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Posts published in “First Take”

Sticks and stones


The predictions of everyone claiming any expertise were unanimous that Bernie Sanders would never be a viable Presidential candidate because as soon as the fact that he is a socialist sinks in, his standing in the polls will plummet into oblivion. Trump, to accelerate this expectation, has been referring to the senator not only as a socialist but also as a communist.

All were wrong, obviously. Sanders’ numbers have continue to improve. The revelation of Sanders’ economic philosophy, even with Trump’s help, is having little effect. The outcome is far from certain, but the senator from Vermont who proclaims himself to be a democratic socialist is clearly a viable candidate. What happened here? How did the predictors miss the mark by so much? As is readily apparent, the labels of socialism, or even communism, no longer appear to strike fear in the heart of the mainstream voter. The increasing reaction to such labels is a mild shrug and casual “meh!” A brief look at history reveals what has probably happened.

Everyone of age at after the end of World War II, and continuing into the 1980s, lived in the shadow of the former Soviet Union, the bastion of what was called international communism and the dedicated enemy of the free world. Although Joseph Stalin had been an ally by necessity in the war, he was considered by the western powers only slightly preferable to Adolf Hitler. After Germany surrendered, Winston Churchill even advocated that the western allies preemptively invade Russia to depose Stalin for good. Instead, a Cold War resulted that lasted for close to 40 years. One brutal Soviet dictator followed another as our nation endured Korea and then Viet Nam, all the while believing we were at risk for immediate nuclear annihilation. Because of the dreadful circumstances of all of this, the term “communist” with all its variations, and to some extent the term “socialist” with all its variations, acquired the same pejorative connotation as the term “Nazi” had earned during the war.

It used to be that to call someone a “communist” anywhere, or a “socialist” in those regions which did not carefully distinguish the meaning of such terms, was to accuse the individual of treachery, high treason, incitement to overthrow the government, conspiracy to murder and perhaps grand theft – all rolled into one word. Even though the actual meaning of the words pertain to benign economic theories, and even though the economic theories were of no relevance to the cruelty of the totalitarian Soviet regime, nevertheless the words became powerful insults capable, often unfairly, of wrecking the reputations and destroying the dreams of many. Branding anyone as such, and making it stick, was considered the ultimate disenfranchisement one could impose upon a political opponent.

Time passed. Suddenly, in the mid-1980s, the Evil Empire crumbled and the Cold War ended. The fear of mutual nuclear annihilation dissipated. As one generation passed on to be replaced by another, the electorate began to fill up with voters who came of age after the Cold War ended. With the imperialistic Soviet Union no longer, and the fear of nuclear attack evaporating, the provocative nuances of the terms “communist” and “socialist” began to dissipate. Furthermore, the United States economy, which had been edging away from capitalism since the beginning of the century, had, in the post-war years, turned into a true amalgam of socialistic and capitalistic mechanisms. The distinctions between democratic socialism and regulated capitalism became differences being of degree in application rather than of philosophy.

With this background in mind, we come to the present day. For the first time, with the elections of 2016, a majority of the electorate will belong to generations born after 1960 and coming of age after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. To these individuals, the attempts by Trump and others to slur Sanders by reference to his economic philosophy provoke only blank stares. The pejorative connotations of calling one a “socialist,” or even a “communist,” simply no longer apply. If anyone is curious, and looks the terms up, all that will be found are the definitions of benign utopian philosophies.

Today, anyone in the category of a grandson listening to his sage grandfather try to explain socialism as a disabling factor in modern politics would simply roll their eyes.

The times they are a changing.

First take/early indicator

A week away from the Iowa caucuses, a lot of people other than presidential candidates are wondering what effect the presidential race may have on races down below.

That's true in both parties, where discussion about exactly that topic has ramped up as talk of which candidate will do their party the most good, or harm, roars on.

Here's a report in the Daily Kos site about a race in Alabama that may suggest an early indicator of things to come. - rs

Over at the National Journal, Kimberly Railey profiles a March 1 GOP primary we haven't talked much about. In this solidly Republican Montgomery-area seat, third-term Rep. Martha Roby faces an intra-party challenge from Becky Gerritson, who heads a local tea party group.

On the surface, it doesn't look like there's much to see here. Unlike Eric Cantor, the tea party's most famous primary victim, Roby actually appears to be taking her race seriously. The incumbent raised a solid $310,000 over the last quarter of 2015, and she holds $884,000 on hand. While Gerritson brought in a non-trivial $105,000, she burned through most of it and only has $31,000 in the bank. And while a few minor tea party-friendly groups have endorsed Gerritson, major organizations like the Club For Growth haven't gotten involved yet. It's very hard to beat a scandal-free incumbent in a primary, and Gerritson just doesn't look like she has what it takes to defeat Roby.

However, there's another level to this race that could make things a bit more interesting than it seems. Alabama is one several states that will hold its downballot primary on the same day as its presidential primary. Normally, incumbents like Roby benefit from this arrangement. Presidential contests tend to draw out more casual voters who don't care much about the other races on the ballot, and will often just select the incumbent because it's the name they recognize.

But as Roll Call's Eli Yokley recently noted, there's a good chance that Ted Cruz and Donald Trump will turn out voters who utterly despise the GOP establishment and will lash out at their incumbents. Cruz and Trump should do well especially in Deep Southern states like Alabama: In 2012, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich took a combined 64 percent of the vote, while Mitt Romney only won 29 percent.

Still, in the words of Dr. Horrible, sometimes there's a third, even deeper level, and that one is the same as the top surface one. Even in this caffeinated age, most tea party candidates still fail to unseat establishment Republicans, especially without any major outside help. While ultra-conservatives across the country will try to replicate Dave Brat's victory over Cantor, Cantor was the only congressional Republican to lose renomination to a tea partier last cycle. Most Republicans have learned to take their primaries seriously, and they're often very good about portraying themselves as solid conservatives who are fighting the good fight against liberals.

Ultimately, it's very difficult to see Gerritson prevailing on March 1, at least without help from well-funded groups like the Club for Growth. But this contest is worth keeping an eye on just in case. Roby is a bit of a canary in a coal mine: If she wins without much trouble, it'll be a good indication that the crazy presidential primary isn't about to cost GOP incumbents renomination. But if Roby has an unexpectedly tough time or even loses, a lot of Republican congressmen are going to get nervous very fast.

First Take/grazing

Here's something for the armed sit-in crowd at the Malheur refuge to consider.

One of the major figures in the sagebrush rebellion, which begat the current round of anti-federal lands movements in the west, was Helen Chenoweth, a three-term member of Congress from Idaho. After she retired from that post, she married Nevada rancher Wayne Hage, who for many years has had a running legal battle with federal land management agencies, especially the Bureau of Land Management. (Chenoweth-Hage died in 2006.)

The Hage family won at federal court in Reno in May 2013, when a federal judge agreed with their argument that they could graze their cattle on federal land because of a water right claim in the area. But they lost yesterday at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

There, the court held that the family, as a news report said, was "guilty of trespassing cattle on federal land illegally without a grazing permit and should be subject to fines."

More remarkably, the circuit court did something appellate courts seldom do - specifically trained fire on the conduct of the lower court judge who had issued the initial ruling. Overturns are not notably rare, but the description the 9th provided of District Judge Robert Clive Jones was very unusual.

It made the rare move too of reassigning the case when kicked back to the district level, done "only in rare and extraordinary circumstances, such as when the district court has exhibited personal bias or when reassignment is advisable to maintain the appearance of justice," the court noted. But in this case, "A dispassionate observer would conclude that the district judge harbored animus toward the federal agencies. Unfortunately, the judge's bias and prejudgment are a matter of public record."

These things eventually come home to roost. So will they at the Malheur. - rs (photo/Copyright Pauline E and licensed for reuse)

First Take/Trump ban

As I write this, the parliament of Great Britain is debating a proposal to ban Donald Trump, the front-running Republican candidate for president of the United States, from their country.

Across the pond, he has been called "a buffoon" and "poisonous," and even a "wazzock" ("a stupid or annoying person"). They're not fans.

Jack Dromey, a leading minister for the Labour Party, said "I don't think Donald Trump should be allowed within 1,000 miles of our shore." Another MP said, "I draw the line at freedom of speech when it imports a violent ideology." That's a definition of Trump growing up now in a number of quarters.

This was not simply the result of a few MPs playing politics. It happened because a million citizens signed petitions asking for the ban; under British law, Parliament had to consider the idea. (Might something like that be a good idea for us too?) So it represents the views of a lot of constituents.

All of this has generated some debate over on our shores. What if, for example, Trump actually won the presidency?

And then there's the whole idea of banning people, which ought to give all of us pause. On Facebook, one friend remarked a few hours ago, "And while I find this funny, it's not the right precedent to set for develop worlds to ban loud mouth jackasses from their country. I find it better to have very strong freedom of speech protections so that when those loud mouth jackasses start spewing vitriol we others have the freedom to call them out for what they really are."

First take/questions

During watching the Democratic presidential debate last night, only a few days after watching the Republican, the point emerged: The questions asked of these guys are drastically different.

To a certain point this makes sense, because some questions are specific to individual candidates, or to things one candidate said about another. Not all questions are transferable.

A lot of them should be, though. Questions about a lot of topics raised in one debate never made it over to the other, which allows for the two parties to run campaigns in two entirely different worlds, entirely different bubbles.

This is one of the problems with our current politics: We're not talking about the same things, using the same base of facts (or getting them challenged when need be, not well enough). Candidate-specific questions removed, I'd like to see the questions asked at the two debates, in future face office, flipped to the other party. Talking directly to each other, and listening, might be a lot more useful to us all than more of this talking past each other. - rs

First take/fistfight

The Republican presidential debate last night was the most contentious of any so far, and for understandable reasons. Donald Trump at one point happily accepted the "mantle of anger" of his candidacy, but the whole stage seemed suffused by it.

The focus clearly was on Trump and Senator Ted Cruz; none of the others could wrest it away for long. Senator Marco Rubio had some inconclusive jabbing back and forth with Cruz; neither seemed to decisively trounce the other, which good enough for Cruz, he being ahead in the polls. Jeb Bush tried to take on Trump on Muslims and other matters, but seemed to be flailing in the wilderness, to the point that Trump didn't even bother to insult him and even threw him a semi-compliment at one point. Governor Chris Christie took some serious jabs at Rubio, his competitor in the middle-stream category and something of a motormouth in this debate, but probably none did much real damage. The others barely registered.

I just finished reading a string of political pieces this morning, and they all have the same tenor: With a couple of weeks to go until the caucusing in Iowa, it looks like a two-man race: Trump and Cruz.

And after the way they opened up on each other last night, I wouldn't expect the battle between them to ease off real soon. - rs

First take/SOTU

It was an unusual State of the Union speech President Barack Obama delivered on Tuesday night. It held off until the very end, for example, in saying the state was "strong" (the preferred descriptor by most recent presidents).

But there were much more significant elements. A lot of the attention went, as probably it should, to the last major segment, about American politics but more broadly about how Americans see this project of self-government. One of the most disquieting poll results in a long time was the recent report that many younger people don't think it's important to live in a democracy. They should give some thought to what living in another kind of system would be like. And I would say the same to many of their elders who seem so hell-bent on destroying any semblance of a civil society in their orgy of fear and hatred.

Obama offered something else last night, though, in the way he structured his speech. He organized it around four questions:

First, how do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy?
Second, how do we make technology work for us, and not against us — especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges like climate change?
Third, how do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?
And finally, how can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst?

These, it seems to me, are an excellent set of questions we should consider, and that we demand our candidates respond to, in this election year. They are as good a short summary of the matters that ought to be on our front burner as any I have seen anywhere. - rs

First take/SOS

State of the State speeches in Idaho or elsewhere usually are broad-based, washing over a lot of topics and never burrowing very deeply on any one. Idaho Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter's SOS Monday was an exception.

He spent the bulk of the speech on education, and sometimes on unfamiliar aspects of it. He talked at some length about reading proficiency, and said "My budget includes $10.7 million to pay for intervention support for students in kindergarten through third grade who are not yet proficient on the state reading indicator. That will improve the chances for more Idaho students to succeed through high school and beyond."

He talked about other education initiatives as well and, more to the point, backed it up with a substantial increase for public schools, 7.9 percent overall. That won't fully fill back the losses from the recession years, or make up for the absence of progress since, but it's a start.

There was also this: "I had the chance last month to experience a little of what innovative, mastery-focused learning looks like in our classrooms. I participated in an “Hour of Code” exercise with fifth-graders at Boise’s Garfield Elementary. Immersing myself in that environment and watching students do the same, I saw firsthand the difference that individualized learning can make in comprehension, application and ultimately mastery."

Individualized learning likely a way of the future in education, and its mention here was noteworthy. - rs

First take/lands

In this time of so much discussion and protest (notably around Burns, Oregon) about the public lands - operated by the federal government - a headline from Idaho ought to be getting more attention than it has.

The Lewiston Tribune reports that two Texas billionaire brothers, the Wilks, have bought 38,000 acres of land around the Joseph territory in Idaho County. (Previously, they had bought around 300,000 acres in Montana.)

The land had consisted of privately-held ranches in the area, and there's nothing legally wrong about the transaction. However, the Tribune also reported this:

"During a recent Idaho County Commission meeting, comments were made that residents believe public access to the Joseph Plains area for hunting and recreation, which has been granted in the past by the previous landowners, has been closed off since the Wilkses took over. The comments took place in a conversation about the proposed Lochsa Land Exchange."

Private means private. Public means you either might have outright access to it, or at least a shot at it.

The massive public lands around Burns are public lands, which have been open for a wide range of uses by members of the public, including ranchers. Turn it private, and some people in Idaho County could tell you what some of the possibilities are. - rs

First take/Natural born

The new birtherism is biting Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican presidential candidate well-liked by many of the people doing the biting.

The old birtherism - the attempt to show President Barack Obama was born somewhere other than the United States, despite the birth certificate and contemporary newspaper listings saying otherwise - was always bunk. The new is different: There is no question about the facts, only about interpretation of law. The catch is, there's no official interpretation of law.

The constitution says that president of the United States must be a "natural born citizen." It does not define the term, and in all the years since the document was written no court - which is where the term would be defined - ever has defined it. My understanding long has been that it means you have to have been born in the land area of the United States, either its states or its territories. That would include people like Barry Goldwater, born in the territory or Arizona, or John McCain, born in the Panama Canal Zone, which was at the time a United States possession. A lot of people have defined the term the same way. But there's never been an "official" definition.

Cruz was born in Edmonton, Canada; his mother was a U.S. citizen. That's not in dispute, and never has been. Cruz has released his birth records, and in 2013 formally a Canadian citizenship he long held on account of his birth location. The facts are clear; but how does that match with the "natural born citizen" requirement in the Constitution?

The senator, of course, maintains that he clearly is qualified, and maybe he is. In looking for a senator of what "naturalized" meant in constitutional terms, a court could seize onto the 1790 passed (shortly after the Constitution went into effect) of the Naturalization Act, which meant to clarify that people born outside the United States to citizens were also considered citizens. And Cruz' United States citizenship never has been in serious dispute.

The reality is, no one knows. When rival Donald Trump calls on Cruz to seek a court declaration one way or other on the matter, he's running some clever (and somewhat exploitative) politics, but the counsel may actually be the right thing for Cruz to do. Trump points out that if the legal question isn't resolved now, Democrats surely will make it a much bigger issue in the general election should Cruz become the Republican nominee, and that is correct. Some of Cruz' own backers are signing on to that line of thought.

None of this is something Cruz would want in the air just as he's trying to lock down a win in the Iowa caucuses. But it may be something that he has to deal with sometime soon. - rs