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This article in the New Republic – an admittedly liberal publication – gives Rand Paul and his presidential aspirations a fair shake, and is worth reading either for its prescience, or so that years from now you can look back on 2013 and go, ‘How crazy was that?’ when discussing the dark and hopefully final throes of the Tea Party. Could be either, or, really, both.

When Paul launched his political career three years ago, he was viewed in much the same way as his father, or, as Senator John McCain once called him, a “wacko bird.” He was identified with the same marginal issues (drug legalization, neo-isolationism) and the same marginal constituencies (anarchists, goldbugs). But this year, Paul has emerged as a serious candidate. He has started actively campaigning for the nomination earlier than any of the other Republicans mulling a run. Already, he has racked up multiple meet-and-greets, dinners, and coffee gatherings in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. While his father may have been an also-ran, national polls show Rand Paul as one of the top contenders for the GOP nomination. In private, Paul has been meeting with key GOP power brokers, including the Koch brothers, and he has courted techies at Silicon Valley companies like Google, Facebook, and eBay. “We’re doing something that Ron never did; we’re reaching out to major donors,” says a Paul adviser. “Not everyone is giving us money, but there’s definitely some flirtation going on.” According to this adviser, in the last six months, RAND PAC, Paul’s national political operation, has raised more than a million dollars. “He’s very politically talented,” says a former senior official at the Republican National Committee. “He is absolutely a contender.”

In his efforts to court new audiences, or to bring what he calls “tough love” to friendly ones, Rand Paul is aiming for a bigger, broader base than Ron Paul—or, for that matter, Mitt Romney—ever captured. But though he has staked out more moderate or traditionally Republican positions than his father, at his core, Rand retains the same pre–New Deal vision of hyper-minimalist government and isolationist foreign policy. In other words, Paul has managed to take the essence of his father’s radical ideology—more radical than that of any modern presidential candidate—and turn it into a plausible campaign for the Republican nomination.

I have increasingly mixed feelings about Rand Paul as a Senator, or Rand Paul as a legislator, or Rand Paul as a Person of (Any) Influence. He’s very closely aligned with issues I personally support (the aforementioned drug legalization, his series of Verb the Noun bills “intended to make senators more diligent: the Read the Bills Act, the Write the Laws Act, and the One Subject at a Time Act”) and issues that I strongly oppose (the dismantling of the New Deal, the defunding of the federal government, institutional racism), and likewise with certain constituencies (Libertarians and Tea Partiers, respectively). So the idea of Rand Paul as President is a bit hard to muster.

Rand Paul as a candidate, however, is not hard to imagine – we are, after all, currently witnessing it – but it is hard to imagine him winning.

The biggest argument against Obama in 2008 – and one that has not faded too far from memory, as we are bearing witness to it as well – was his lack of experience, an argument made, I might add, by many people who may consider themselves Rand Paul constituents. Two terms in the Illinois State Senate, one term in the U.S. Senate, then president. Rand Paul, however, does not even have the pre-U.S. Senate experience Obama had. Before the current term – his first term – as Senator, Rand Paul was an ophthalmologist, a position that may or may not lend itself to governmental leadership (though I admit it does lend credibility to his anti-Obamacare stance). But it is not political experience, and it is a definite soft spot with a target painted on it for whoever his opponents will be, both in the primary and in the general. Hillary, particularly, if 2016 lines up that way, would tip the experience scales pretty drastically. So would Biden, though they almost certainly would not be pulling from the same pool of voters. The problem for Republicans, though, is that Paul could very possibly win the primary, based on current circumstances. His outsider, anti-government image could sufficiently rile up the base and build a new super-conservative, neo-Tea Party movement on which he rides to primary victory, essentially being to conservative Republicans what Obama was to Democrats in 2008. But nationally he is seen as too much of a symbol of the far-far-right, of the sort that both scares and infuriates liberals, while the whole of the country, as we’ve heard about with the rise of minority groups and young people, is swinging left. No time for a Rand Paul presidency. The Republicans would be best served, when the time comes, with nominating someone with much more broad popular support, who can win nationally, rather than trying to tern anti-Obama super-con fervor into its own party. If Republicans “fall in line,” as the saying goes, Paul is not the establishment candidate here to form up the ranks. It’s the wrong time.

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I would like to point out two articles I read recently that perfectly sum up the state of the national circus known as our political process, and those individuals who may be gumming up the works. One of the articles is as short as the other is (moderately) long, and one is as partisan as the other is (mostly) decidedly not.

First, the former, which is an essay by Mark Warren, writing for Esquire magazine, on the mostly self-induced situation our leaders on the right find themselves in:

The energetic right wing of this new Jacobin Republican party (which has swallowed the party whole) lately has been going through a purification ritual, turning on conservative stalwarts deemed insufficiently radical. In this atmosphere, merely participating in the essential acts of democracy — negotiation, compromise, legislating — becomes suspect. Worse, and perhaps the root of this phenomenon, is the party’s now decades-long habit of trying to win elections not on the basis of its governing strategy or vision for the country but rather on scandal-mongering and defamation, the two biggest targets being Bill Clinton, who was impeached by the Republican House, and Barack Obama, whom a majority of Republicans, according to some polls, consider to be an illegitimate president because they believe he was born in Kenya.

There are obvious problems with pursuing scorched earth as a long-term strategy. First, movement conservatives have become so ill-equipped to govern that when they do win elections (as with the Gingrich revolution of 1994), they don’t know what they are doing; second, and more important, what started as a tactic to win elections became, over time, a literal belief in the actual evil of their opponents. The party’s committed constituencies became conditioned to ascribing the very worst motives to people who in saner times would merely have been their political opponents. A poll conducted in the spring found that 20 percent of Republicans believe Obama could be the actual Antichrist.

If there is an error in Warren’s argument, it’s that he indicts all Republicans without specifically naming who he’s talking about, like Tea Party Republicans or the Republican Congressional leadership. But that is perhaps only a vagary of journalism or an issue of semantics. No one is claiming that every single last person in the Republican Party thinks or behaves this way. The people he’s talking about are the people he’s talking about. Res ipsa loquitur.

(Personally, I would very much like to hear the well-crafted, intelligently thought-out counterargument to Warren’s piece, and by counterargument I do not mean a similar ad hominem indictment of the Democrats.)

The latter article is by Peter Beinart, writing for the Daily Beast, and though titled “The Rise of the New Left,” it is more an assessment of the current transformations undergone by both parties and put in a historical context than it is a promotion of the left wing or a treatise on liberal values.

Maybe Bill de Blasio got lucky. Maybe he only won because he cut a sweet ad featuring his biracial son. Or because his rivals were either spectacularly boring, spectacularly pathological, or running for Michael Bloomberg’s fourth term. But I don’t think so. The deeper you look, the stronger the evidence that de Blasio’s victory is an omen of what may become the defining story of America’s next political era: the challenge, to both parties, from the left. It’s a challenge Hillary Clinton should start worrying about now.

To understand why that challenge may prove so destabilizing, start with this core truth: For the past two decades, American politics has been largely a contest between Reaganism and Clintonism. In 1981, Ronald Reagan shattered decades of New Deal consensus by seeking to radically scale back government’s role in the economy. In 1993, Bill Clinton brought the Democrats back to power by accepting that they must live in the world Reagan had made. Located somewhere between Reagan’s anti-government conservatism and the pro-government liberalism that preceded it, Clinton articulated an ideological “third way”: Inclined toward market solutions, not government bureaucracy, focused on economic growth, not economic redistribution, and dedicated to equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. By the end of Clinton’s presidency, government spending as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product was lower than it had been when Reagan left office. 

For a time, small flocks of pre-Reagan Republicans and pre-Clinton Democrats endured, unaware that their species were marked for extinction. Hard as they tried, George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole could never muster much rage against the welfare state. Ted Kennedy never understood why Democrats should declare the era of big government over. But over time, the older generation in both parties passed from the scene and the younger politicians who took their place could scarcely conceive of a Republican Party that did not bear Reagan’s stamp or a Democratic Party that did not bear Clinton’s. These Republican children of Reagan and Democratic children of Clinton comprise America’s reigning political generation.

It provides some enlightening answers to the questions of where we are going and where we have been – worth a read.

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.

“The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.

“I say this also thinking about the preaching and content of our preaching. A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation. There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation. Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence. But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. Today sometimes it seems that the opposite order is prevailing. The homily is the touchstone to measure the pastor’s proximity and ability to meet his people, because those who preach must recognize the heart of their community and must be able to see where the desire for God is lively and ardent. The message of the Gospel, therefore, is not to be reduced to some aspects that, although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ.

– Pope Francis (emphasis mine), in an interview with the Italian Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica.

Res ipsa loquitur…

Much has been made about how this doesn’t actually change any doctrine, but the shift in tone and priorities is seismic, incredible, undeniable, and profoundly awe-inspiring.  He has also done something previously thought impossible: made me a fan and admirer of a (the) leader of the Catholic church.

It is not often these days that I am amble to write about something that excites me – that is, something that excites me in a positive way. Fortunately, I have been moved to do so of late, and have picked up the metaphorical blogging pen, after an extended summer hiatus, for want of one particular issue.

Is it the conflict in Syria, an example of grotesque human cruelty? No. I am immensely skeptical of the effort on our (America’s) part to intervene, and I am equally skeptical of any argument invoking a moral imperative. But I am even more skeptical of my own ability to understand the situation fully. Though certainly important and of-the-moment, foreign policy and particularly the Middle East has never been my area of knowledge or interest. I am more interested in the war at home, in which a significant blow was struck for the good guys recently, a blow I sincerely hope is the beginning of a very long-overdue reformation that will correct a glaring error and gross injustice in our legal system, and in so doing be remembered as a turning of the punitive tide in the war on drugs.

I am speaking, of course, about mandatory minimums.

The Justice Department will no longer pursue mandatory minimum sentences for certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday, noting the nation is “coldly efficient in jailing criminals,” but that it “cannot prosecute or incarcerate” its way to becoming safer.

“Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason,” Holder told the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates in San Francisco.

-From CNN.com, August 12, 2013

Everyone who pays attention to the news has heard already that Attorney General Eric Holder has instituted new Justice Department policy that takes a much more nuanced step on crime and punishment than mandatory minimums are designed to allow.

One of the most Draconian tools implemented in the colossal waste of time, energy, money, and humanity known collectively as the War on Drugs has been the mandatory minimum sentencing laws passed by Congress in the late 80’s. Short of repealing the laws, the act of correcting them and, frankly, stripping them of many provisions, would be a quantum leap toward putting the “justice” back in Justice System. (If, perhaps, you haven’t seen a crime/law/drug war documentary in the past couple decades and you need a refresher on the horrifying punishments born of the mandatory minimum era, go here.)

This would all be one thing if the MM laws were shown to produce a precipitous drop in the crime rate that is in any way close to a correlating with the social, economic, and human burden born by the rest of us.  That would still be very troubling, but perhaps stomach-able (though I wouldn’t bet the farm). But, lo and behold, like its progenitor the Drug War, it has been ineffective at producing results.

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The English are feeling the pinch in relation to recent events in Syria and have therefore raised their security level from “Miffed” to “Peeved.” Soon, though, security levels may be raised yet again to “Irritated” or even “A Bit Cross.” The English have not been “A Bit Cross” since the blitz in 1940 when tea supplies nearly ran out. Terrorists have been re-categorised from “Tiresome” to “A Bloody Nuisance.” The last time the British issued a “Bloody Nuisance” warning level was in 1588, when threatened by the Spanish Armada.

The Scots have raised their threat level from “Pissed Off” to “Let’s get the Bastards.” They don’t have any other levels. This is the reason they have been used on the front line of the British army for the last 300 years.

– The indefatigable John Cleese[*], who is, in his words, “a British writer, actor, and tall person.” To read more about the current Terror Alert Levels of various countries, you can find the rest of Cleese’s notice here.

*As soon as I put this up I discovered that this was probably not written by Cleese, but by someone attempting to imitate his style of comedy and satire (at least according to Snopes.com). Still pretty funny.

In this past 2012 election, we North Carolina voters finished giving the entire state government to Republicans – and not the moderate, “business-minded” Republicans North Carolinians are accustomed to, but the same far-right social conservatives who are plaguing the rest of the country – as we had begun to do in the Tea Party wave of 2010, shepherded along as we were by the massive amounts of money from conservative leader and corrupting influence Art Pope (a subject I have written about previously here, among other places). Apparently aware that their extremely conservative proposals are likely to precipitate an imminent backlash from historically moderate and increasingly young and progressive NC voters, Republicans in the statehouse have tried to cram in as many bedrock-conservative agenda items as possible as quickly as possible, and in so doing destroy some of the best things about North Carolina.

From an expansive and enlightening article from Chris Kromm and Sue Sturgis, writing for The American Prospect:

Recognizing that this conservative moment might not last long, Republican legislators are moving swiftly. Despite the headlines, the most notorious bills—like the resolution to establish a state religion or the measure to outlaw public nipple displays—have been nonstarters. But the core of Pope’s agenda is going ahead. Every lawmaker in North Carolina knows that agenda: Scale back taxes, especially for businesses and the wealthy; slice away at the social safety net; and reverse the state’s focus on public schools as an engine for social and economic progress.

In February, lawmakers decreased maximum weekly unemployment benefits from $535 to $350 and shortened the period in which workers can receive them—an especially harsh measure given that unemployment in North Carolina is the nation’s fifth highest at 9.2 percent. North Carolina is one of 15 states that refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, a move that would have covered about 500,000 uninsured North Carolinians with the federal government picking up the tab. Now Governor McCrory is pushing to privatize management of the state Medicaid program, which would funnel North Carolina tax dollars to out-of-state managed-care companies while raising costs and reducing access to care.

Taxes became more regressive when lawmakers voted to end the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, which was claimed in 2011 by more than 900,000 low-income, working North Carolinians. Senate Republicans are now considering a bill to cut the state’s corporate income tax from the highest to the lowest in the Southeast, which would be low indeed. It could have been worse. An earlier Senate plan, promoted by Pope’s Civitas Institute, would have abolished corporate and personal income taxes altogether, replacing them with a higher sales tax—the most regressive form of taxation. Even Pope shot down that idea, saying sales-tax increases would “hurt the economy.” (They would definitely have affected sales in his retail chain.)

Republicans have also set their sights on gutting environmental laws, proposing to repeal the state’s renewable-energy standard, speed the way for fracking, and allow offshore drilling for oil and gas. The party is also taking aim at the historic centerpiece of North Carolina progressivism: public education, which has long been a target of Pope’s network. Last session, cuts to schools eliminated more than 4,300 teaching jobs. This time, one Republican bill would shift $90 million of public-school funding to private schools through vouchers. Another would eliminate teacher tenure. A proposal to shutter at least one UNC campus is on hold, following a public outcry.

We gave them the state, and this is what they are doing with it. Perhaps the most tragic effort is what they are trying to do to North Carolina’s exemplary voting procedures, which had “become a national model for clean elections and expanded turnout, thanks to reforms like early voting, same-day registration, and public financing of some races.” Because of the advantage the expanded turnout gave to Democrats in 2008, Bill Cook of the state senate – under the influence of Art Pope – has proposed the following:

So the senator introduced a strict measure to require government–issued photo ID at the polls, slash the number of early-voting days, eliminate same-day registration during early voting, and delay by five years the time it takes for former felons to regain their voting rights. None of these proposals is original; they’re the same voter-suppression measures floated in recent years by Republican legislators from Wisconsin to Georgia. But then Cook got creative. He co-sponsored Senate Bills 666 and 667, both of which would ban parents from claiming their college children as dependents on their state taxes if those children vote on campus (as most students do). Then he filed Senate Bill 668, prohibiting the “mentally incompetent” from voting. Why? Because, as Cook told The Charlotte Observer, he had once seen such a person be “manipulated” at the polls.

If you live in North Carolina you should definitely read the entire article.

An atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church. An atheist believes that a deed must be done instead of a prayer said. An atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death. He wants disease conquered, poverty banished, war eliminated.”

– A quote from American Atheists founder Madalyn Murray O’Hair, soon to be gracing the surface of the country’s first public atheist monument, which is about to be erected in the small community of Starke, Florida, in reaction to a longstanding controversy regarding a Ten Commandments monument that was set up outside the Bradford County Courthouse in Starke last year. The organization American Atheists sued to have the Ten Commandments removed, and and the atheist monument is being erected as part of a settlement.

Though dueling monuments isn’t exactly the least ridiculous result that could have come of this, I agree with Ken Loukinen, the director of regional operations for American Atheists, that, “We’d rather there be no monuments at all, but if they are allowed to have the Ten Commandments, we will have our own.” It is a small step forward. A threshold has been breached, a barrier has been broken, a modicum of progress has been made toward a just and balanced society where state is actually free of church. Though I’m certainly not anti-religion, personally, separation of church and state – complete separation – is one of the most important issues facing us today, and, well, separation is getting its ass kicked.

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