Sunday, January 31, 2016

Political Junkies Unite! It's Time to Vote

I predict that the global rise in temperature will show a significant decline on Monday as all of the hot air bloviators, pollsters, consultants and media talking heads hold their steamy breath as they await the results of the Iowa caucuses. And why shouldn't they? The numbers all say that Donald Trump will win the caucuses over Ted Cruz, with the rest of the GOP field barely in their rear-view mirror.

And then of course there's Iowa's importance as a...mid-western, um, evangelical-heavy, um...white, um...state. That really doesn't represent much about America except that the Republicans there seem to have fallen for Trump's snake oil and Cruz's smarmy insincerity.

Which is why I think the results will likely be different from the media narrative that's been written since the fall. I could be wrong, and if I am I will say so because I live in New Jersey and from the governor on down to us little folk, we New Jerseyans always tell the truth and admit our failures and flip-flops.

For what it's worth, I have been saying all along that neither Trump nor Cruz will be the GOP nominee because both their personalities and their policy prescriptions will not appeal to a majority of either party voters or the electorate at large. Trump has been inconsistent in his message on the stump and hasn't really come up with specific fixes for the economy, foreign policy or constitutional issues mainly because he doesn't have many. Calling people stupid or losers or saying that he can fix things because he's a businessman doesn't inspire confidence. Cruz, likewise, is running to head a government that he doesn't even respect. He says he knows what the constitution means and the original intent of the framers, but my suspicion is that they would laugh him out of the room for being a presidential pretender at best.

Trump and Cruz are likely to be first and second in Iowa, but I don't believe that either one will crack 30% of the vote and the big surprise will come from Marco Rubio, and one of Bush or Kasich, who will do far (far) better than what they are polling right now. I think they could approach 20% of the vote, which would instantly put them in line to be seen as the moderate/establishment savior for the party, and the de facto person to beat in New Hampshire.

For the Democrats, Hillary Clinton's e-mails have reared their ugly heads again and they will have a slight impact on the race, but I think she will still win the caucuses by about 5 percentage points over Bernie Sanders. He'll likely poll in the high 30s or lower 40s on Monday, and will go into New Hampshire as the favorite to win there, but I don't think he'll do that either. Clinton has too much money and more support among minorities for Sanders to mount a national challenge.

After a very long pre-season, it's time for political junkies everywhere to get their electoral needles ready for the voting binge to come. The fun starts now.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Political Snow Job

If nothing else, the big blizzard that hit the East Coast is sparing us from some of the oh-so-trite coverage of the presidential election, which actually only gets underway eight days hence.

Governor Christie did make it back to New Jersey for the storm, even though he had originally said that the Lieutenant Governor, Kim Guadagno, could manage the preparations and aftermath well enough. And she probably could, but New Jerseyans elected Christie and we want him to fulfill at least some of his duties before he slinks back here in the spring to either finish out his term or pull a Palin and resign to do his own cable TV insult show. Besides, his brief run up the polls in New Hampshire seems to have stalled and he's now behind the other so-called moderate or establishment candidates, and far behind Donald Trump in the February 9 primary.

In fact, it's the other governor, Ohio's John Kasich, who seems to have caught a bit of a tailwind in the weeks leading up to the first votes. Some of those polls will likely be outliers because they show him with 15 and 20 percent of the vote, but the trend is positive, and that's what every candidate wants just before the election.  Meanwhile, it's Marco Rubio who got the De Moines Register's coveted (by those who work for newspapers) endorsement, but that only shows that the Register can be just as wrong as the Manchester, NH Union-Leader, who endorsed Christie before the holidays.

And on your left, that's Bernie Sanders holding an aggregate lead over Hillary Clinton in both Iowa and New Hampshire on the strength of the youth vote, which can be treacherous for any candidate to rely on. These results might hold until February, but in the end I don't believe that Bernie will be the nominee, and that goes for Trump or Cruz too. There's a president in both fields, but they don't have a clear lead in the early states.

Which of course brings us to the next topic, which is what any of these candidates will, or could, do if they are elected. And that's where things get complicated. When asked about the limits of what they could do as president, only Rand Paul answered questions about executive powers.  Every other candidate--every one--declined to give an answer. Not only is that dangerous, it likely shows quite a bit of ignorance about how our constitutional system works.

First of all, should a Democrat be elected, and that's the scenario I see, the Republicans will control the House of Representatives, and the Senate will either have a small Democratic or Republican majority, but likely not the 60 vote threshold the parties need to stop a filibuster. That will mean that any of the far left policies that Sanders or Clinton advocate will not see the light of day. Public option health care? Nope. Free public college tuition? Nope. Carbon tax? Nope. Immigration reform with a legal status option? Probably nope. Any Democrat will have to compromise and try, incrementally, to move the system to the left.

But wouldn't a Sanders win be the result of a massive electoral shift to the left? Yes, absolutely. Which is why he won't be elected. Such a shift is at least two cycles away.

On the Republican side, if Trump or Cruz wins the election, that would mean that the electorate will have moved decisively to the right, which it hasn't. So they won't.

A more moderate GOP candidate would have a friendly House and possibly a small Senate majority. This is a recipe for some serious legislation, but the Democrats would likely filibuster the worst ideas away. It would also mean more tax cuts for the wealthy and a rollback, via the same executive orders the Republicans decry from Obama, of the EPA rules that govern everything from automobile standards to coal plant closings to public land management, fewer limits on Wall Street banks (Hillary might do some of this too), and more limits on women's health care. Of course, the most ominous event would be the rollback of the ACA, which is a very real possibility.

In such a polarized environment, and I don't see a decisive shift either way in November, much of what the candidates are saying will not come to pass. Throwing 11 million people out of the country would signal the United States as throwing out its historical legacy and I discount it out-of-hand. The same is true of having the Mexicans building a wall on our border. And none of the far right's agenda concerning marriage equality, banning and criminalizing abortion and bombing ISIS targets will become law. The Sanders agenda, even if some of it is carried by Hillary, is also unlikely.

My faith in the judgement of the American people leads me to believe that the nominees will not be any of the far right or far left varieties. If it looks like one of them might come out of Iowa and New Hampshire with momentum, I can see a backlash by more moderate voters in the later voting states. It won't mean that the polls now are wrong, but it will mean that they will shift in what is usually a fluid political environment. The money will flow to the establishment candidates, for good and for ill, and by the time this is over the country will have experienced a messy, rocky, changeable, infuriating, frustrating, unsatisfying, but ultimately liberating process.

In short, democracy.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Urgency of King's Message: Forty Eight Years and Counting

I think I've found a new, potent source of energy; Martin Luther King, Jr. spinning in his grave over the state of race relations in the country and on the presidential election trail. All we need to do is tap into it and we can power our devices for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, it won't do much for our national soul.

In the 48 years since his untimely, tragic death, King's legacy has been begged, borrowed and stolen by those who believe they knew his intentions and by those who wanted them buried along with him. From the start, politicians, mostly on the right, including President Reagan and Senator Jesse Helms, opposed even making King's birthday a national holiday. Arizona had to be threatened with the ultimate penalty--no Super Bowls--before they would accept the day. It's also become a favorite day for the NBA to schedule afternoon games, but that seems to be the upper limit on MLK Day commercialization, and that's a good thing. Those of us who are old enough might remember that January was traditionally the month when retailers would run sales on textiles that they labeled "White Sales."

Can you imagine?

Over the past few years we've witnessed terrible incidents where African-American men, women and children were unjustly killed by the police, unnecessarily fined to the brink of bankruptcy by corrupt public officials, and stopped by the police for reasons that white Americans don't experience. And what is considered good news for African-Americans, that their rates of narcotics deaths is lower, is tragically caused by racism, as this article recounts:
There is a reason that blacks appear to have been spared the worst of the narcotic epidemic, said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, a drug abuse expert. Studies have found that doctors are much more reluctant to prescribe painkillers to minority patients, worrying that they might sell them or become addicted.

“The answer is that racial stereotypes are protecting these patients from the addiction epidemic,” said Dr. Kolodny, a senior scientist at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University and chief medical officer for Phoenix House Foundation, a national drug and alcohol treatment company.
On the campaign trail, the Republicans continue to express their outrage that minorities are not working because white tax money is easily available to them in the form of public assistance and unemployment benefits. Their fealty to Donald Trump's immigration scheme will doom them with a majority of Hispanic voters and they can't win the White House with only White Votes. Their opposition to a fair minimum wage, infrastructure projects, labor collective bargaining rights and public schools really doesn't allow for any middle class group to support them, much less those who have traditionally been marginalized in American society.

On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders is making his move in Iowa and New Hampshire and is now trying to appeal more to African-Americans, a group that Hillary Clinton has always done well with. Both of them have had problems with Black Lives Matter and their relative success could come down to the minority vote in southern states and northern cities. The Democrats cannot take the African-American vote for granted because the party has controlled many cities over the years, yet the schools have not improved, housing has not become more affordable, the minimum wage hasn't helped and many jobs have fled the country.

Barack Obama's election will have a lasting effect on this country, even as he is the victim of both overt and subtle racism on the part of many of his opponents. That he has served this country with distinction, morality, forthrightness and a stubborn streak that has forced his opposition to argue against fair treatment of all people, makes him a worthy representative of King's legacy.

And this is why we need to have a holiday for Martin Luther King. It's here to remind us that we will never live up to the true meaning of our founding documents as long as we treat people differently under the law, in the workplace and schools, and, most importantly, in our heads and hearts. I would urge you to add to your resolutions to lose weight and make more money, one that includes an action, an attitude change, or a commitment to act in King's spirit and honor his words.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Disuniting the Public Unions

The end result is in reach for those conservatives who have worked so hard to destroy public sector unions and along with them, the rest of the middle class.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments on Monday in the case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association about the legality of public unions charging people who don't want to join them an agency fee that amounts to almost a full dues payment. The teachers who have brought the case are arguing that everything that public sector unions do is political since they use public taxpayer money for their contracts. And since, in their view, everything is political, the plaintiffs say that their first amendment rights are being violated because they're being forced to support an entity, the union, that they don't agree with.

The controlling opinion on this issue is a 1977 decision in the Abood case in Detroit. Back when the Supreme Court had conservatives who saw the value of unions, the court said that agency fees were constitutional. From the article:
In 1977’s Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which established the constitutional principle at stake in Friedrichs, Justice Potter Stewart acknowledged that compelling someone to support their bargaining units may affect their First Amendment rights. He listed several instances of employees disagreeing with the views of their union -- on abortion, race relations, even unionism itself. But ultimately, Stewart acknowledged that “such interference” with a person’s views is “constitutionally justified” so as to allow “the important contribution of the union shop to the system of labor relations established by Congress.”
It seems almost quaint, the idea that the union movement is important. That's what 30+ years of unrelenting opposition and hostility to worker's rights and decent wages will do to a country.

What's even more interesting, and sad, in a way, is the argument that the teachers (yes, teachers) who brought this case truly believe. Not everything a public union does is political. And any union or agency fee employee has the absolute right to speak out, to suggest ideas and to protest what they believe to be unfair or wrong actions that the union takes. Further, the union negotiates salary, benefits and working conditions for every employee, whether they are union members or not. If the fees were struck down, then many members would be benefiting from negotiations for free.

It gets even better. Harlan Elrich, one of the teachers who's a party to the case, wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed,  

"That the union would presume to push, allegedly on my behalf, for higher salaries at the expense of smaller class sizes and avoiding teacher layoffs is preposterous" 

He's also quoted in the New York Times as saying,  

“I can negotiate for myself. I’m a good teacher, highly respected, and I can go anywhere.”

There are two terrifically dangerous assumptions at work here. The first is that we have a teacher who doesn't want the union to ask for higher salaries for all teachers. Mr. Elrich might be doing fine financially, but many other teachers, including those in New Jersey who are taking home less pay every year because of increasingly burdensome health insurance payments, are not doing as well and are falling behind or struggling just to maintain a middle class life after going to college and starting their lives.

The second problem is his assumption that he, or any teacher, would be better off negotiating his own salary and benefits. In fact, Mr. Erlich is contradicting himself mightily by accusing the union of negotiating salaries beyond the means of the town to pay them, but maintaining that he can negotiate perhaps a better salary on his own, with the money coming from the same taxpayer pockets. And if he wants to seriously negotiate smaller class sizes and avoid teacher layoffs, then he should join the union and push for those things rather than try to freeload and then complain.

Having teachers becoming free agents is exactly what the corporate conservatives want because, like me, they understand that teachers are not really in a good position when it comes to negotiating for themselves because the public respects teachers for the job they do for their children, but they also think that teachers get paid too much for a 10 month job. Mr. Ehrlich is likely in for a rude awakening if he wins and then goes to his Superintendent or Business Administrator and is offered less money because the administration knows that there are thousands of new college graduates willing to take his job at, I'm guessing, about $30,000 dollars less.

It is incumbent upon all teacher's unions to spend the rest of this school year explaining to their members why it's important to stick together and to remind them what teaching life was like before the association movement. Justices Alito, Scalia, Thomas and Roberts would surely love for people to forget salaries that required second jobs and administrative fiats that subverted the dignity and respect that teachers deserve.

All might not be lost at the Court because we never really know what the Justices are thinking (remember the two Affordable Care Act cases and marriage equality), but this one will be close and we don't have Potter Stewart to fight for the value of unions. But we do have ourselves. I hope that's enough.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, January 3, 2016

It's 2016: Do You Know Where Your Candidates Are?

Is there really a president in this bunch? And I'm not just talking about the Republicans either. While exactly none of the GOP candidates thrill me at all for various reasons, I find myself also looking critically at the Democrats and asking if this really is the best we can do. Of course, Americans generally ask this question every four years unless there's a candidate that people are particularly passionate about, like Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama. Neither of those guys will be on the ballot this year.

Instead, we have a group of Republicans who are falling over each other to appeal to a shrinking pool of older white voters who somehow want the country to revert back to 1953, when men were men, women were supposed to be in the home and minorities were supposed to be in the back of the bus or in the fields picking our fruits and vegetables. Those days are not coming back for a very good reason. The problem is that the GOP candidates don't see it. Donald Trump is the commander in chief of this cabal, but his greatest support will turn out to be a a Potemkin village full of people who say they love their candidate but do not come out and vote in numbers enough to elect him. Which is a good thing.

The other Republican candidates are just as flawed, and getting flawedier as time goes on. Trump has set the tone on immigration and religious intolerance, and the rest of the field has gone along with him, except for Jeb Bush but he doesn't seem to matter these days because I suspect that the last person the party wants to see at the head of the ticket is another Bush. Not that Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Chris Christie  or John Kasich are doing any better. Most of them deny any human hand in the changing climate and support various, intrusive policies for women who just want to get honest, impartial medical advice from their doctors. They've also come up with foreign policies that riff on bombings and sending American soldiers overseas without considering that other countries can do this work with limited US reserves. ISIS is a deadly threat, but sustained pressure from the sane Muslim world will go a long way towards turning the tables on them. We need to support that.

What strikes me particularly about the Republican candidates is that the two with arguably the best records in their previous jobs are Governors Bush and Kasich, and they seem to be having trouble breaking through the irresponsible and dangerous rantings of those above them in the polls. Aside from those two, none of the other candidates has done anything very notable, and that includes Christie, who asked the New Jersey Supreme Court to declare his one great accomplishment, public worker pension and benefit reform, as unconstitutional. And it did.

And if the spotlight ever turns on Christie because of a win in New Hampshire, his abysmal handling of the New Jersey economy will not endear him to economic conservatives. Similarly, Cruz, Rubio, Paul, Carson and Fiorina do not have a signature accomplishment to run on. And perhaps that doesn't matter: Mitt Romney did have an accomplishment, health care, and he ran faster than Usain Bolt away from it. Go figure.

As for the Democrats, Hillary is still faced with the drip drip of government e-mails being purged from her home server and she's less than stellar on the campaign trail. Bernie Sanders has the heart and passion, but his time was 1972, not 2016. The country is not ready to turn around and elect someone with his views, and if he's nominated (which he won't be) the Democrats will lose.

Don't get me wrong here; I believe that Hillary Clinton will be elected president in November and that she will do a fine job in the White House. It's just that the campaign's tone has focused on what makes us weak and though they try, none of the candidates is an uplifting presence who is telling us what they see as the future of this country. Perhaps that will come in the summer. But in the meantime, it's going to be a long winter.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest