Gays and the GOP: Still Where We Always Were

Is the Republican party finally starting to come to its senses on the question of treating the gays with a modicum of dignity?  On the surface of things, it appears that may indeed be the case.  Every few months for the past few years, news is made when a prominent Republican, such as Laura Bush or Meghan McCain, publicly state their support the gay rights movement.  The fact that it’s newsworthy has nothing to do with the fact not that it’s official Republican policy (it’s not), but because it’s so far out of the mainstream of Republican political thought these days that it’s a novelty.

Recent developments in the past month have given some cause to think otherwise.  A laundry list of Republican notables signed onto an amicus brief in support of marriage equality for upcoming litigation in connection with the Defense of Marriage Act and California Proposition 8.  The list includes a bevy of conservatives from the northeast, former members of Congress and governors, party officials and campaign strategists.  Also of note, Jon Huntsman also came out in favor of marriage equality this past week, becoming the only GOP presidential contender from the past electoral cycle to have done so.  And S.E. Cupp, conservative commentator, refused an invitation to CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Committee conference, due to their continued exclusion of GOProud, a gay Republican (shudder) activist group.

This is progress, to be sure.  But the fact of the matter is this: Republican officials, be they members of Congress, legislators or governors, the ones currently in office and holding the reins of power, stand in stark contrast to these newly vocal fellow Republicans on this issue.  Bashing gay rights is still red meat for the base of the GOP, and no matter how many notable party officials, former elected officials and wives and children of former officials come out in favor of gay marriage, when it comes down to the calculus of power on the issue, the Republican party is still the same homophobic organization that they were when dialogue on the issue first started about twenty years ago.


Municipal Fiefdoms

Something odd about driving around metro Detroit is that you find yourself first in one city, two minutes later, another, and in another two minutes, yet another city.  Southeast Michigan, with its dense population, is a patchwork of lots of different municipal entities.  And while at one point, having lots of different municipalities probably made a fair amount of sense, there’s much more pressure now on municipalities to streamline their operations and merge as many functions as possible with neighboring entities.

Wayne County alone, at least according to my calculations, has at least 39 different police forces*.  That’s 39 different chiefs, 39 different payroll departments, 39 different HR departments, and 39 different of everything that a police department has.  If we considered all of the duplicative work that’s being done across agencies, the sum would be staggering.  Finding data on matters like this is somewhat challenging, so the precise scope of the financial savings that could be realized is hard to calculate, though, suffice it to say, instead of making further cuts in personnel, we could realize significant economies of scale by merging many of these departments into countywide organizations.

Municipalities have been having to do more with less for years.  The boom of the 1990s, with all of the accompanying tax revenues is  but a distant memory for a generation that has come of age amongst nothing but layoffs, closures and budget cuts.  Local governments, particularly in Detroit, have gotten to the point where further cuts isn’t cutting into the muscle, but the bone.  Consolidation of municipal services, be it school districts, libraries, police and fire departments, and a number of other services offered by local governments is the best possible method of putting local government on a sustainable fiscal basis.

Another upside of consolidation would be that in addition to saving money in the future, the opportunity could be used to make significant changes to the benefits and pension systems for retirees, which would also make them more fiscally sustainable, and they  needn’t consist solely of cuts or having to claw back benefits from workers and retirees.

But there’s going to be lots of problems with achieving this.  Opposition from the ranks of some public sector unions would inevitably arise.  There’s the racial dynamic at play, with municipalities such as Livonia or any of the Grosse Pointes probably being very, very hesitant to join forces with Detroit in anything.  And there’s the problem that the system we have in place right now, while not as efficient as it could be, isn’t in a crisis (yet) and is working relatively well (for the time being).  This is an issue that could be addressed with relative ease now, as compared to years in the future, waiting until the situation has reached the point of crisis, making the politics of all of it much more difficult.


*Include also Wayne State University PD, Detroit Medical Center Police.

The Man from Kalkaska

Meet one Republican, you’ve covered much of the spectrum that the GOP occupies.  Meet two dozen Democrats, and you’re only halfway there.  Republicans are a far more unified, ideologically coherent political party.  Democrats barely qualify as a party.  In my mind, I think a much more accurate description would be a coalition.

The Republican party is composed of the affluent, the religious and the rural.  Granted, there are segments of the GOP that fall under none of these categories, but these three groups form both the bulk of the muscle and the rank and file of the party.  With the Democrats, you have the following: labor, gays, Jews, blacks, Latinos, most of the ladies, urban dwellers, environmentalists.  This listing is also incomplete, but as with the characterization of the GOP above, these groups comprise the majority of the left.

So, depending on where you are in the country, Democrats can be very, very different creatures.  Historically in Michigan, the Democratic party has been an extension, by and large, of the labor movement.  Up until this weekend, for the last 18 years, Mark Brewer has led the Democratic party.  He withdrew at the last minute after it became clear that he would lose his tenth bid to be chairman of the Michigan party.

He was unseated by Lon Johnson, a 41 year old Michigan native from Kalkaska who recently narrowly lost (53%-47%) a race in a strongly Republican district in the Michigan House of Representatives.  Johnson has been a midlevel Democratic functionary in various campaigns and organizations for the past decade, and is married to Julianna Smoot, the deputy director of the President’s reelection campaign.

The thinking is that Johnson will bring the same sort of organizational talent to a moribund Michigan party apparatus that has been more concerned with turf wars and pushing a predominantly labor agenda.  Brewer, a creation of former US House whip David Bonior, was essentially the mouthpiece of labor, and conducted party policy as such.  Proposition 2 in the past electoral cycle was widely regarded as a pipe dream.  It would have enshrined collective bargaining as a constitutionally protected right in the state constitution.  It was a massively expensive political operation and failed by a wide margin during an electoral season when Democrats did well across the board.  In theory, the money that underwrote Prop 2 been dedicated to better field operations that could have potentially retaken the legislature for the the Democrats.

Brewer was widely viewed as having become very complacent during his long tenure, and this weekend, after a tactic that would have allotted much of the votes to Brewer supporters failed, he withdrew.  Lon Johnson took the help by unanimous acclamation.  Electoral intrigue and analysis of this sort is always fun.  Now it’s time to move a legislative agenda and extract as much as Democrats are able to out of Snyder by pitting him against the far right flank of his party.  It can be done, but it couldn’t be done by Brewer.  Let’s see how the man from Kalkaska can do it.

The Pain of Change

Change is the only constant in life, and yet we’re perpetually surprised that we have to change.  Mostly, we don’t like it, yet if we didn’t change, we would either fail or perish.  We frequently say we realize that we have to change and that it will be hard, yet when we find it so, we’re angry.  Political institutions, from time to time, ossify such to the extent that they’re so far out of step with reality that they lose their grip on power, and are forced out, replaced by people who are more in tune with reality, only to have the newcomers suffer the same fate as their predecessors.  It’s so predictable you could set a clock by it.

When I think about the Democratic party of the late 1970s and 1980s, it’s like looking at the Republican party of today.  You have a collection of warring factions facing off against one another in a contest that’s driven by ideology on one side (purists), and governing on the other (pragmatists).  Democrats dominated the federal government from the Great Depression until just before I was born.  From 1932 to 1994, Democrats held the gavel for 58 years, Republicans four.  Democrats won eight presidential elections.  Republicans won four.

Democrats took their dominance for granted, thinking that it would never slip away from them, such was the power of the coalition.  And beginning in the late 1970s, when the Republican party, hungry from years in the wilderness and energized at the prospect of picking off southern conservatives from the Democratic coalition began their ascent that led first to the election of Ronald Reagan in the 1980, and a GOP majority in the House in 1994.

The left had gotten fat and lazy, taking for granted that they would always be in power, and when they were resoundingly rejected by the electorate, gradually at first, and more and more decisively as time passed, the party did nothing.  Democrats doubled down on existing policy, oblivious to the fact that it was precisely those policies that had alienated them from the voters to begin with.  The party went through convulsions throughout the period, losing presidential elections in 1980, 1988 and 2000 that they could have won, but fumbled.  And it wasn’t until a young centrist Bill Clinton, with a center-left outlook, backed with the roaring economy of the 1990s, finally broke the Republican winning streak.

My point is this: the Republicans are in the wilderness, and they’re going to be there for some time.  Purists in the party just think they need to stick to their ‘winning’ conservative agenda.  Pragmatists recognize that they’re facing political oblivion for the near term and are focussing on preventing the purists from further highjacking the party.  The problem is that the reason of the pragmatists is blunted by the fury of the purists.  It doesn’t matter that the base of the party is deeply out of step with nearly every aspect of the rest of the country on policy, and that there’s no chance they’re able to advance their agenda.  What they’re experiencing is mostly an emotional reaction at being out of power, and likely having to stay there until they either moderate (as the Democrats did) or until America comes back around to their way of thinking, which, given the demography of this country, will not happen.

In the meantime, the Republicans are going to continue at an increasingly accelerated rate their soon to be spectacular implosion and the Democrats are going to continue to advance a center left agenda.

Infallible Corruption: White Smoke and Mirrors

For the second time in eight years, the Roman Catholic church finds itself at a juncture.  With each new papacy, the church has the opportunity to change direction.  At least, so we think.  To outsiders, the inner workings of the church are byzantine, with hardly any transparency.  What we know is basically what we are told, with speculation and inference constituting most of the substance.

When John Paul II died in 2005, the narrative that surrounded the elevation (election seems to strong a word for a process dominated entirely by less than 120 men) of Joseph Ratzinger, formerly the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly known as the Inquisition) amongst a plethora of other Vatican bureaucratic entities, he was deemed to be a ‘caretaker’ candidate, one who would preside over the church, but not do much to reform it, despite increasing calls from across the world to do so.  Ratzinger was a staunch traditionalist and conservative, and there was nothing in his record, either as a church functionary or as a theologian, to indicate that his papacy would either embrace, promote or tolerate anything that even remotely smacked of liberalization or reform.

He did not disappoint.  The only real changes that the church made during this time was an increasingly more pervasive acknowledgement of the pedophilia scandal and changes surrounding the administration of the Vatican Bank.  Neither was truly voluntary on the part of church leaders in Rome, as political forces from secular governments, mostly at the behest of the United States, forced the changes.  Criminal charges against more and more priests in the US along with anti-money laundering practices in the wake of 9/11 prompted American authorities to increasingly apply more pressure on the church to change how it handles these matters.  What’s surprising is not that the American government applied pressure, as these are legitimate governmental aims (to protect your own citizens, either from pedophile clergymen or terrorists that may have employed the Vatican Bank to launder money) but that the pressure to change prompted resistance within the church to change at all.

The fact of the matter is that when we think of the Vatican and the need for it to reform, we think of theological matters.  Ordination of women, allowing priests to marry, reforming church doctrine in connection with gays, birth control and a myriad of other issues that the church has ignored for decades all are crying out for updating.

But if the church is unable to reform the political practices and legal matters about which there is no theological imperative, how is it to change the theology (directly ordained by God, and infallibly so).  This is a church that decided only six years ago, that unbaptized babies do not, repeat, do not, indeed go to hell. It took two thousand years for this ridiculous, relatively minor theological point to finally be discarded.

So then how is the church going to get to the important theological stuff?  It’s not.  The fact of the matter is that when you have fewer than 120 men, all of whom were appointed by Benedict and John Paul, the possibility for change is nonexistent.  We may have some window dressing in the form of a pope who does not hail from Europe, or perhaps is non-white, but that’s about as much change as is likely until an existential crisis either destroys the church, or forces substantial changes upon it in order to survive, albeit it in a radically altered state.  God himself may not even be able to save this church after the College of Cardinals are through with it.

Melting Wings

One would think that in politics, the process of running campaigns, with all of their public scrutiny and glare from the press, would have a way of weeding out the nut jobs.  And usually, that’s the case.  Most of the time the process works, and it works well.  Case in point: most Republican senatorial candidates.  Most of them were just too nuts, and didn’t pass muster.

But every once in a while, there’s a candidate that somehow, despite all of their aggregated nuttiness, manages to make it past the post and into office.  And even more rarely, do those figures manage to establish for themselves a national reputation.  These figures come along about once a decade and their ascents are about as meteoric as their inevitable crashes back to earth are messy and swift.  By definition, these are candidates that do not attract broad levels of support, but rather an almost cult-like following among certain segments of the population.  And just one such candidate is Michele Bachman.

Despised by the gays (and pretty much anyone else with a modicum of either common sense or decency) Michele Bachmann is an extremely conservative Republican Congresswoman from Minnesota.  Her presidential campaign in 2012 was in the lead in Iowa for a minute in late 2011, a prospect over which Democrats salivated, for reasons which will shortly be presented.  Her policy positions were the expected laundry list of fundamentalist Christian bullshit, a visceral hatred of the government over which she wanted to preside and the certainty that the Muslins are coming to get us.

After she dropped out of the race, her public profile receded, as would be expected, and she faced unusually still competition from a Democratic challenger for her House seat.  And now, there’s some allegations that, throughout the course of her campaigns, both presidential and congressional, that she may have had some ethical ‘lapses,’ shall we say.  These include, but are not limited to, stealing a contact list from an Iowa home-schooling organization and failing to pay staffers even after an invoice was presented to the campaign.

These allegations, in and of themselves, are nothing fatal.  But the fact of the matter is that these sort of things do not happen in isolation.  Candidates, and, by extension, their campaigns, do not just do one unseemly, possibly illegal act, and then go back to their otherwise God-fearing, law-abiding ways.  What this indicates, is that the more money, attention and influence that Bachmann obtained, the more that she wanted, and the more willing she became to do what was necessary to get it.  And when one matter warrants attention, other matters, previously unscrutinized, are suddenly unearthed by people, either investigators or journalists.  These stories are still in their respective infancies, and they may (or may not) have legs, but they are certainly worth watching in the near future.

Reverting to the Mean

If you lived in America before 1913 and weren’t rich, you were paying a whole hell of a lot more in taxes, proportionally speaking, than the men and women who, for all intents and purposes, owned the country.  Through a system of excise taxes, tariffs and fees, the bulk of which fell disproportionally on the working, middle and agricultural classes, the government financed its rather limited aims.  Throughout most of the course of the century after 2013, American politics moved steadily towards a more progressive model of taxation.

It was nearly a century ago now, on February 3rd, 1913, that the Sixteenth Amendment was ratified and the federal government (and subsequently, the states) then had the power to directly tax income.  It was around this time that the country was beginning to want more government (a movement that, somewhat counterintuitively, was started by progressive Republican Teddy Roosevelt).  The federal government and most states, one by one, instituted an income tax.  This had the effect of both providing more money for governments to use as they saw fit (wars, healthcare, infrastructure, etc.) and also had the added bonus of taxes, for the first time in the US being apportioned according ability to pay.

And for years, that model worked.  The further up the income chain you go, understandably, the less popular it is.  Because the more money you earn, the more you pay in taxes.  And while nobody likes paying taxes, as Oliver Wendell Holmes acidly noted in an opinion from about a century ago, they’re the price we pay for living in a civilized society.  However, a trend is accelerating, one that began, I think in the 1980s.  Some states are looking to get rid of their income and corporate taxes entirely (or at least greatly reduce), and replace them with, you guessed it, sales taxes, user fees and a myriad of other charges that let the wealthy escape entirely undertaxed.

Their argument goes something like this: tax the job creators less, and we’ll have more jobs, more growth and more revenue, which means that we’ll have even more revenue, eventually.  The problem with this policy is that the country’s been trying it since it was first proposed by Ronald Reagan, and the revenue hasn’t materialized.  Statistically, mathematically, politically and economically, it just boils down to a massive tax break for those that need tax relief the least.  It’s the economic equivalent of hallucinations or paranoid delusion: magical thinking at its worst.

This is a mistake which comes at a particularly damaging time.  In the first place, the US is barreling towards a self-inflicted fiscal crisis, which, if ignored, will decimate our economy.  Republicans say we just have a spending problem, but as nobody seems to agree on what to do with those entitlement programs we ardently adore (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid), and we’re not going to either get rid of those programs, or cut them to the point where they’re fiscally sustainable.  As a country, we’ve already decided that we’re going to keep the programs, which means as we’ve already decided what we want, means that we have a taxation problem.  And the second part of the problem is that if we revert to a program of taxation that falls disproportionally on the middle and lower classes, that’s just one more thing that they can look forward to, on top of spiraling grocery, healthcare, college and housing bills.  That’s bad politics, bad for the economy and it’s just wrong.