laughed: "There's no use trying," she said; "one can't believe impossible things." "I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
Yep, it was that kind of week. Ben Carson got off the most amusing line of the entire week, in fact. While responding to a question from Senator Elizabeth Warren about whether he'd be sending Housing and Urban Development funds straight to Donald Trump's pocket, Carson stated unequivocally: "It would not be my intention to do anything that would benefit any American." Well, glad you cleared that one up, Dr. Ben! Nothing like setting the bar as low as humanly possible, eh?
The other laughable statement of the week came from a little-noticed hearing for James Comey, where he was asked whether the F.B.I. has investigated reported relationships between members of the Trump campaign and Russia. Comey hilariously responded: "I would never comment on investigations, whether we have one or not, in an open forum like this. So I really can't answer it one way or another." Senator Angus King pointed out the absurdity of this statement, given Comey's recent history of doing precisely that (when the target was named Hillary Clinton): "The irony of your making that statement here, I cannot avoid." Later in the week, the F.B.I. Inspector General announced that an investigation of Comey had begun, for his naked interference in the presidential campaign. About time -- although more than a little late. If this investigation had been opened immediately after Comey gave his first press conference on Clinton's emails last summer, then his subsequent letter to Congress might never have been written, to put it bluntly.
The Republicans in Congress have notably become Wonderland characters on their own, as they flail about trying to square the circle on their plans for Obamacare. They're doing a great imitation of the dog that caught the car, and didn't know what to do with it, in fact. For those who haven't had enough impossible things to ponder before breakfast, here's a quick rundown of the irreconcilable Republican positions:
- Obamacare is universally bad -- there is nothing good or beneficial about it.
- Repealing Obamacare means a "rescue mission" for the country (Paul Ryan's term).
- However, Republicans have no replacement ready, meaning that returning everything to the pre-Obamacare era is what is actually on the table at the moment.
- Obamacare actually saves the government lots of money.
- Republicans are against adding anything to the deficit.
- But repealing Obamacare is so important that they'll agree to ten trillion dollars added to the national debt over the next decade.
- Also, tens of millions of people will lose insurance if Obamacare is repealed with no replacement.
- Meanwhile, Republicans are assuring those people who do get Obamacare benefits that they'll be fine under the Republican plan -- the one that doesn't exist -- even though Obamacare doesn't benefit anybody at all, in their opinion.
That about sums up the quandary Republicans now face. Charles Dodgson might call it being trapped in circular logic. Congressional leaders are actually now getting pushback -- from fellow Republicans -- over "repeal and replace with nothing," for two big reasons. First, the deficit hawks can actually see how repealing Obamacare is going to blow up the budget. Second, there are actually sane Republicans who realize a whole bunch of their own constituents are going to be left to die on the streets if their insurance disappears.
At the moment, Republicans are committed to coming up with a full replacement plan -- one that, according to Donald Trump, will be cheaper and better and won't throw anybody off their insurance -- by January 27th. So it looks like it'll be a busy couple of weeks, folks! The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act took about a year and a half to pass Congress, but Republicans will replace it inside of two weeks -- despite coming up with absolutely nothing for the last seven years.
Not enough impossible things to believe? Here's a former top aide to George W. Bush, outlining what Trump has promised to do immediately upon taking office:
On the first day of his presidency, Donald Trump will face a serious governing challenge of his own creation.
He has promised a tax cut that will, by one estimate, reduce federal revenue by $7 trillion over 10 years. He has promised an infrastructure initiative that may cost an additional trillion. He has promised to rebuild the military. He has effectively promised not to make changes in Social Security and Medicare. And he has promised to move swiftly toward a balanced federal budget.
Taken together, these things can't be taken together. Trump has made a series of pledges that can't be reconciled. If he knew this during the campaign, he is cynical. If he is only finding out now, he is benighted. In either case, something has to give.
And that's without even mentioning the impossible Obamacare replacement goals!
Let's see, what else is going on? Donald Trump infamously alluded to the size of his penis during a presidential debate, so it wasn't all that surprising that he'd address reports of hiring Russian prostitutes to... um... "shower him with gold" (shall we say), during his press conference. Buckle up, America, we're in for a seriously wild ride for the next four years....
Trump also made news this week by his continued bromance with Vladimir Putin, which is causing noise complaints from residents of Simi Valley, California -- because Ronald Reagan is whirling so fast in his grave that neighbors now require ear plugs to block out the din.
Trump appointed his son-in-law as senior advisor, and announced a not-blind-at-all trust for his holdings, which will be run by his two sons, Tweedledee Trump and Tweedledum Trump. This virtually assures that he will be in violation of the Constitution (the "emoluments clause") starting on Day One. What could possibly go wrong with that arrangement?
One thing worth noting is that Donald Trump is likely going to enter office with the lowest public approval rating of any president since public opinion polling began. He is barely above an average of 40 percent approval (he's actually below 40 in several polls), when even George W. Bush (right in the midst of all the Bush v. Gore fiasco) was polling around 60 percent approval just before taking office. Most presidents experience their highest public approval ratings of their entire presidency in their first week in office, it is worth mentioning. Maybe Trump will give Dubya and Richard Nixon a run for "lowest presidential approval rating of all time," who knows? He'd have to sink into the low 20s before that happens, but at this point it seems a real possibility.
And we have to end with a story that got almost zero attention, because Fox strove to keep it so quiet. Seems that the network had to pay out yet another sexual harassment complaint settlement, this time to a woman who accused Bill O'Reilly of improper behavior. The letter sent by her attorney laid out what she'd be accusing O'Reilly of in a lawsuit, which "included details of unwanted propositions and harassing phone calls, during some of which O'Reilly apparently was masturbating." We leave it as an exercise for the reader to come up with your own "no-spin zone" joke.
We're just going to go with the obvious this week, and hand out two Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week awards, to President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
Never have we appreciated them more than in their final days in office, especially considering who is about to replace them. Barack Obama gave a very moving and poignant farewell address (much more on that in the talking points section), and he surprised Biden with a Presidential Medal of Freedom this week, which gave Biden a chance to share the spotlight at the very end.
Barack Obama achieved some goals, fell short on others, but he was a decent man and a role model to the nation throughout his presidency. Donald Trump has had more scandals since he's been elected (some might even say "in the past week") than the Obama administration had for their entire eight years in office. That is a record to be proud of.
And even while all the cameras are turned to the Trump circus, Obama is still making historic changes on his way out the door. Getting rid of the "wet feet, dry feet" policy towards Cuban refugees was inevitable once Obama opened Cuba back up, but Obama made sure it happened before the next administration takes office.
Cuban immigrants will still get special status in America (from the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act), which will take an act of Congress to change. But there is now no reason that Cubans entering the country should be treated any differently than people from any other country. Obama said in his statement: "Cuban nationals who attempt to enter the United States illegally... will be subject to removal." They will be treated "the same way we treat migrants from other countries." That's only fair, at this point, and it'll be tough for Trump to overturn a policy that gives certain undocumented immigrants a free pass, one assumes.
No matter what historians think of the rest of his legacy, Barack Obama will go down in history as the president who re-opened Cuba. That's pretty impressive right there.
For all the good that they both have done, for never embarrassing the nation, and for moving American society forward in many ways, President Obama and Vice President Biden certainly deserve their swansong Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week awards. They both shall be missed, that much is certain.
[Congratulate President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden via the official White House contact page, to let them both know you appreciate their efforts.]
We certainly were pretty disappointed with the confirmation hearings, since other than notably pointed questions by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, there wasn't a lot of grilling happening from Democrats on the committees.
But instead, coincidentally enough (on Friday the 13th), this week we have a whopping thirteen winners of the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award. We'll list them all at the end, but the most noticeable was unquestionably Senator Cory Booker, who has obvious plans to run for president next time around.
These 13 Senate Democrats all voted against allowing the importation of prescription drugs from Canada, which would save whoppingly huge sums of money. Twelve Republicans crossed the aisle in favor of this bill, but this was offset by the 13 Democrats who voted against it. Jezebel pointed out a funny coincidence about this group:
Between 2010 and 2016, a handful of the Democratic senators who voted "nay" were amongst the top Senate recipients funded by pharmaceutical companies: Sen. [Cory] Booker received $267,338; Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) received $254,649; Robert Casey (D-PA) received $250,730; Michael Bennet (D-CO) received $222,000.
Funny how that works, isn't it? Their stated opposition was because the bill "didn't do enough to assure safety," which is laughable -- this isn't the Third World we're talking about, the bill only would have allowed drugs in from Canada. Also, R. J. Eskow pointed out a contradiction to this stance:
But here's the big question: If Booker and the other Democrats are so concerned about drug safety, why did they vote for the 21st Century Cures Act? Sold as a path to innovation, the bill was actually a massive giveaway to drug companies that wanted an end-run around safety regulations.
Again, strange how that works, isn't it? These senators vote against safety when big Pharma tells them to, and for safety when that would negatively affect Pharma's bottom line. Curiouser and curiouser!
Here's the complete, shameful list of which Democrats care more about drug companies than consumers: Michael Bennet (Colorado), Cory Booker (New Jersey), Maria Cantwell (Washington), Tom Carper (Delaware), Bob Casey (Pennsylvania), Chris Coons (Delaware), Joe Donnelly (Indiana), Martin Heinrich (New Mexico), Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota), Robert Menendez (New Jersey), Patty Murray (Washington), Jon Tester (Montana), and Mark Warner (Virginia). Looks like there are a lot of drug companies in New Jersey, Delaware, and Washington, from that list. For being corporate suckups rather than fighting for the little guy, all unlucky 13 get a Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award.
[Rather than provide everyone's individual contact information, if your senator(s) are on that list, use the main Senate contact page to get his or her email, if you'd like to let them know what you think of their actions.]
Volume 421 (1/13/17)
Today's talking points section is being pre-empted by a review (with extended excerpts) of President Obama's farewell address. It's rather long, but although we've done these "analyze the speech" sorts of columns pretty regularly, we probably won't be doing many for the next few years. So if you're tired of the format, this'll be the last one for a while, we promise.
Obama's farewell address is already being compared to George Washington's, not for oratory prowess, but for the similarities in the warnings given. Washington expounded on what he saw as the biggest danger to the nascent democracy -- political parties (or "factions," as Washington called them). Barack Obama's address was a number of things -- a review of his legacy and a big thank-you to the American public, among others -- but what made it notable were the warnings from Obama on partisanship and political polarization. Obama certainly got a face full of all that, pretty much from Day One, so he's definitely given the matter some thought.
In any case, this is going to be long enough as is, so let's just move on to the most notable (and quotable) parts of Obama's final big speech. You can read the whole transcript if what follows isn't enough for you (although since it's the White House's official website, who knows if this link will work next week or not). No editing of the text has been done in our excerpts, except for removing all the "(Applause)" indications (which make it harder to read).
President Barack Obama's Farewell Address
President Obama started his speech out by giving a big shout-out to the people of Chicago (which, of course, the crowd loved), and then laid out his own definition of what it means to be an American:
This is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it.
After eight years as your President, I still believe that. And it's not just my belief. It's the beating heart of our American idea -- our bold experiment in self-government. It's the conviction that we are all created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It's the insistence that these rights, while self-evident, have never been self-executing; that We, the People, through the instrument of our democracy, can form a more perfect union.
. . .
So that's what we mean when we say America is exceptional -- not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change and make life better for those who follow. Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard. It's always been contentious. Sometimes it's been bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all and not just some.
If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history -- if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran's nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, take out the mastermind of 9/11 -- if I had told you that we would win marriage equality, and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens -- if I had told you all that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high. But that's what we did. That's what you did.
You were the change. You answered people's hopes, and because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started.
Obama then moved on to warning of the dangers he saw America facing right now and in the near future (this is par for the course for presidential farewell addresses, it's worth mentioning):
That's what I want to focus on tonight: The state of our democracy. Understand, democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders argued. They quarreled. Eventually they compromised. They expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity -- the idea that for all our outward differences, we're all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.
There have been moments throughout our history that threatens that solidarity. And the beginning of this century has been one of those times. A shrinking world, growing inequality; demographic change and the specter of terrorism -- these forces haven't just tested our security and our prosperity, but are testing our democracy, as well. And how we meet these challenges to our democracy will determine our ability to educate our kids, and create good jobs, and protect our homeland. In other words, it will determine our future.
To begin with, our democracy won't work without a sense that everyone has economic opportunity. And the good news is that today the economy is growing again. Wages, incomes, home values, and retirement accounts are all rising again. Poverty is falling again. The wealthy are paying a fairer share of taxes even as the stock market shatters records. The unemployment rate is near a 10-year low. The uninsured rate has never, ever been lower. Health care costs are rising at the slowest rate in 50 years. And I've said and I mean it -- if anyone can put together a plan that is demonstrably better than the improvements we've made to our health care system and that covers as many people at less cost, I will publicly support it.
Because that, after all, is why we serve. Not to score points or take credit, but to make people's lives better.
Obama then moved on to address the state of race relations in America, first pointing out, "I've lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10, or 20, or 30 years ago, no matter what some folks say," which is undeniably true; then he moved on to challenge Americans to do better in the future, offering up some interesting specifics:
For blacks and other minority groups, it means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face -- not only the refugee, or the immigrant, or the rural poor, or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who, from the outside, may seem like he's got advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change. We have to pay attention, and listen.
For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn't suddenly vanish in the '60s -- that when minority groups voice discontent, they're not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness. When they wage peaceful protest, they're not demanding special treatment but the equal treatment that our Founders promised.
For native-born Americans, it means reminding ourselves that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, and Italians, and Poles -- who it was said we're going to destroy the fundamental character of America. And as it turned out, America wasn't weakened by the presence of these newcomers; these newcomers embraced this nation's creed, and this nation was strengthened.
Obama then admitted that we all are going to have to try harder, and pivoted to a more general point about the state of our politics:
And that's not easy to do. For too many of us, it's become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. The rise of naked partisanship, and increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste -- all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable. And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it's true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.
And this trend represents a third threat to our democracy. But politics is a battle of ideas. That's how our democracy was designed. In the course of a healthy debate, we prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point, and that science and reason matter -- then we're going to keep talking past each other, and we'll make common ground and compromise impossible.
Obama then thanked the military, called being Commander-in-Chief "the honor of my lifetime," and offered advice that (while not mentioning him by name) seemed directed at the next man to lead our military:
But protecting our way of life, that's not just the job of our military. Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear. So, just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are.
And that's why, for the past eight years, I've worked to put the fight against terrorism on a firmer legal footing. That's why we've ended torture, worked to close Gitmo, reformed our laws governing surveillance to protect privacy and civil liberties. That's why I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans, who are just as patriotic as we are.
. . .
So let's be vigilant, but not afraid. ISIL will try to kill innocent people. But they cannot defeat America unless we betray our Constitution and our principles in the fight. Rivals like Russia or China cannot match our influence around the world -- unless we give up what we stand for -- and turn ourselves into just another big country that bullies smaller neighbors.
Obama then issued a call to action to all Americans:
Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it's really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power. We, the people, give it meaning. With our participation, and with the choices that we make, and the alliances that we forge. Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law. That's up to us. America is no fragile thing. But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.
. . .
It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we've been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. Because for all our outward differences, we, in fact, all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy: Citizen. Citizen.
So, you see, that's what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there's an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you're tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life. If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you're disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Stay at it.
Obama then gave a heartfelt thank-you to the members of his family and to Joe Biden (Michelle Obama's praise got the biggest applause of the entire night, it's worth pointing out), before finishing on a very high note indeed:
I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written: Yes, we can. Yes, we did. Yes, we can.
One last endearing footnote from Obama's final speech as president: at one point, even though constitutionally impossible, the crowd broke into a chant of "Four more years! Four more years!" It's hard, at this point, not to sympathize with that sentiment. We'll miss you, President Obama, probably faster than any of us thought.
-- Chris Weigant